About twenty miles from my parents’ house in Italy, down from the mountains in a valley where the land rolls gently under golden fields of dinner plate-sized sunflowers, there is a wonderful pizzeria. Serving simple, understated but utterly delicious pizzas, until the age of about fifteen I didn’t even know its name: the doorway lacking in any obvious signage, we simply called the restaurant after the little village in which it was located, a trip to the village and the pizzeria being pretty much one and the same.
Here the pizzas come in a limited number of options, the toppings scant additions to the main event of thin, crisp crust (which every so often erupts in a volcanic bubble of air), rich tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Wine comes by the carafe, salad is green or mixed and dessert is a pre-packaged affair that emerges straight from the freezer. These basic accompaniments have never been cause for concern: the pizzas are what this place is all about.
While pizzerias all over London and beyond are turning their hand to authentic Italian crusts (Franco Manca I’m looking at you, Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, I am not), it’s pretty hard to beat the taste of proper wood-fire ovened pizza, made and served to you by Italians, in Italy, with the sun shining down as you eat. But unless you own one of said wood fired ovens – or decide not to make pizza at home and only eat it in restaurants that do – there has to be some sort of compromise.
I’m absolutely not an expert on the subject, but I’ve been baking (and eating) pizzas for well over twenty years. As a littler loaf, I used to love making homemade pizza with my Mum and as an adult, the occasional ‘Pizza Sunday’ with Carnivorous Fiancé (eating off our laps on the sofa in front of some sort of trashy telly) is up there with one of my favourite meals.
My tips, for what they’re worth? Make a really good dough (my recipe below – a sourdough version is also good, but for simplicity a mixture of strong white and Tipo ’00’ flour is spot on), roll it properly thin, top with scant ingredients (this stops it going soggy) and bake in a hot, hot oven. My pizza stones are the best investment I ever made for a closest-you-can-get to-authentic-without-a-wood-fired-oven crust, and make sure you eat your pizza as soon as its done (just one of the many reasons that takeaway pizzas just don’t make the cut).
The pizza pictured is topped with a basic tomato sauce (tinned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and salt), mozzarella, capers, olives and a little basil. I love the salty simplicity of this topping but adapt this endlessly to what you love. Carnivorous Fiancé likes his with shredded chicken, chorizo and chilli (not entirely Italian but it makes him happy and looks pretty tasty too), prosciutto and a little shaved parmesan work well and a few wilted greens with an egg cracked on top are also a very good thing.
The recipe below makes enough for about six pizzas. I wouldn’t recommend trying to make pizza for more than six people at a time unless you’re happy to spend your evening manning the oven, and if you’re feeding fewer than that, the dough freezes absolutely beautifully. I’m never without a frozen batch of pizza dough on hand, enough to tide me over until our next trip to Italy at least.
Homemade Pizza Dough
(makes around 6 medium-sized pizzas)
250g strong white bread flour
250g ’00’ pizza flour
6g powdered dried yeast
1 – 2 tbsp olive oil
Wholemeal or semolina flour, to dust
In a large bowl, combine the flours. Add the dried yeast to one side of the bowl and the salt to the other.
Pour in the water and mix to form a sticky dough. Add the oil, mix again using your hands then tip the dough onto a clean work surface and knead until smooth and silky, about 10 minutes.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise for 1 – 2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Place a pizza stone, terracotta tile or baking tray in the oven and preheat to its highest temperature. I put mine on about 45 minutes before I want to bake my pizzas.
Dust the work surface with your wholemeal or semolina flour. Take a ball of dough, about 150g, and flatten slightly with the heel of your hand. Stretch it out into a rough circle (the less you roll the dough, the better) then place on the work surface and roll with a rolling pin until about 5mm thick and an even (ish) round.
Place the rolled pizza base on an individual square of baking parchment, from which you can easily slide it onto a tray, then onto the pizza stone. If you have a pizza peel, this will make life a lot easier.
Top the pizza with your choice of ingredients, in this instance a smear of tomato sauce, some torn mozzarella and a sprinkling of capers and olives. Transfer carefully to your hot pizza stone and bake for around 9 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the crust crisp.
Remove your pizza from the oven, drizzle with olive oil, scatter with torn basil leaves and serve.