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Gourmet Secrets: In search of the perfect pizza

This Italian street food has been around for 200 years, but the best is still the simplest Margherita

brunch Updated: May 29, 2018 22:30 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand
Hindustan Times
Margherita,pizza,Amalfi
Pizza in Naples and indeed everywhere in Italy is considered almost street food and pizzerias are almost like dhabas

It’s been a life-long quest, my search for the perfect pizza. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I cannot live without pizza. I just find the history, its immensely global popularity and the varieties fascinating and a phenomenon to reckon with.

Royally delicious

This summer on the way to the stunning Amalfi coast of Italy, we stopped at Naples, the birthplace of the pizza, to find out more. The original flat round cake which looks like a foccacia produced in the 19th century is still sold in Naples in pastry shops or displayed in the front windows of snack bars. These are snacks on the go and are thickish with cheese and ham. Breakfast pizza is thinner, with just tomato and no cheese.

In Naples, the pizza has been valued as a tasty low-cost snack for over 200 years. It was baked in the narrow streets of the old city around Via dei Tribunali, in wood-fired ovens and seasoned with herbs, olive oil and maybe a few salted anchovies. Pizza was accepted at court on June 1, 1899, when King Umberto and his queen Margherita visited Naples. To appear close to the common man, the couple ordered pizza. The baker garnished the flat bread with Mozzarella made from buffalo milk, red tomatoes and bright green basil leaves, the colours of the Italian flag, which he named after the queen.

So pizza in Naples and indeed everywhere in Italy is considered almost street food and pizzerias are almost like dhabas, places for a short, quick inexpensive meal. You will never find pizza in a traditional restaurant where you find pasta, main courses etc., and pizzerias by and large only sell pizzas – nothing else. Naples has another version which is the fried pizza or pizza fritta, where the dough is folded over and deep fried till crisp. It has mozzarella cheese. They also have something called pizza scugnizzielli which is fried strips of pizza dough topped with fresh mozzarella, salad and tomatoes. It is similar to a bhajiya in texture.

A chef from Belmond Hotel Caruso preparing the perfect pizza

We visited two of Naples’ famous pizzerias. One called Di Rosa Capasso on a tiny street in the middle of the old city amidst churches and monasteries, and a branch of the famous Sorbillo. The former made a great fried pizza but Sorbillo’s was disappointing! The pizza was doughy, undercooked and the edges elastic and inedible.

Technically perfect

The next day we drove to Amalfi and then the village of Ravello, a village perched on top of the town of Amalfi, and stayed at the stunning hotel Caruso in Ravello. It is a picture perfect setting on a medieval town square. On arrival, we were taken for lunch to the poolside and walked under a pergola of trellised spring flowers. Magic. They have a splendid salad bar for lunch and I spotted a wood fired pizza oven in the same area. The smell of freshly baked pizza was almost as intoxicating as the scent of orange blossom and jasmine as we walked in. We ordered a simple Margherita pizza for lunch which was quite frankly the best pizza I have tasted in a long, long time. My Italian friends agreed. I had to find out more and asked if I could do an informal pizza class the next day. Marco, the young chef, had already kneaded the dough which had been proofed for 48 hours.

Karen enjoying a simple pizza in Naples

It’s clearly the technical details which make all the difference to a perfect pizza. After the first 24 hour rising, the dough is then divided into balls of 250 gms each which are then kneaded and left to rise again in reasonably cool conditions (three to four degrees). The dough is worked with the hands alone and flipped over a couple of times to stretch it. No rolling pins or theatrical throwing is involved! Once it is stretched with the finger tips to about 12 inches diameter, you spread about two large serving spoons of tomato puree on it in a circular motion. Less is more here. You don’t want a soggy pizza. This is simply a puree of Italian tinned tomatoes with salt and a little bit of olive oil, and then bits of torn fior di latte mozzarella on top. This mozzarella is made from cow milk and not buffalo.

The pizza is then put with a large metal spatula into the wood fired stone oven. It is imperative that the oven is at 400 degree C. The pizza is turned around by the ‘pizzaiolo’ so that it gets evenly browned. Finally, he raises it above the stone so that the mozzarella melts evenly. The pizza is in the oven for no longer than three minutes. The result is a perfectly crisp pillowy edge and a thin crispy base which does not flop when you cut a slice.

Everything you need

I spoke with chef Mimmo, executive chef of Belmond Hotel Caruso, to see if by any chance I could replicate this in India. He was very happy to share his recipe. Contrary to what I’ve learned in the past about pizza flour having to be 00 flour, chef Mimmo uses 0 which is even stronger, with higher gluten flour, which therefore retains the structure and air inside the dough, making it light. The yeast is simple, fresh beer yeast. The only other ingredients are salt and water. Italian peeled canned tomatoes are available anywhere. This bit is not rocket science and fior di latte produces a cheesy topping which is stretchy but not over creamy. The resulting dough is not pure white but has a slightly healthy glow to it.

Chef Mimmo, executive chef of Belmond Hotel Caruso shares the recipe of pizza

Ingredients:

1 kg 0 flour (high gluten 280 – 320 W)
5g fresh yeast
½ litre water
25g salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
500g San Marzano plum tomatoes (canned)
500g fior di latte (mozzarella)
Fresh basil leaves

Method

Combine flour, water and yeast. Knead for three minutes. Then add salt and a little olive oil. Knead for a further couple of minutes. Put the dough in the fridge. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise for 30 minutes. Then cut the dough into four balls of 250g each, cover with a damp cloth or cling film and allow to rise for a further 48 hours. Refrigerate. Take the dough bases out of the fridge and stretch with your finger tips till they are about 12 inches diameter and round, leaving a thick rim of 1-inch on the edges.

Puree the tomatoes, adding salt and remaining olive oil. Spread a couple of serving spoons of the sauce on to the base of the pizza. Tear the mozzarella into pieces and spread evenly over the tomato sauce. Cook in the hottest oven possible until the crust is golden brown. In a hot pizza oven this should take no more than a few minutes. Remove and top with some basil leaves.

From HT Brunch, May 27, 2018

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First Published: May 26, 2018 20:36 IST