“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore” Dean Martin sang the well-known Harry Warren tune, forever associating pizza with love. In the same song he tells us that that connection is particularly true in “Old Napoli,” where pizza is a soul food, treated with a reverence akin to a religious experience. In Naples there is even an Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (Association for Authentic Neapolitan Pizza) that certifies restaurants making real Neapolitan pizza with a sign they can display in their windows like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Italians, and particularly Neapolitans, have good reason to be serious about upholding particular standards for pizza, because the food has become even more universal than hamburgers, and some of its varieties bear very little resemblance to the real thing. Particularly American concoctions like pizza with pineapple and ham, for example, or pizza with chicken and walnuts, are to Italians what the designated hitter is to baseball purists. They may taste all right, but don’t call them pizza. Italians also eschew the American tendency to pile ingredient upon ingredient on pizza so that the resulting product is a sampler of a half dozen or more meats and vegetables whose tastes have nullified one another.
The secret of great pizza -- and what Italians take pride in -- is its simplicity and the use of fresh ingredients. Pizza originated as a “street food,” and to this day it remains one of the few Italian foods people often eat “on the go” rather than as a sit-down meal.
There are pizza shops throughout Italy-especially in Naples and Rome-that display a wide variety of rectangular pizzas sold by the slice to businessmen and women
as well as tourists on the move. One of its most celebrated varieties, pizza Margherita, is named for Italy’s Queen Margherita who visited Naples in 1889 and was charmed by a particular tricolore pizza made especially for her with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella, ingredients whose green, red, and white colors represented the colors of the newly adopted Italian flag. (Italy did not become a single nation until 1870).
Whatever ingredients adorn it, pizza is not pizza unless the crust is memorable. The thickness of the crust differs from region to region in Italy (as well as in America). What Americans call Chicago-style pizza, made in a deep dish and with a thick, bready crust, is essentially Sicilian pizza. Authentic Pizza Napoletana has a paper thin crust that is crisp and well done on the bottom and soft and slightly undercooked on top, where the dough has been covered by the ingredients. Getting the crust the right consistency is an art form and is very difficult to achieve in a home oven where maximum temperatures are not high enough to bake the dough quickly and evenly. Wood-fired ovens, which have always been used in Italy and have now become popular in the States, reach temperatures of 750 degrees Fahrenheit and are essential if you want the real thing. However, here’s a recipe for pizza crust that you can do in a home oven that will get you pretty close:
You need ¾ cup warm water, 1 pkg. active dry yeast, 2 cups all-purpose flour(preferably unbleached), and 1 teaspoon salt. Before you begin making the pizza, preheat the oven, with a pizza stone or tiles in it, to its highest temperature (usually 500-550 degrees). Mix yeast with water and stir until dissolved. Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl and add yeast mixture to it. Stir with a wooden spoon until dough forms. Sprinkle some flour on your hands and on a lightly floured surface, knead dough until smooth, about 10 minutes. Oil a large bowl with a few drops of olive oil and transfer dough to bowl, turning to coat it with the oil. Let dough rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 ½ hours. Then flatten dough with your hands, cut it in half and form into two balls. Let it rise again until doubled, about another hour. Shape each ball into a flat, 9 inch round, by flattening and pressing outward with your fingers, turning a number of times. (If dough is too sticky, sprinkle with additional flour). It’s best to bake the crust untopped for about 2 minutes; then remove from oven and add toppings. For pizza Margherita, spread tomato sauce (preferably homemade) over the crust, sprinkle with shredded fresh whole milk mozzarella (whole milk is essential!) and three tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil. Bake in oven an additional 5-6 minutes until cheese is melted and crust is browned. When you serve this you’ll be very proud you’re Italian!