Culinary Interlude: Home is where the pizzeria is

I love pizza, but I can’t stand cheese. If this sounds like a contradiction to you, you’ve been eating too much of that goopy American abomination sold as “pizza,” but which represents a significant devolution from the real thing.

In Italy, pizza might or might not contain cheese. If it has cheese, it’s always a lot less than you find on the usual heart attack by the slice you get at Pizza Hut. When I was in Italy watching the university students go on strike (yeah, really — whether anybody cared is another issue), I enjoyed pizza marinara: crust, sauce, garlic and basil. It’s one of the three legally recognized versions of Neapolitan pizza (not that bureaucrats should be telling anybody what to eat). My favorite, though, was pizza puttanesca, with crust, sauce, anchovies, capers, olives and (sometimes) pignolis.

Good U.S.-style pizza can be found, of course. At heart, the American variety is a variation on pizza margherita, with sauce balanced against cheese and crust. Add toppings as you wish, but keep the flavors and textures balanced. I remember the original Ray’s Pizza on Prince Street in Manhattan offering a great slice, and Arturo’s on Houston and John’s on Bleecker were both amazing. New York City has gone through a generation or two of pizza joints since my day, so there are any number of good new places — probably better than the ones I remember.

But out here in the hinterlands, pizza is too often … nasty. While I can get the real deal if I look around, most pizza places sell something that is so heavy and cheese-laden that it has more to do with quiche than pizza. Honestly, any joint that takes pizza, and boasts that it smothers the unfortunate crust under a pound of cheese is just trying to find out how far it can push you.

Frankly, instead of hunting around while remembering what I ate in Florence, it’s easier to just make my own. Made at home, pizza becomes, once again, a light supper instead of a belly bomb — or the belly bomb of your dreams, if that’s what you really want.

Pizza marinara and pizza di patate

Look upon my pizza, ye mighty, and despair!

Last night I flashed back to Italy, with two traditional pies: pizza marinara and pizza con patate e rosmarino. Yep, that’s right. The second pizza is made with sliced potatoes and rosemary. Really, it’s amazing. The pizza marinara on the left is made with homemade sauce, slivers of garlic and oregano. I was going to add fresh basil, but somebody (I ain’t saying who) forgot to water the basil plant. I saved the thing, but it was in no condition to spare any leaves.

Making pizza dough is, trust me, easy. It’s flour, water, salt  and yeast. Here’s my version:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 cup warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt  dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1 cup of warm water. Add 1 cup all-purpose flour. Stir. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest an hour.

After an hour, add 2 cups of whole-wheat flour and 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour (dust your work space with the remaining 1/2 cup all-purpose flour). Stir. Add the salt water to make the dough pliable and workable.

(Note: the amount of salt water needed varies according to local conditions, so you may want to have more salt water and flour ready to add as needed.)

Turn the dough onto your flour-dusted work space and knead by hand for ten or so minutes. Add more flour to the space if necessary. The dough should lose its stickiness but remain elastic.

Rinse out your bowl and rub the inside with olive oil. Shape your dough into a ball roll it around in the oil to coat the surface. Cover the bowl and put  aside for an hour or longer.

Preheat your oven to 550 degrees (if it will go that high — as hot as you can, otherwise).

When the dough has risen, lightly dust your work space with flour again. Dump the dough out and divide it into two equal parts. Cover one part with a damp cloth and stretch the other onto a pizza pan or baking sheet, Use your fingers to stretch it out — thin, but not so thin it’s translucent.

Now top it. Then pop it into the oven for roughly ten minutes (I put the potato pizza in for twelve).

Toppings are up to you. I’ve already described the very basic topping on the pizza marinara. The pizza con patate e rosmarino was made with thin slices of red potato tossed with olive oil and spread in a single layer, rosemary, sea salt, and a final drizzling of olive oil. Tony helped with the dough stretching (though he found it “squishy” and “yucky”) as well as the spreading of sauce and application of toppings.

Italian law doesn’t apply to you (probably) so vary it as you please. Just try not to turn it into a gooey belly bomb.

By the way, you’ll notice that the pizzas above don’t include much protein. I addressed that by adding edamame to the salad of spinach, red-leaf lettuce, walnuts, strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers — soybeans contain complete protein. We also had a Tuscan white bean spread (think of it as Italian hummus) with homemade bread slices as an appetizer.

The glass contains a Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc. Damned if I remember the year.


  • Jorge says:

    I remember all the pizza places you mentioned. Arturo’s was my favorite. Sometimes I miss NYC just for the food, but as you say, one can always make their own. However, with pizza, the only wine to drink is a Chianti. Salud.

  • J.D. Tuccille says:

    Arturo’s … They had mussels in white wine sauce that I used to sop up with hunks of their bread.

    Anyway, I do appreciate a nice glass of Chianti, even if it always evokes straw-covered bottles in red-sauce joints from my youth. Now that I think of it, I like those memories. But I’ve been developing my appreciation of whites recently, since discovering that the Romans preferred white wines over reds. Then again, they preferred sweet white wines, and I generally won’t go there.

    Next time, Chianti it is.

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