When I was twelve years old, I wrote an essay at school on the origins of the pizza. I invented a creation myth for the dish in which a neapolitan woman took the random contents of her larder, placed them onto a circle of dough and put the whole thing into her wood-fired oven. When admirers asked what the creation was called, she said a pizza, because it was made of 'a pizza dis and a pizza dat!'
This story contains an essential truth about Italian pizza, that the dough is really a vehicle for whatever you feel like eating. In Italy, outside the big tourist centres, people are often surprised that familiar pizzas, such as 'capricciosa', 'quattro stagioni', and 'pepperoni'* are not listed but are replaced either with fantastical names, or shopping lists of the toppings used. The name 'capricciosa' can actually be translated as 'whatever you feel like'. One of the pizzerias close to my farm in Tuscany boasts 100 types of pizza, each given the name of a local hamlet.
The plain cheese and tomato 'pizza margherita' is usually found on most menus, it being one of the only truly Italian pizzas familiar in the English-speaking world. The authentic version, contains red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil leaves, the colours of the Italian flag. The original was named for the Queen of Italy, who made a visit to Naples in 1889, by pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito of the pizzeria Brandi.
Friday night is pizza night in my house and I usually top them with whatever I have left in the fridge. The hand-made pizza dough and tomato sauce are easy to make and can be kept in the fridge until you are ready for action.
Dough (makes 2 large pizza bases)
1 sachet of dried yeast
300ml tepid water
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Dissolve the sachet of yeast in about 100ml of tepid water. A good way to test for tepid is to place your fingers in the water. If you can't feel it, then it's the right temperature. Then leave the yeast for about 10 minutes to activate. It should start bubbling. If it doesn't throw it away and start again as your yeast is not working.
Then dissolve the salt in rest of the water and add the olive oil. Place the flour in a large bowl and add the sugar, the yeast mixture and then the salt, oil and water. Bring the mixture together with your hands and then turn out onto a worktop and knead for about 10 minutes. The dough it done when it has achieved a smooth elastic consistency.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for about two hours, by which time the dough should have doubled in size.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion finely diced
1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)
1 tbsp tomato puree
100 ml water or red wine
Heat the olive oil in a high-sided frying pan over a low heat. Add the onion and fry slowly for about 10 to 15 minutes until golden. Cooking the onion slowly will allow the sugars to caramelise meaning that you don't have to add sugar. Do not allow the onion to turn to dark or it will create a bitter taste. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, water / wine, and sprinkle with salt. Turn up the heat, bring to the boil and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely before using on the pizza. If you want, you can pass it through a strainer, but I like the lumpy bits, which give the pizza texture. This can also be used as a pasta sauce and will keep in an airtight container for about a week in the fridge.
grated mozzarella cheese
toppings of your choice
Heat the oven to 230 degrees. To make up the pizza, divide the dough into two and each piece into a pizza shape using your fingers. Then cover with a layer of the tomato sauce, a layer of grated mozzarella cheese and a piece of this and a piece of that, whatever takes your fancy. The place it in the oven, I would recommend using a pizza stone, and cook for about 25 minutes. Buon appetito!
*A word of caution to anyone travelling in Italy. Order 'pepperoni' and you will be presented with red or green peppers ('peperoni'), the actual Italian meaning of the word.