I am talking about pizza with an old friend. As usual the discussion becomes heated. He tells me I know nothing about pizza. I tell him he wouldn’t know a decent pizza if it whacked him in the face. On the contrary, he claims, he has eaten pizza in the two best places in Naples. Dropping my guard, I ask what they were like. He rises to the occasion with suitable perversity. They were all right, he says, “if you like pizza”.
Hitherto, I am afraid I have been in the same camp. Pizza, I would say, is all well and good but hardly a meal. And, I would add, I am no great fan of the thin and crisp bases of the authentic Neapolitan pizza: I prefer the sort of leavened, bready bases that my mother used to make and you can still get in the south of France.
I have mended my ways somewhat with the help of Dan Chadwick, a sculptor in Gloucestershire, who offered me a Chadwick Oven for a trial. Dan has produced an elegant object that sits on a gas burner and becomes a fully working pizza oven within 10 minutes.
I am sure that many of you have arrived at your own solutions: you may, like the redoubtable publisher Tom Jaine, have built a proper wood oven in your garden. But it is clear that a hot oven with a very hot stone base is essential to the serious pizza maker. And yes, the dough really needs to be stretched until it is paper thin.
The ingredients must be quite dry or your pizza will be soggy. This means reducing the passata until it is thick and gloopy, salting and draining the cheese thoroughly and using all these items extremely sparingly. Semolina flour is important in giving the base extra texture and crispness. Toppings, needless to say, should be spare but forceful, “if you like pizza”.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Pizza with anchovies
The dough can, of course, be made by hand but I use the dough hook and the electric mixer on slow speed for a much less effortful result.
800g Italian 00 flour (or similar strong bread flour)
1 tsp caster sugar
12g fresh yeast or 8g dried yeast
375ml tepid water
Coarse sea salt
Semolina flour for dusting
● Mix the flour and sugar in a mixing bowl and dissolve the yeast in the water in a second bowl. Pour this mixture into the flour and knead to make a dough. Add a sprinkling more flour if the dough looks a little wet. Continue to knead for 10 minutes until you have a really smooth, elastic dough. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove for at least two hours at room temperature.
● The dough should now have doubled in size. Punch it down and divide it into four pieces. Knead these pieces into smooth balls and then brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with half a teaspoon of sea salt each. Cover them again on a tray and prove for another hour.
● Sprinkle a marble or other worktop with a tablespoon of the semolina flour. Place a ball of the dough on the board and using your fingertips, push the dough out into a circle, kneading salt and oil into the mix and teasing it out into a circle some 30cm in diameter.
200ml tomato passata
200g buffalo mozzarella
1 red chilli
20 salted anchovies
A good handful of black olives
● Pour the passata into a non-stick saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens and begins to bubble and spit. Leave to cool.
● Cut the mozzarella into small discs of 2cm diameter and place on a sheet of absorbent kitchen paper. Sprinkle with fine table salt. Cut off the top of the chilli, dig out the seeds and cut into very thin rounds.
● Dusting it with more semolina flour, place a peel, or metal palette, under the circle of dough. Spread two tablespoons of the reduced passata sparingly over the dough, leaving a 1cm border untouched. Pad the mozzarella with kitchen paper to remove any excess moisture and distribute it over the pizza base. Sprinkle the base with chilli, a liberal dosing of anchovies and olives, and a little sprinkling of olive oil. Slide the peel over the hot pizza stone, angling it so that the pizza slides off on to the stone. Within a minute the dough should have already started to crisp and puff up. Turn it once through 90 degrees and finish cooking: the whole process should not take much longer than three minutes.
Rowley’s drinking choice
With anchovies, fresh chilli and tomatoes in the mix, this is hardly a time for fine wine. A simple, fruity country red with not too high an alcohol level is prescribed.