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Gourmet Secrets: All of India loves the good old pizza…

…But only one young chef in Pune gets it exactly right

brunch Updated: Nov 11, 2017 22:45 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand samples a pizza in Italy
Karen Anand samples a pizza in Italy

Pizza is now a household word, however you pronounce it. Why this flat bread with tomato and cheese has taken the world by storm beats me. But there is no disputing its popularity and the fact that it represents western comfort food at its best.

This Naples staple made traditionally in a man-made earth and brick oven with a stone slab and fired by wood was, and still is Italy’s answer to McDonalds – fast, cheap and filling – the big difference is the quality. Pizza is made with fresh, healthy ingredients and tastes pretty amazing. What’s not to love about hot bread straight from the oven, tomato sauce and warm melted cheese? The Naples version which is made from strong flour produces a stretchy, pliable dough when mixed with water and yeast. It is rolled and then tossed around in the air and then thrown onto an iron paddle which places it deep inside the hot oven. It takes no time at all to cook primarily because after all that swirling and tossing, the base becomes quite thin, leaving a crusty pillowy edge which holds the chopped tomato, melted mozzarella and whatever else you decide to put on it.

Blame it on the Romans

. Even today in Italy, you won’t find a pizza oven in any restaurant except a pizzeria

The Romans (who else) made something like a foccacia bread known as ‘picea’ in the first millennium. It was known as ‘piza’ and eaten as a street snack (not a meal) only in the 19th century in Naples. Even today in Italy, you won’t find a pizza oven in any restaurant except a pizzeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, southern Italy was facing a deep crisis – no jobs, and starvation. Over 2 million Italians from Sicily, Naples and Bari in Puglia, emigrated to the US. About 500,000 settled in New York where they started a brisk business in the import of what they missed – olive oil, sausage, cheese and ham. Others pushed handcarts and some saved enough o make small ovens. The first pizzeria opened in New York in 1905 in an area known as Little Italy. Toppings varied but the basic was and still is, a Margherita – just tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil – the colours of the Italian flag – named after Queen Margherita. Other popular toppings are Napoletana (with anchovies), vongole (clams), salsiccia (sausage or the forerunner of the modern pepperoni), prosciutto (ham) and rucola (rocket). There are no rules or recipes. You can find just about anything on a pizza today, from Thai curry to chicken tikka.

Pizza is made with fresh, healthy ingredients and tastes pretty amazing

I remember going to a local takeaway pizza place in Rome many years ago that had just one big oven. Pizzas were made in large rectangular trays and cut into squares. You bought by the slice and paid by weight. There was no choice. You had to have whatever came out hot at that moment or wait. What was refreshing and new to me at the time, was that many of the pizzas didn’t have cheese on top, just generous toppings of zucchini or rucola or ham. I also discovered the white pizza or “bianca” which has plenty of cheese, sometimes herbs or porcini or button mushrooms and sometimes cream, but no tomato whatsoever.

In India, we’ve been eating all manner of pizza for the last 25 years or more - thick, thin, sometimes with a’ papad’ like crispness, which hardly resembles the genuine article at all. And toppings? Well, we have become the masters of invention. (By the way I also saw a char siu (sweet Cantonese pork) pizza in Hong Kong, so it’s not just us.)

A delicious bit of Naples

Rushad Wadia learned the art of the Napoli pizza by first visiting Naples

I had almost forgotten what a genuine Naples pizza tasted like till I stumbled upon a little hole in the wall off the Koregaon Park / Kalyani Nagar bridge in Pune, serving pizza which looked and tasted amazingly like the real thing – the crust was perfect, the tomato just a smear, and the mozzarella as it should be, stretchy and melted evenly. The chef owner is a young man called Rushad Wadia, not Gianni Luchese, who learned the art of the Napoli pizza by first visiting Naples, then doing a short culinary course in Dubai and spending a huge amount of time on R&D here. He has managed to source local high gluten flour, the correct cheese and tomato. While he uses locally produced mozzarella, both creamy buffalo and cow milk, he only uses imported Italian whole tomatoes available in large cans. So successful was the hole in the wall, that he now has a new, more spacious outlet the other side of town in Baner, where he has a wood and gas fired traditional brick oven in the restaurant. His cheese has undergone a slight change, making the taste more acceptable to the local palate with the addition of local cheddar to the mozzarella. New toppings include a spicy chorizo and wood roast chicken, and sun dried tomatoes finished with an orange honey balsamic glaze. The buffalo chicken pizza with bocconcini (the small version of buffalo mozzarella) and buffalo wing sauce is almost ‘signature’ already. Lots of options for vegetarians, including one with the up to the minute superfood, kale. I take my hat off to Rushad and his small team of well trained cooks at Greedy Man (named after the famous BBC TV food show, Two Greedy Italians with chefs extraordinare Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo).

There is no disputing the popularity of a pizza, and the fact that it represents western comfort food at its best

When I hear chefs in luxury hotels with virtually unlimited resources, complaining that they can’t get a pizza right because of the flour or the ingredients, I think of young Rushad in Pune who has done it all by himself, and who has perfected, against all odds, an Italian pizza in India.

Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which is to Italy this year.

From HT Brunch,November 12, 2017

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