Pizza and I go way back. It’s the meal I remember my family making together. My mother made the dough, but my dad was the one who tossed it up to the ceiling. It was Chicago-style deep dish pizza with lots of toppings and gooey mozzarella. We loved it.
We still love it. Pizza is Drew’s favorite meal. He loves it so much that he built a wonderful wood-fired pizza oven that bakes a pizza in about 3 minutes flat. So, visiting Southern Italy was like going to Mecca. Pizza is everywhere. The first night at Serra Gambetta, we were treated to pizza straight from the wood-fired oven in the courtyard. The first was topped with crushed tomato, garlic, and fresh basil leaves, another with wild mushrooms and green peppers, a third with tomato and fresh mozzarella di bufalo, and a final version was topped with shavings of aged cheese and slivers of procuitto right after it was pulled from the oven. The crust was thin and crisp, with a lovely, puffy rim.
Later in our trip, we stayed at Tenuta San Arcangelo, surrounded by wheat fields (producing some of the best-tasting wheat in Italy!). Our host Gerardo took us to visit a baker in the hill town of San Agata, where we watched the bakers spin pizza dough to fill large, rimmed pans. These pizzas had thick crust doused liberally with olive oil and crushed tomatoes. The bakers opened cans of whole plum tomatoes in puree, dumped them into a giant bowl, and crushed them to a chunky sauce with their hands. We didn’t get to see what other toppings went on these pies because it was 1 a.m., and the pans full of dough and sauce went into the refrigerator while the night’s baking of hundreds of loaves of bread carried on.
Finally, in Rome, the travelers made a pilgrimage to Pizzarium, a pizzerria where takeout pizza is sliced off and sold by weight . They make a thick, well-risen crust–baked perfectly to create a lovely open crumb– supporting a generous amount of toppings. And the toppings! Everything from rabbit and broccoli rabe to arugula salad…and all the fresh and aged cheeses, cured meats, and grilled vegetables you could hope for.
Calzone, Pitta, Panini, and Focaccia
The best pizza dough is made with a small amount of yeast and a long, cool fermentation (rise). Time is the important factor for developing flavor and texture. Making the dough one or two days before you want to make pizza gives the best results. I make my pizza dough using the same slow-rise technique I use for all my breads.
The process starts with a sponge, or starter.
Slow-rise starter: Dissolve 1/2 tsp dry yeast in 1/2 cup warm (105-110 degrees F). Wait until it becomes creamy, 1 to 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups more luke-warm water, 3 cups unbleached bread or all-purpose flour (I often use a combination), and 2 Tbs whole wheat flour. Stir in the same directions about 100 times to make a sticky sponge. I put my sponge in a straight-sided plastic storage container so that I can see how much it rises. It should rise to 3 times the original height. I make a mark on the side of the container, put the cover on, and let it ferment at room temperature ( ideally 72-74 degrees F )for 6 to 8 hours.
This amount of starter is enough for 3 batches of pizza dough or other bread. Sometimes I just divide it in half and use half for pizza and half for focaccia. The starter may be used without additional yeast if it is used when it is most active–shortly after the 6-8 hour rise. For extra puff-power, add another 1/4 tsp yeast when you make the dough.
Make the dough: You will need 1/4 tsp yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water, 1 1/2 cups of the starter-sponge, 3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, 2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil. You can mix the dough with some kind of machine or in a large bowl by hand. Combine the yeast mixture and starter-sponge and gradually stir in 3 cups of the flour, salt, and oil to make a sticky, rough dough. Use a large plastic spatula or dough scraper to scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl and gather it into a smooth ball. Cover and let it rest 5 minutes.
Kneading can be done on a lightly floured work surface or in an oiled bowl. Wet, sticky dough is not really kneaded as much as pulled, stretched, and folded, so I find it easier to leave it in the bowl. Continue to pull and fold, rotating the dough, for 3 to 5 minutes. Form the dough into a ball, cover, and let it rest again for 15 minutes. Now turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead by pressing, folding and turning. Add as little additional flour as possible, using a dough scraper to help lift and turn the dough.
After 3 to 5 minutes, the dough should be smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and put it into an oiled bowl. Cover and let it rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Reform the ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for 8 hours or up to 3 days.
Making the Pizza
Warm up the dough: take the dough out of the refrigerator and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into equal pieces (2 or 3 large pizzas, or 4 to 6 smaller ones). Roll each piece into a ball, cover and let the dough warm up to room temperature, up to 1 1/2 hours. This is important unless you want a very thin, unrisen crust.
Heat the oven: Pizza bakes best in a very hot oven on a pre-heated surface. Place a baking stone or a heavy cast iron griddle on the lowest rack of the oven 30 to 45 minutes before you want to bake the pizza. Heat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Shape the dough: Put a ball of dough on a lightly floured surface. Dust the top of the ball with flour and gently press the ball into a flat circle about 1/2 inch thick. Now lift the disk and place it over the backs of your fists so that you can use your thumbs and knuckle (and gravity) to slowly stretch the dough into a larger disk. Rotate and stretch the dough until the desired diameter is reached. The rim will be thicker that the middle. If you are really good, you can speed up and rotate the disk between your two open hands like a spinning frisbee. Using a rolling pin is less fun, but that’s another option. When the dough is as large and as thin as you like, transfer the dough to a well-oiled baking sheet or a generously floured peel if you are using a heated baking stone. I use aluminum pizza pans sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina to hold the pizza until it is ready to go into the wood oven or onto a heated iron griddle in my gas oven. If you are not using a stone or griddle, put the dough on an oiled baking sheet.
Topping the pizza: Keep in mind that if you are sliding a pizza from a peel onto a pizza stone or iron griddle in the oven, you are more likely to succeed if the toppings are sparse. Sauce should be spread thinly enough to see the dough. If you like a lot of topping, you are better off assembling the pizza in the pan it will be baked in.
*Pre-Columbian flat-bread: Strew chopped fresh rosemary or sage leaves (garlic if you like) over the pizza dough, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt.
*Classic Margherita: Crushed tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Add the fresh basil leaves when the pizza comes out of the oven.
*Pugliese (from Puglia): Drizzle the dough with olive oil, sprinkle with minced garlic and halved cherry tomatoes or oven-dried plum tomatoes. When the pizza comes out of the oven, top it with a salad of thinly sliced red onion and arugula , tossed with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
*Sauteed onions, crumbled bacon, and gorgonzola.
*Crushed tomato with anchovies, garlic, and black olives.
*Serra Gambetta: Crushed tomato and garlic. Top the pizza with fresh basil leaves, thin slices of procuitto and shaving of Parmesan or Pecorino when it comes from the oven.
*Pizza Louise: Olive oil and garlic, grilled or cooked vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower…), and a little grated parmesan.
Bake the pizza! Slide the pizza onto the heated stone or griddle, It should be ready in 6 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough and amount of toppings.
Calzone, Panini, or Pitta
Calzone are small, folded-over pizzas, panini is a rolled up one, and a pitta is a doublecrust pizza. Any pizza toppings are good for filling calzone, as long as they are not too liquid. Tomato sauce…cooked sausage or bacon or diced salami or ham… soft melting cheeses like mozzarella, provolone or fontina…aged cheeses like Parmesan, pecorino, asiago, or Romano…cooked vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, onions, potatoes, spinach, chard …left-over meatballs? Grilled chicken? Pepperonata? Pesto? What do you have?
Heat the oven to 450 degrees, F.
Prepare the dough as for a pizza, rolling the dough with a rolling pin to a diameter of 8 or 9 inches, a little less that 1/4 inch thick. Put the filling on one half of the dough, fold it over, and press the edges to seal. Brush the tops with olive oil, put the calzone on an oiled baking sheet, and bake 12 to 15 minutes.
I like to make pitta in my largest cast iron skillet. I stretch the dough to fit the pan (or just press it into the oiled pan until it starts to push up the sides). Sauteed onion with wilted spinach or chard is my favorite filling. Sometimes I add crumbled feta cheese or slices of fresh mozzarella. Roll or stretch another piece of dough to cover the top and press the edges together. Brush the top with olive oil and bake the pitta 20 minutes @ 450 degrees. Lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes. The crust should be golden -brown. Cool 10-15 minutes before cutting.
Focaccia is a wonderfully easy bread to make, and wonderfully delicious with or without toppings. To make focaccia, follow the directions for making pizza dough, but add 1/4 cup more water when you mix the dough. Because the dough is wetter and stickier than for pizza, all of the kneading is the stretch and fold process done with the dough left in a large oiled bowl. Pull, stretch, and fold the dough for 3 to 5 minutes, then cover and let the dough ferment at room temperature for 1 hour. Gently press the dough down and shape into a smooth ball. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for 8 hours to 3 days.
Shaping and baking: Take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm to room temperature (1 1/2hours). Slide the dough out of the bowl onto a generously oiled baking sheet or shallow pan. I like to use my largest cast iron skillet. Press the dough into an oval or round shape about 1/2 inch thick. Dimple the dough with you fingertips. Drizzle (or slosh) the top with olive oil. Add any toppings you like: chopped herbs, sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes, olives, caramelized onions…or maybe just some coarse salt.