Name a food equally loved by kids and adults, ubiquitous at both office parties and children’s birthday celebrations, and hasn’t yet been banned from school cafeterias. The answer is easy:
It is America’s go-to grub for nearly every occasion; the utility-player of our fast-food culture, and one of the healthier choices, too. But like burgers from Germany, and fries from Belgium, its origins lie overseas.
The huge influx of Italian immigrants coming through New York at the turn of the 19th century laid the groundwork for a variety of pizza-styles that spread out throughout the US. From Chicago’s delectable deep-dish pies, to the fluffy, hybridized versions and their dizzying arrays of toppings from national chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, there seem to be as many types of it as there are American citizens.
New York pizza stayed truer to the Italian original, though, with a thin to medium-thick dough with a moderately chewy crust, a few ladles of tomato sauce, and heaps of shredded mozzarella. Cooked properly and the slightly blackened crust should bend under the weight of its own melted cheese when lifted, red-tinged rivulets of olive oil sliding down the center and coursing between your fingers as you eat. Few eating experiences are better.
But is this how pizza is supposed to be? Well, sort of.
According to whatscookinginAmerica.net, pizza was invented in the early 1500s when tomatoes from the New World, specifically Peru, made the trip to Naples and were added to yeast dough to create the first basic pie. By the 1700s the Neapolitan treat was popular among visitors and locals alike, cementing the city as pizza’s birthplace.
The notoriety of the dish took a quantum leap forward in 1889 thanks to the palates of King Umberto I of Italy and his Queen, Margherita of Savoy, when they summoned the best pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, of the day, Raffele Esposito to their summer palace in Naples. For them he created a thin pizza, with a firm crust and soft center, topped with fresh tomato sauce, dollops of fresh mozzarella and a few green basil leaves. The queen loved it so much that Esposito named the pizza ”Margherita” in her honor.
So where do you go today if you want a true Neapolitan Pizza Margherita? New york, of course, and when you’re in New York, you go to Luzzo’s Coal Oven Pizza Napoletana on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (www.luzzomania.com.) There, modern day pizzaiolo Michele Iuliano, spends his days in front of two tiled, 105-year old wood-burning baker’s ovens, bringing the best of Naples to the USA.
A true Neapolitan pizza, Iuliano says, must be made in an old-fashioned wood-burning baker’s oven. And if you don’t have one, what do you do? “Go home. Go right now,” he says with a flourish of his hand and a shrug. “You can’t make it.”
Next up, the ingredients. Iuliano’s are all imported from Italy, starting with the flour. It’s something he knows well, coming from a family of Neapolitan bakers. He mixes Italian bread flour with Italian Doppio Zero flour, or double 00. Italian flour is classified as either 1, 0 or 00 - the number referring to how finely ground it is. Doppio Zero is the most refined and feels as soft baby powder or cornstarch. Combining the two creates the perfect crust: thin and crispy with a just hint of chewiness and a soft center. He uses a homemade starter and rests his dough three days before making pizza.
Next, he runs whole San Marzano tomatoes - prized for their natural sweetness - through a food mill and spreads it on the flattened dough, then dots the pie with just a few slices of fresh mozzarella di bufala, which is literally made with milk from water buffaloes.
Iuliano adds a few fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and slides it into the 1,000- to 1200-degree oven for about 60 seconds. The longest he’s ever baked a pizza is 72 seconds; the shortest, 48. He removes it, finishes it with another drizzle of olive oil and, in a nod to American custom, slices it into eight pieces.
In Naples, pizzas are served uncut. Some things just don’t translate.