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Dancing Tomatoes

A Pizza Lesson with Award Winning Pizzaiolo, in Naples

Of course there is nothing new under the sun. Flatbreads have been baked from India to the Middle East and beyond  in every shape and kind of wood-burning oven, truly since time immemorial.  It is thanks to the Neopolitans, however,  that it has been transformed into one of the world’s favorite dish.

Everyone LOVES Pizza

It didn’t take Covid with its bevy of food delivery people running down the street with high stacks of pizza boxes in their hands threatening to topple at any minute, to realize that pizza has become an international delicacy, comfort food at its best.  (Here in France, pizza consumption has skyrocketed as of 2019 to an astounding 20 pounds per capita, which rivals pizza consumption in the U.S.)

Naples Co-opted It

So how did Naples co-opt the pizza? They did it because they, intuitively and naturally, love good flavor.  So instead of settling for plain flatbread centuries ago, they slathered theirs  with lard and sprinkled it with garlic. Gradually, olive oil pushed away lard, and when the Spaniards brought the tomato to Europe, and the Italians finally decided it wasn’t poison and took to planting and eating it, well the rest is history.

Tomato on Flat Bread Wasn’t Pizza Margharita

While tomato on flat bread can be traced to the 16th century, pizza margharita is more recent. It owes its creation, so legend says, to a royal visit to Naples, in 1889. Then King Umberto and Queen Margharita stepped from their royal carriage into a meal prepared by the best pizzaiolo of Naples, Raffaele Esposito. The meal included three pizzas. One was spread with lard, cheese, and basil; one with tomato, garlic, oregano, and olive oil, and one with crushed tomatoes, cheese, basil, and olive oil. 

The Queen’s Pizza and the Flag

The queen loved the latter pizza, not insignififcantly because it represented the tricolor of the Italian flag, and she congratulated Signore Esposito in writing.  He, in turn, named the pizza after her. To this day, pizza margharita remains one of the worlds’ favorites.

Affirming Ancient Traditions

The Neapolitans are justifiably proud of their reputation as the world’s best pizza makers, yet there is concern that with the popularity of pizza worldwide, standards are loosening.  In order to maintain the quality of Neapolitan pizza, a certain Antonio Pace codified “rules” for making it, creating the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana to  “affirm our ancient traditions.”  There is some hint that the appearance of pineapple on pizza was the straw that broke the pizza camel’s back and caused the written protocol, but that could be just hearsay.

Inspiration

In any case, Signore Pace’s protocols were no doubt inspired by his father, Vincenzo, who began making pizza when he was eleven years old. 

“It is impossible to write a recipe for pizza dough,” Vincenzo Pace says.  “It all depends on the weather. If it’s cold out, the water in the dough has to be warm; if it’s hot you use less salt, because salt retards rising.  You must judge all of this the night before you make your pizza, because the dough rises overnight, for at least 12 hours.”

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More Pizza Rules

There are other pizza “rules,” of course. For instance, for the margharita, you put the sauce – made with San Marzano canned tomatoes which have been crushed by hand, not pureed – in the center of the dough and spread it out in a circular motion, to the edges.  Then you sprinkle the cow’s milk mozzarella which has been cut in strips (not rounds, strips) on top, then top with the equivalent of two, maybe three large basil leaves, torn into pieces.  And the final fillip is the oil that you drizzle on in the shape of a 6.  This all goes into a blistering hot oven, and the heat that hits the pizza causes the dough to bubble high and the liquid in the crushed tomatoes to evaporate, leaving behind pure flavor. 

Aimed at Perfection

All of this is to get the pizzaiolo to practice restraint so that no ingredient of the pizza, including the crust, is dominant and they all work together to provide perfection.  The Associazione hands out stamps of approval to pizzerias once their pizza makers have taken an official pizza-making course, so look for this at your neighborhood pizzeria; it’s international.  

San Marzano Tomatoes

Why San Marzano tomatoes for pizza?  It has to do with what the French call terroir.  San Marzano tomatoes are grown in a very restricted area on the flanks of Mt. Vesuvio, the volcano that buried both Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The mineral-rich soil and abundant ground water gives them a perfectly balanced acid/sweet ratio, a distinctively rich and minerally flavor, and a gorgeous meaty texture.  They are delicious raw, but their true nature emerges when they’re canned.  Something about the high heat of cooking and pasteurization and the slow cooling brings forth their true nature.

Upcoming: How to Make a Neapolitan Pizza

In an upcoming video, I will take you through the steps of making pizza at home, showing you how to form, season, and bake it.  Before you see the video, though, Davido (as he is called) will see and grade it.  I’m hoping for at least an A, since he was my teacher!

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