In April of 2010 our family took a trip to Italy. Although my husband had been several times before, it was my first time to Italy and the first time our children had been to Europe. Along with the beautiful architecture, museums, ancient ruins and dazzling cathedrals we also enjoyed sampling the local food. One of our family’s favorite things we tried was the pizza. I had always been under the impression that pizza was an invention of Italian Americans but it turns out that Naples, called Napoli in Italian, is the birthplace of pizza. That must be why the best pizza we ate was in Naples. We decided right then we would have to learn how they made it so we could have it again and again when we got home.
Pizza is taken very seriously in Naples. There is even an overseeing body called Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (Original Neapolitan Pizza Association) whose goal is “to safeguard and promote the culture of the real Neapolitan pizza worldwide.” They offer certification and training to chefs who want to make and serve the real deal. The AVPN is solidly against ready-to-eat and frozen pizzas sold in supermarkets. They insist that the only way to get good pizza is to make it yourself by hand and to make a lot of it because “it is the experience that refines the art.”
I wasn’t going to be intimidated by regulations or special councils; I wanted to have a little bit of Napoli in my kitchen. So when we got home I started experimenting. The best thing about experimenting with pizza is eating your test subjects. The whole family got behind my Quest for Pizza. I started with the one variety you can always find all over Italy; Pizza Margherita. It was said to be the favorite of Umberto the First’s wife, Queen Margherita of Savoy. The colors of the pizza reminded her of the Italian flag.
After devouring a few test runs I think I have come up with a pretty good facsimile of our Naples pizza experience. The crust is chewy, full of flavor, and crispy on the bottom. The sauce complements the simple toppings of mozzarella and basil. It is easy and fun to make and economical too. If you want something more on top of your pizza go ahead. Let your tastebuds be your guide. Start with the basic recipe below and when you are comfortable with that then expand into other varieties. Let each family member top their own pizza the way they like it best.
The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana says that only Campania products must be used to make their artisan-style pizzas. I say that if you have access to fresh buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes then go for it, but most of us don’t. Just use the best ingredients available to you and your pizza will still be delicious. Just don’t cut corners on the time it takes for the crust to develop its fabulous flavor. The nice thing is that you don’t have to do anything more than wait. Time does all the work.
Homemade Neapolitan-style Pizza
for the crust
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tsp yeast (any kind, active, instant or regular)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tblsp sea salt
Combine the yeast, flours and sea salt in the bowl of your mixer. Add the warm water and mix until well combined. Knead for 15 to 30 minutes. This can be done by hand if you don’t have a heavy-duty stand mixer or if you just enjoy the therapeutic rhythm of kneading bread dough. I use my trusty Kitchenaid mixer with the dough hook. I set it on the lowest speed and set my timer for 30 minutes. Once the kneading time is up cover the dough and let it sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours but as long as 16 hours. The longer you let it rise the more the flavor will develop. You can even make the dough a day ahead, cover and let the long, slow rise happen in the refrigerator. You want the yeast to have plenty of time to grow and eat up more and more of the starches in the flour. This is what produces the complex flavor of artisan breads. If you have a bread machine you can do the mixing in there and leave it to rise until you are ready to make your pizza. Just don’t forget to turn off the bake setting!
Once the rising time is over you can roll out the dough and make your pizza. With well-floured hand we divide the dough into four equal pieces, about 7 oz. each, to make personal pizzas about 10-12″ in diameter. This most closely resembles the size we had in Italy. You can make them larger or smaller to suit your needs. Dividing the dough in half will yield two much larger pizzas of about 16″.
Place your baking stone in the oven and preheat the stone and oven to 500 degrees. Make your sauce and assemble the topping ingredients and everything you need so that it is all ready when the oven is hot.
To shape a pizza crust start with a ball of dough on a well-floured work surface. Press the ball with your fingers into a flat circle. Keep pressing and turning the dough until it flattens quite a bit. You can pick it up and hold it by one edge letting the weight stretch it further or you can try your hand at tossing it like they do on TV. Easiest of all would be using a rolling pin. Don’t stress about getting a perfect circle. Let the kids try shaping their own crust and have a good time with it. Just try to end up with a crust that’s about 1/4″ to 1/8″ thick. This is not pan pizza – we’re going for the old fashioned crispy/chewy hand-tossed crust.
1 8oz can organic tomato sauce
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp raw honey
1/2 tsp garlic powder
a pinch of sea salt
Mix up all the ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.
Toppings for Margherita-style pizza are as follows:
Extra virgin olive oil, shredded mozzarella cheese, a handful of fresh basil leaves left whole or julienne.
To bring it all together, place your shaped crust on a well-floured pizza peel. If you don’t have a peel you can use an upside down cookie sheet or a rimless cookie sheet with parchment paper on it. Just let the parchment slide with the pizza onto the pizza stone. The paper won’t catch fire, it will just get a little black on the edges.
Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over the crust and use your fingers or a pastry brush to spread it so it covers the entire surface from center to edge. Spoon on a little of the sauce. Don’t overload the sauce, less is better. Too much sauce and your pizza will boil instead of bake. Sprinkle on a handful of mozzarella cheese and scatter a few basil leaves over the cheese. For an authentic Napoli-style use slices of fresh mozzarella and two or three whole basil leaves. We like the shredded cheese and julienne basil as it covers the crust more evenly.
Slide your pizza onto the hot stone. If you don’t have a stone you can just stick the cookie sheet into the hot oven and bake it that way. The stone will give the bottom of the crust a nice crispy texture that you won’t get with a cookie sheet. Bake for about 5 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the edge of the crust is golden. Carefully remove the pizza and let it cool for a few minutes before slicing and eating.
If you get all your pizzas assembled and waiting on sheets of parchment paper you can slide one in as soon as the other one comes out. If you stone is big enough you can do two at a time. Watch carefully – with an oven this hot they will cook quickly!
Enjoy these delicious pizzas with a fresh green salad drizzled with your homemade salad dressing.
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