The Problem with Pizza

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Before I moved to the southern Italian region of Puglia for a year in 1991, I was put in touch with Enzo, a Cardiff resident whose brother actually ran a small pizzeria in Lecce in the north of the region. I visited Enzo at his small shop on the outskirts of Cardiff city centre on several occasions prior to my leaving for Italy. The following extract was first published in my collection of short stories about pizza called ‘A Pizza di Action’ published by Aurora Press in 1995. Now unfortunately out of print, so cherished is the book by those who bought it that a quick scan on Amazon reveals not one person willing to sell it on. Many fruitless hours trawling through Yellow Pages has resulted only in my drafting a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority, from whom I am still awaiting a reply. Anyway, on with the story.   

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Enzo fixed my eyes with his. We were standing in the small gentlemen’s outfitters he owned which he had, with some reasonable logic, called Enzo’s. It was September 1991 and just two weeks before I was to depart for Southern Italy. In my hands I held a pair of grey, cotton sports briefs, on offer at three pairs for three pounds.  

Situated just five minutes walk from Cardiff city centre on a Victorian, urban high street, thickly populated with sole-trader shops and small businesses, Enzo’s clientele consisted mainly of the working class folk of the neighbourhood, and the students who resided there for some thirty weeks of the year. To the former he represented decent quality clothing at affordable prices; a shirt for skittles, an anniversary tie. To the latter, Enzo’s was something of a novelty; a curio where one could further contrive one’s sartorial image; where conservatism became revolution, and where socks and pants were definitely cheaper than any other outlet within the surrounding square mile. To this end, with his heavy Italian accent and his outspoken, yet gentle demeanour, Enzo achieved that most burdensome of denominations, and one whose currency diminishes on both sides of the social spectrum when the chips are down; that of local cult hero.

“There’s money in pants,” Enzo said as I stretched the elastic waist of the underwear, testing the resolve and durability of the garment as I walked towards the counter to make my purchase. “And there’s money in trousers, shirts and socks. But Pizza…?” Enzo shrugged. “You don’t make money with pizza on your own in this country. The chains have got it by the balls.” His hands met, cupped upwards and then clenched into two fists as he bit heavily on his lower lip. I placed the pants on the counter, followed by my money. The ker-ching of the till sounded – just – and the three pound coins rattled into the tray. Enzo had a point.  The big boys certainly had a stranglehold in the city centres.

“But there are small pizzerias outside town. And in the valleys?” I ventured.

“What I mean,” he continued, “is that the chains have made a complete bastard of it. And the little guys follow. They have no choice. That’s what people eat in this country.”

I must confess, up to this point I hadn’t really been that concerned. Particularly as I had, for some time, considered this Italian ‘national treasure’ to be amongst the most overrated of foodstuffs on earth. Not that I told Enzo of this, of course: once, my mention of the fact I thought opera was ‘naff’ had nearly caused the man a burst blood-vessel.

“I mean, when was the last pizza you ‘ad?” he asked.

“I think I had one a few weeks ago,” I lied.

“And was it good?”

“It was okay.”  

“What d’you ‘ave on it?

Christ, there was no stopping him. “Err, cheese and pineapple.”  

“Cheese and pineapple?  

Actually, I had meant to say ham and pineapple but being in Enzo’s had taken me back a decade and a half back to the days when…

Enzo sighed – and then, a second wind as he delivered a tirade against some of the different toppings that this country has deemed fit to integrate alongside the established ‘classics’. “Cheddar cheese, ham and pineapple, chile con carne, Chicken fucking Tikka Ma-fucking-sala!  On pizza?” Forty-five years in Cardiff and Enzo could curse all right, and as he did so, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing.

But this was just the warm-up. The main source of Enzo’s spleen wasn’t focused on the toppings: the big problem concerned the base.

“How can you eat that shit?” On ‘shit’, his voice raised an octave and a bulging blood vessel reminded me that here was a man who didn’t need my views on Italian culture to wind him up to a state of near collapse.

“A pizza base is thin of crispy, light to touch. It make melt in the mouth.” Stress was causing his otherwise impeccable, if heavily-accented English to suffer.

“Enzo,” I implored, dropping my pants on the counter.

“There’s too much base here. American imperials.”

A student customer shot a glance over and, dreading a discourse on Greenham Common and Trident missiles, I moved the conversation back to the bread.

Yes, I had always thought Italy to have been the true home of pizza and had become confused as to the usage of American cities in the marketing of them of late. And as for that base, well, it has to be said, I had often wondered where the appeal was in something that seemed as happy to stick to a cardboard box as it was to the roof of your mouth.  Indeed, whilst chewing on one particularly stodgy purchase I was almost convinced that my next bite would reveal the other half of the insole of an old training shoe.

“You wait ‘til you go to Italia!  Margherita, Capriciosa, Napoli, Quatro Estazzioni… You will understand then.”

Thanking Enzo for his opinions, I bade him arriverderci – I had been learning – and promised I would put his words to the test as soon as I arrived. “And what about you, Enzo? When you go back, what’s your favourite?”

A mournful look. “Oh, I can’t, get on a plane,” he said patting his heart. “Doctor’s orders. It’s the food here. It’s killing me!”

“It sure is, Enzo,” I thought. “It sure is.”  

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Good stuff, eh? And what a pay off! Remember to check Amazon on a regular basis.  

By the way, if it looks as if I’ve riffed on an old theme (pineapple on pizza), I do have some evidence of me complaining about this more than ten years ago before other latecomers and gatecrashers stepped into the fray to comment on a subject that would have been mine, had certain publishers been more aware of their professional responsibilities. Anyway, two weeks after my encounter with Enzo I was in the south of Italy and trying out my first real Italian pizza at the charming outlet just around the corner of my flat in Bari Vecchia (old Bari).  

Pizza Capriciosa

There are many versions of this served up in pizza houses, restaurants and take-aways across the world but for me, the definitive version came from Pizzeria Rossi, the tiny corridor pizzeria that was situated just two minutes walk from my flat in Bari Veccia – Old Bari  

p1010479Roberto, whom I nicknamed ‘Paolo’ after the famous match-fixing footballer of the ‘70s and ‘80s, was the king! So confident was he in his ability, that he was willing to potentially wreck the creation he’d just forged in that wooden stove of his by folding it half before sliding it into a white paper bag to be taken away for consumption in the privacy of one’s own home. It was strange that first time, unfolding the pizza and scraping the contents equidistantly across the disc but as the first mouthful melted on the tongue I realised, very much like the internal examination I’d experienced at the hands of the University Doctor some years earlier, that a surprising experience need not necessarily be a wholly unpleasant one.

 

To make ‘Paolo’s’ Capriciosa, you’ll need the following.

 

Pizza Base: Makes 2

 

300g strong bread flour Tipo 00

1 tbs olive oil

1 tsp salt

7g dried yeast powder

200ml lukewarm water

 

Pour the flour into a bowl or onto a work surface. If the latter, make a well in the midde of the flour. Pour in the salt and yeast – some say to keep the two apart initially. Pour in your olive oil and then add the water, bit by bit, stirring with a wooden spoon if in a bowl to mix it all together. When it has pretty much bound together, remove it from the bowl (if using) and start to knead it with the heal of your hand. Add more flour if it’s too sticky or moist. Keep kneading for five minutes, pulling it every now and then, helping it to become a little more elastic-like. Shape the mixture into a ball and place in a bowl: cover with clingfilm, and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours until it’s doubled in size.

 

When ready, remove the dough, knock the air out with the flat of your hand, squeeze and roll it around a bit with your hands to get more air out, and cut into two equal parts. Take one of the pieces and make a round base by pressing it out into a flat circle shape with your fingers (there will be lots of fingerprint dents in it – don’t worry). Then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a large disc, turning the dough frequently on the worktop to achieve as close an approximation to a disc shape as is possible.

 

Okay, to make sure this whole thing works, I do the following. Firstly, I place a large-ish round baking stone – that’s a thing people (usually Welsh people) use to make Welsh Cakes with: this will make your base crisper and it goes into an oven turned up to its highest heat,   about ten minutes before I start rolling out the base. After the base has been rolled, I then sprinkle a little flour or, more preferably, some polenta onto a baking sheet and then place the rolled base on the sheet.

 

From this position I’m ready to load on the ingredients. Recalling my first week in Bari, let’s use the following:

 

  • Anchovies x 6
  • Capers x 10
  • Thin Sliced Ham, 2 slices
  • Mozzarella, 1 ball
  • A few Basil leaves
  • 2 smallish chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • Passatta (sieved tomatoes). If you don’t have any to hand then dilute some Tomato Puree with water so that it’s easily spreadable but not too runny
  • Olive oil (optional)

 

Okay, take your Passatta / diluted puree and pour some onto the base. With a flat spatula or big spoon, move it around so that it covers the surface area. It won’t go on completely evenly so make sure that every part of the base at least moist from some tomato interaction; use enough to make a decent covering without drenching the base.  Also make sure that the outer edges see some action as if they go into the oven completely dry they’ll burn up too quickly.

 

Now take the ball of Mozzarella and after breaking it up by hand, place it in even spaces across the base. Now the ham slices: tear them by hand into three pieces and do likewise.  As for the anchovies, it’s a nice idea to place them like spokes, the idea being that each slice contains the same contents. Some say to keep a bit of the texture, you should place them on five minutes before you take the pizza out of the oven, though I don’t bother.  Scatter the capers and mushrooms on and drizzle a little olive oil on the top. Break up the basil leaves and throw them on.

 

Now whack it in the oven.  

 

Keep an eye on it: the oven’s high temperature will get things moving along quickly so make sure it doesn’t burn. I use the highest heat possible because it gives you your best opportunity of crisping up that base on the lethally hot baking stone. If you’re using polenta, it will make it even crispier – how the Italians intended it, I think.  
As for the beer, it’s pilsner or Euro lager all the way for me, though if I had to make a choice, I’d allow nostalgia lead me towards the pouring of a freezing glass of Peroni – red label, as opposed  to the Nastro Azzuro, the popular, if preposterously overpriced strain we find so readily in our pubs these days. In my Bari days, we only seemed to be able to ever get our hands on one beer, and that was red label Peroni. Leading with a malty introduction, it reveals a refreshing, light bitterness, ending with a lingering dry finish. Masterpiece it isn’t, but it’s a decent enough beer for a hot day which also suits any kind of dish carrying such strong and salty flavours as this.

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