One of the real successes of American food marketing has been convincing the general public that pizza, the Italian habit of baking things on thin bread, is somehow difficult. At the grocery store there is no end to the shortcuts on offer, everything from pre-made sauces, pre-baked crusts and pre-shredded cheese to the actual pizzas themselves, flash frozen for your ultimate convenience.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the auteurs with continental pretensions who speak of a mystical thing called pizza, demanding a wood-burning stove, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and the kind of spiritual oneness with the dough only achieved by a madman pizza savant. As great as it can be, I can never seem to enjoy myself at these places for their long waits, inflated prices, and unbearable attitudes.
In the middle of this dilemma I find myself in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome, pondering pizza in a public park. Looking around there is a unifying theme, sprezzatura, an air of effortless cool that the old gentlemen in their wrinkled linen suits are nailing. Roman cooking, pizza especially, similarly reflects a quiet, self-assured finesse. Pizzerias are on every corner, and the local style is a thin crust spread into a rectangular baking tray and topped with whatever is in abundance. The oven isn’t fussed over, many are gas or electric. You don’t have to call ahead, or ride to the hip part of town; it’s just a short walk and a few Euro coins for a simple, delicious lunch.
As far as gastronomy goes, sprezzatura has not arrived in America. Our little culinary victories are celebrated with the kind of deafening applause that always seems to end in the silence of the frozen food section, a vast, icy repository of watered-down world cuisine. Romans, conversely, don’t have even a fraction of our diversity, but they’ve mastered their own cooking in a way that makes you forget about everything else. They love the farms and vineyards of their region, even if they aren’t as famous as those of Tuscany or Emilia-Romagna. Local ingredients are the centerpieces of their recipes and they rarely have to fly anything in. The Roman attitude reflects a fundamental truth about gastronomy—sophistication is more about production than it is consumption. The modern globetrotting means nothing without a simple appreciation of one’s surroundings.
The best thing I brought back from Rome was this casual pizza lifestyle. A few minutes spent mixing together batches of dough and storing them in the freezer results in the possibility of pizza any time that’s almost as easy as the pre-made kind, but infinitely more satisfying and adaptable to any and all tastes.
For the dough:
250 grams of bread flour
1/2 heaping teaspoon of fine sea salt.
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of yeast
3/4 cup warm water
Mix the dry ingredients first and then add water. Combine thoroughly and cover with plastic wrap for a few hours, at least until it has doubled in size–but the longer it rises, the better it will taste. At this point the dough can be refrigerated for a couple of days or frozen for a couple of months. If you’re using it now, knead it once and allow it to rise again for about an hour, dust it with flour to remove any stickiness, and gently massage it over an olive oil-greased baking sheet, using your fingertips to spread it evenly.
From there, the choice becomes red or white. For a pizza with tomato sauce, simply blend up a can of whole Italian tomatoes, as chunky or as smooth as you like, adding whatever combination of flavors you prefer—from a simple, uncooked sauce of only tomatoes, salt, and a touch of olive oil, to a rich stewed variety flecked with garlic and crushed red pepper—and then spread a thin layer over your unbaked crust. For the white variety, skip the tomatoes and brush a layer of olive oil over the crust, topped with a generous spread of crushed garlic.
At this point the possibilities are endless. Favorites include the German-inspireed thunfisch pizza, which tops a red base with mozzarella, thinly sliced onions, tuna canned in olive oil, and oregano; a mushroom pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella, garnished at the end with shavings of pecorino and orange zest; and a white pizza topped with a layer of thinly sliced summer squash, sometimes with small dollops of fresh ricotta. When you’ve decided on toppings, bake the pizza at 500 degrees until the crust is browned and crisp and the toppings have cooked, usually about 10 minutes.