The pizza that we know today originated in southern Italy in the city of Naples. The modern pizza that we know of is an evolution of flatbreads with various toppings brought to the region by its many occupants. This part of Italy was part of the Greek empire where pita bread with toppings of tomato and cheese was simple daily food. Being a port city, Naples attracted many immigrants from Northern Africa and Arabic countries around the Mediterranean. Simple flatbreads with dates and cheese were their staple food which was basic and cheap.
I have learnt from my husband's Neapolitan family that pizza was always a simple dish for poor workers, sold in the streets and not considered fit to be made in the kitchens of the elite. During my visits to Naples, visiting the old pizzerias in the centre of the city is always on my list. There is still a debate among them as to who created the first pizza. Do not expect anything fancy here - basic rustic settings with not the most comfortable wooden tables and chairs, a bunch of big built men, working laboriously near a big oven while churning out pizzas in large volumes and people on the go downing their pizza with a pint of beer. Think of it as the Italian version of our 'dhabas'!
So, how did this humble pizza become an international rage?
From the late 1870s and for the following hundred years, millions of Italians left Italy to settle across the seas in other countries. The majority being from Southern Italy which was enveloped in poverty at the time. In search of a better life, labourers, skilled craftsmen and artisans immigrated to the Unites States and brought with them their love for food, family, wine and culture. In fact, part of my husband's family was part of this large Italian migration that went with nothing and started making and selling pizzas around New York, thus making the pizza and American icon. If you have seen the movie, 'The Godfather', it is a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon in Italian-American history.
(Also Read: 11 Best Pizza Recipes)
In Italy and around the world, a pizza chef or "pizzaiolo" is typically a man as the job involves a lot of muscular labour and sweating it out while handling a very hot oven- not the most "lady like" job one might say! However, in Italian homes, it is the women who usually make the pizza in a more domestic environment.
Having learnt to make the real pizza in the heart of its home which is nothing close to the commercial "Americanised" stuff we know of, I decided to share my knowledge with people here in India.
No thick bready crusts and gloopy cheese and dried sauces and toppings please; we are looking for a crust, airy and light base, fresh tomato sauce which you can slurp, and cheese which is just melted and moist and not dry and burnt!
While most Italian chefs will claim that you cannot make good pizza with local Indian flour and a good pomodoro sauce with local tomatoes and fancy restaurants are spending large amounts on importing all this, I beg to differ. I have been churning out real Italian pizzas with simple Indian maida and have fooled many Italians.
(Also Read: Pizza Most Popular Food Globally For Takeaway In 2020: Report)
Here Are Easy Tips And Hacks To Make Pizza At Home:
1. Knead the dough for a whole 10 minutes and proof it for 24 hours in the fridge to get that airy light crust.
2. Use plenty of good extra virgin olive oil while tossing the base with your hand which will make it crispy outside and soft inside. You need a fat (oil in this case) for that golden colour and a crusty crackling surface.
3. While shaping the base, make sure you have a moderate thin centre and a thick edge around the crust. Avoid the rolling pin as that just changes the whole look and feel of the pizza.
4. For tomato sauce, slow cook overripe whole tomatoes (the ones that are full of juice and a bright red colour). When salted, the tomatoes cook in their own water and juice, so avoid adding more water. Keep the skin and seeds intact and blend it all really well for a rich thick sauce. Nothing out of a can, please!
5. Fresh mozzarella is now locally made by many artisan cheese makers in the larger cities. If not, skip the mozzarella and use a homemade ricotta instead. Blend a block of desi paneer in the blender with a tablespoon of water for a creamy finger licking ricotta. Cheddar cheese also works well.
6. To get the baking time right, you need to understand your oven as each oven is different. At home, I bake the bare crust for 5 minutes and then add the sauce , topping and cheese as they need less time and this prevents the cheese from drying out or getting burnt.
7. Add any fresh basil or herbs after baking the pizza.
Bonus: How To Re-Heat Leftover Pizza:
You can freeze partly baked pizza bases and bake them directly from frozen for a quick weekday dinner.
Leftover pizza can be stored in the fridge for the next day. Make sure you re-heat in the oven and not the microwave to maintain the crispy texture.
Have fun playing around with innovative toppings and use the basic pizza dough to make bread sticks and dough balls in various flavours.
About Author: Natasha Celmi is a chef, food stylist and the author of the best seller, 'Fast, Fresh, Flavourful'.
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