Italy is as famous for pizza as it is for design. Over the summer, I went to Gaeta, where I once lived, to see old friends-and to eat pizza. Pizza-making in Gaeta is an art. Situated on the Mediterranean coast 90 kilometres north of Naples, Gaeta also is the source of the first known instance of the written word ‘pizza.'
On the wall of Pizzeria Trattoria da Emilio, where I ate most nights, I noticed something for the first time: a framed copy of part of the city charter of Gaeta.
Emilio, the trattoria's namesake, passed away sometime ago. However, this pizzeria is still very much a family endeavour: his son, Marino, works the front of the restaurant; two of his daughters work in the kitchen, and his widow well into her 70s, is still in fine form and works at the restaurant as well. I asked Marino, who then asked his mother, for a little help with the Latin on the document.
Over a pizza marinara with Marino's mother, I discovered that item XCVI of Gaeta's charter testifies that in 997 AD in Gaeta, the word ‘pizza' was used in a written document for the very first time in the world. It was not, of course, the pizza we know of today. Tomatoes had not yet arrived in Italy, but leavening had been discovered around 1500 AD, so the pizza of 500 years ago is thought to have been more like what we now call focaccia, a leavened round crust of thin savoury crispy cooked dough, sometimes even laden with raisins and honey.
The city charter also notes that in the crop-sharing relationships of the epoch, those working the land would be entitled to a portion of their harvested grain, along with the olives, wine and oil they produced. However, a portion of the workers' grain was to be made into pizza, which the landowner would receive as a form of rent for use of the land.
Marinara sauce was invented when tomatoes arrived in Italy from the Americas after the age of exploration (they were initially thought to be poisonous, like their foliage), and in the nineteenth century, Neapolitans began to make pizza as we know it today. The cheese was added in the 1880s.
The best part about sitting in Emilio's was watching the process. First the pizzaiolo takes the fluffy, pillow-like, creamy white little leavened balls of warm dough, dusts them with flour and stretches them by hand into a 33-centimetre-diameter base, smooths out a dollop of passato di pomodoro di San Marzano, sprinkles on some mozzarella fior di latte, and finishes with a filo di olio before gently scooping it all up with a palette made of hard cherry wood and feeding it into the cavernous flaming mouth of the 485°C wood-burning, brick pizza oven. From this moment on, the pizza belongs to il fornaio, the baker, who takes over with a smaller round metal palette, dancing the pizza around for even cooking during a process that lasts all of 90 seconds. He then drops it onto a pizza plate to add the basil and a little more olive oil before sending it off, piping hot, to the eager customer. They prepare 120 to 150 pizzas each night: it is a miracle that they never burn even one.
It is not as simple as it seems. Il fornaio arrives at least three hours before opening to build the fire in the pizza oven, creating a base heat of at least 380°C, which allows the pizza to cook in about 2.5 minutes. This fire is fed and stoked continuously throughout the evening to keep the temperature just right. Traditionally, the firewood used was olive or oak-good, hard, resin-free woods. Because these trees are now protected, only the trimmings can be used, not wood from the trunk. Today, the helm oak, or leccio, is used.
Although a home oven cannot do the work of the wood-burning brick oven, the recipe I offer here will give you a taste of pizza from Gaeta.
La Massa Emilio for Pizza Margherita
Take water, quanto basta (usually you'll be using a little over ½ the amount of water to the weight of the flour), at 25-30°C, live sourdough culture (lievito madre), fresh yeast (lievito di birra), salt and flour (farina ‘00', the finest grain) to create a true, soft, light pizza napoletana rather than a chewy Roman one (many use a mix of ‘0' and ‘00' flours, the former containing higher levels of gluten, the protein part of the wheat grain giving it more structure).
1. First, dissolve the fresh yeast in a bit of the warm water until a light foam appears on the surface, around 15 minutes.
2. For every kilo of flour add 2g of fresh yeast, lievito di birra, and 200g lievito madre, the live sourdough culture. This culture is a natural leavening product made from the fermentation of flour and water left naturally to produce their own yeasts. Some pizzerias claim to have been feeding their ‘live yeast bug' for more than 80 years!
3. Knead the massa by hand or turn gently in a dough machine, adding 5g of salt to every kilo of flour towards the end. Cover the dough with a tablecloth or similar, then leave to rise for 5 to 8 hours, depending on the heat and humidity of the day. The hotter it is, the faster it will rise!
4. Divide the dough into balls between 120g-150g, and leave to rise again for another 2-3 hours.
If you don't have a pizza oven, set your oven to the highest temperature, which will probably be around 250°C. Preheat an oven tray, meanwhile pulling out the pasta dough into a flat, round circle no thicker than 3mm. Take some prepared tomato sauce (passata di pomodoro San Marzano), dollop on with a spoon and spread out, leaving the last 3cm of the outer edge free. Place on top slices of mozzarella fior di latte and a drizzle of olive oil. Remove the heated tray from the oven, place your pizza on it and return to oven for up to 5 minutes. Serve with another drizzle of olive oil and a fresh handful of basil.