“Italians disagree about everything,” says Giancarlo Caldesi, affably. “That’s why we’re such lovely people.” Quite why this statement strikes me as inherently shrewd, rather than illogical, I couldn’t tell you—suffice to say that, in the context of this article, I feel it’s true. Italians are lovely, but what they unanimously agree upon when it comes to pizza would not fill a paper napkin.
Pizza as we know it was born—according to some, at least—in Naples in 1889, when Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito dressed dough with basil, mozzarella and tomato to match the tricolour flag of the new independent Italy, but its roots go back much further than that, and pizza variations abound from north to south, east to west, even village to village. There is one ground rule, however, and one alone: pizza, by its very nature, should be quick.
Which is why I’ve failed already when, in the studious floury silence of Cucina Caldesi’s pizza-making class, I mess the base up. The base, owner Giancarlo had informed me earlier that day, is everything: “It’s all about the base, about the base,” he sang jovially. I appreciated the Meghan Trainor allusion, and the story he then recounted about pizza marinara, apparently invented for the sailors who, when stopping over in port, had no time to consume anything other than a quick hit of dough, tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil. “It was suited to them. There’s no fish or anything on the real pizza marinara because it would have taken too long. No one waits 20 minutes for a pizza.”
Or so he thinks. I try again—my third attempt—balling the dough, pushing it out first with my fingertips then with the heel of my hand. No such luck. All around me, my classmates meet the same problem: rather than smoothing into a pizza-shaped circle, the dough just slides around. Some resort to rolling pins, a tool our teacher Stefano allows, but which I stubbornly shun in favour of the more traditional approach.
“A rolling pin would never be used by an Italian, it would take all the air out,” Giorgio, the head chef at Il Blandford’s on Chiltern Street had told me, indignantly, a few days before. Certainly, the Neapolitan pizza must be hand-formed under the conditions of its EU Protected Designation of Origin status. Yet even when Stefano patiently shows me for the fourth time how to stretch and swivel, stretch and swivel the dough, I find it turns into a Dali-esque cuboid in my inexperienced hands.
By this time, my customers would have left. I’ve been here for half an hour and haven’t yet started on the toppings. Had Stefano not given us a head start by preparing the dough mix for us in the first place, we’d have been there late into the night. He describes how he did it, and in doing so reveals the first bone in an entire necropolis of contentions over approaches to pizza even within Marylebone, let alone Italy: which flour and yeast to use, how much of it, whether to add olive oil, sugar, bicarb or even eggs.
Such humble ingredients have divided generations of cooks, and that’s before you get to fermenting the dough. “We did one with beer once. I was working with Birra Moretti,” recalls Giancarlo, a giant of London’s Italian restaurant scene, having founded two restaurants and the cookery school, as well as authoring several recipe books. “One of the pizzerias in Naples does it. It could be based on a tradition, but I suspect it’s a tourist thing.”
Whatever it is, it works. The beer lends the dough a malty, tangy taste, and now his cookery school includes it in its pizza course alongside the “traditional” dough—a word I’m quickly learning is about as easy to pin down as melted mozzarella on your fork. At Giancarlo’s school, it consists of 500g flour, 10g salt, 10g fresh yeast, 300g water, and 50g olive oil, fermented for barely more than a few hours—a Roman pizza recipe, if I may be so bold, devised to be crispy of crust and thin as the pope’s cloak.
Though 10 ready-prepared balls of dough are in front of us, one for each member of the class, Stefano mixes a batch to demonstrate how it’s done. He mixes with this hands, that way, he says, “you can feel how it’s going, understand the texture”. Christian, head chef of Firebrand Pizza near Lisson Grove, prefers an electric approach, telling me that “pizza chefs are fanatical about their mixers.”
Taking inspiration from the Neapolitans, the ‘mamas’ of pizza, Christian ferments his dough for 48 hours, giving it a characteristically sour taste and soft, chewy texture. Firebrand’s wood-fired oven, caputo flour base, san marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala cheese mean the restaurant complies with almost every one of the conditions which the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana or True Neapolitan Pizza Association (yes, there is such a thing) deems necessary for a Neapolitan. But Firebrand’s owners, Guy Holmes and Bibars Ozdamir, aren’t constrained by tradition. Freed from the shackles of Italian heritage (Guy is British, Bibars is Syrian) they decided a marriage of the Neapolitan style with its thinner, crispier cousin, the Roman, would suit the British palate best, and hence cook it in the oven for 90 seconds rather than the Neapolitan’s 60. After all, “just because a dish is authentic and enjoyed in its country of origin, doesn’t mean it will necessarily go down well in another country,” says Bibars. “Chinese food in America is nothing like Chinese in China.”
These minutiae matter. Over such differences—cooking time, maturing time, growth and ingredients—Italians could lose friends and family. Very few pizza chefs, certainly none in Marylebone, would contest that Naples is where pizza originated, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think it can be improved. “It is my house, my friends and I serve the pizza I like,” says Jessica Colli, Il Blandford’s proprietor. She serves Roman pizza, despite hailing from Sicily where pizza is baked in more of a focaccia style, known as sfincione.
Sandy’s on Seymour Place is Corsican, another island near Italy, but under French control and with a cuisine that is more French than Italian, while pizzas at Paddington Street newcomer Fucina lean towards the style found in chef Stefano Stecca’s hometown of Rimini.
Stefano is unconvinced by the quick time (60-90 seconds) and high temperature (450C) used in Naples: “It is soft and floppy. If such a pizza was served up north, they’d say it was underdone,” Stefano complains. For this chef, the Neopolitan’s flaws are twofold: the base is not cooked enough, and “there aren’t many toppings”. Most pizzerias in Naples confine themselves to one or two flavours: margherita, or, if you’re lucky, marinara. You’d be hard pushed to find anything more than tomato, cheese, basil, anchovies or olive oil.
“They like to taste the dough,” Stefano shrugs, looking almost comically baffled—not because he thinks the base immaterial, but because to go light on toppings when you’ve such ingredients as he does at Fucina (think organic roast pork belly, grilled white peach, and black and white truffles) seems almost criminal. “We have the best cheeses, hams, truffles—all organic. We want people to be able to taste those ingredients. I like my pizza full of toppings.” They aren’t meaty, necessarily—that’s for the real northerners, the Milanese, whose harsher climes call for heartier fare—but they aren’t ascetic either. “The north has heavier toppings, in the south it tends to be lighter; less cheese, just a bit of tomato. Rimini’s pizza is perfect, because we are in the middle of both.” When one arrives as if on cue, I am struck by its ample swaddling of cheese and tomato, and a large slug of olive oil.
While Stefano’s pizzas are unquestionably good, few other chefs seem comfortable with such liberal helpings. “Over-cheesing. That’s a no-no. It’s too heavy,” insists Sabrina Gidda, head chef of Bernardi’s on Seymour Street, “and there’s a risk of a soggy bottom”—the coup de grace for any pizza or, indeed, any person. On Caldesi’s pizza course, tutor Stefano quietly but firmly suggests we use no more than a mere scraping of tomato sauce and one small ball—“maybe even half”—of buffalo mozzarella.
Here again, we meet a sticking point: what type of cheese, and in what quantity? Sandy, owner of Sandy’s, uses gruyere, “because that’s what the Corsicans use. It is tasty, tangy, and less watery than mozzarella, so it keeps the crispiness of the base.” It is different, but deliciously so, I think. For the Caldesis, Giorgio at Il Blandford’s and Christian at Firebrand, it’s fresh, Italian mozzarella or nothing. “There are certain ingredients that have to be respected,” says Giancarlo seriously: “The dough, the tomatoes and the mozzarella cheese.”
Head to Naples, Sabrina explains, and there would be “riots in the street” at the suggestion that gruyere grace the top of a pizza, though for her own part, she would like to see “a little bit more creativity” when it comes to pizza toppings.
Getting the dough right was, for her, the main priority. “Before we opened, we spent 17 hours a day for three days perfecting that recipe,” she shudders, but now that’s on point she feels at liberty to experiment within the loose confines of what the Bernardi brothers (Venetian restauranteurs who grew up in Australia and who are, accordingly, open-minded) should be. “Bernardi’s is not cookie-cutter Italian. It is fresh, vibrant, youthful—we are not cooking the way someone’s grandmother used to cook.” Confit leek, taleggio and celery leaf or prawn, tomato, chilli and wild rocket are just two current varieties of Sabrina’s long, delicate ‘pizzetes’, similar to those found in the Veneto region of Italy.
For the Bernardi brothers, being artistic (one is an art director, another a graphic designer), the aesthetic of the pizzetes is important. “Pizzas are like little picture frames. It is a great way to showcase fine, seasonal ingredients.” Got a great swiss chard? Put it on pizza, she continues. Ditto long stem broccoli. “It’s not about slow cooked short rib or barbecue chicken or other atrocities; there are limits,” she says, casting a mischievous eye at an Italian chef in her kitchen staff. “Ask Marco what he thinks of pineapple or chicken on pizza—he refuses to acknowledge such a concept even exists.”
[p]Sabrina is not Italian. Born in Kenya to Indian parents, she grew up in Britain, worked in an Antipodean cafe throughout university, and was twice a finalist for the Roux Scholarship. She has certain rules when it comes to pizza: “No more than three toppings, dough made every day”—and of course, no over-cheesing, but she is evidently not wedded to the idea that pizza be the sole domain of the Italians. “I take great pride, as a non-Italian, in running an Italian kitchen that is basically a Benetton advert. I believe it’s the love of good food and dedication to craft that makes a good chef, not where they come from.” All pizza chefs have their own lines in the sand. For most of them, it’s pineapple. Many just splutter wordlessly at the prospect; Sandy is blunter: “If someone asks me for pineapple I tell them Pizza Hut is round the corner.” For Giorgio and Jessica at Il Blandford’s, the line is initially difficult to discern. Pizza with avocado, Nutella—even chips with ketchup. “I did laugh when it was requested,” Jessica confesses, “but if you like it, if it makes you happy”—she shrugs. “You go out to eat to feel better, not to be given rules.” For Jessica, pizza is simply the Italian answer to the Brits’ beloved sandwich. “It is nice dough with other ingredients. When people ask for a tuna and avocado sandwich, I say, ‘We don’t have sandwiches, but I can put it on a pizza’.” Even pineapple? I ask, bracing myself for the onslaught. “If it’s in my fridge, you can have it,” she says, raising her eyebrows.[/p]
Giorgio looks a bit uncomfortable, but agrees with Jessica when she says the point of Il Blandford’s has never been to serve hardline Italian cuisine. “When we started this place, it was where you came for brown sauce and bacon. We’re a restaurant for the community. We’ve never been a proper Italian—we are in London; it is a cosmopolitan place.” And that, I suppose is the point with all of this. For all their minor differences, the chefs to whom I’ve spoken are all in London and they all, in their own way, reflect the city’s wonderful tolerance and diversity.
Any absolute no-nos? I ask Giorgio, not quite able to believe that we might end on a note of such relaxed positivity. He thinks for a moment, then says hesitatingly, politely: “I don’t think French flour and French cheese are right for pizza.”
Five pizzerias, numerous styles and countless tiny variations later, and it would seem there is still only one definitive ground rule for good pizza that everyone can agree on—one that I, still struggling at Caldesi to turn my ball of dough into something resembling a base, might always have a problem with: it’s got to be quick.