Friday, September 12, 2008

Pizza Napoletana

This pizza falls under the category of pizza rossa which literally means "red pizza" in Italian and refers to pizzas that use tomato sauce, but no cheese (there is also pizza bianca - white pizza - which has cheese but no tomatoes). Though I have seen some recipes online that call for mozzarella, the type I usually saw on pizzeria menus in Italy did not have any cheese, so I stuck with that version.

Though Naples is most famous for being the birthplace of the classic Pizza Margherita and to a lesser extent the Pizza Marinara, I think this particular pizza, whose origins are not as clear, gets to be called 'Neapolitan' because its ingredients are very typical of Southern Italian cuisine.

Many non-Italians do not realize just how regionally diverse Italy is, but the fact is that up until its unification in 1861, there wasn't really an 'Italy'. There were city-states like Florence and Venice, kingdoms like the kingdom of Naples, and all sorts of other territories and republics, but there was no Italy, either politically, culturally, or even conceptually.

The gaping differences between regions, and particularly between the North and the South are still largely apparent to anyone who spends even a few days in the country. Ask any Milanese person about the South and they'll immediately go into a long tirade about how nothing ever works there, how nobody seems to care about things like rules and laws, and how everyone is consistently late for everything. Similarly, ask a Neapolitan about the North and you'll get an earful of how cold the Northerners are, how they just can't sit back and enjoy life and how they are always worrying and rushing off to do silly things like work.

The differences extend beyond cultural attitudes into almost every aspect of life. For example, while Italian is the official language of the country, almost every region has its own dialect (sometimes several), and these dialects differ from each other far more than say, a Scottish accent does from a Brooklyn one. A large number of these dialects are actually incomprehensible to Italians who did not grow up speaking or hearing them. When I saw the movie Gomorra, which was about the Neapolitan mafia and was almost entirely in Napolitano, the Neapolitan dialect, it had Italian subtitles from start to finish, and it's a good thing too because without them I would have been completely lost!

The diversity and richness of local traditions in Italy is also apparent, and very important, in its cuisine. Every region and often every city or town has its own proud menu of traditional dishes - the Ligurian trofie al pesto, ossobuco and risotto alla Milanese in Milan, bucatini all'amatriciana in Rome, bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence, burrata and orecchiette in Puglia, and spaghetti al bolognese from Bologna (unsurprisingly) are only a few of the thousands and thousands of regionally celebrated dishes.

The pizza napoletana presented here may not actually be from Naples, but its ingredients are certainly more typical of Southern Italian cuisine. When I think of the food of Southern Italy, I mainly think of three things: tomatoes, seafood, and spiciness. In contrast, Northern Italian food often tends to be richer and creamier, using butter where Southern dishes use olive oil, or risotto where Southerners use pasta, and certainly using a lot less peperoncino!

This particular pizza, while it does not require the use of peperoncino (though you can add it if you so desire), is very very salty. Make sure that when you sit down to eat it, you have handy a large glass of water, or better yet, wine!

To make it, you will need:
About 150 g flour (I used whole wheat as always)
A pinch of salt
About 100 g of San Marzano tomatoes, peeled and crushed to just pulp (I actually just use canned tomatoes for pizzas, since my unstrained tomato sauces tend to come out fairly juicy and would probably get the dough sopping wet)
A handful of black olives, with the pits removed
A smaller handful of capers
5-6 anchovies
A few leaves of basil
A spoonful of olive oil

First of all, you need to make the dough. If you are using active dry yeast as opposed to instant yeast, activate it by putting it in a small bowl with some tepid water. Sift the flour into a large bowl, add in the yeast first, then the salt and the water, a bit at a time, and stir until everything is well combined, and you have a moist but not overly gooey ball of dough.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes or until it is springy and resistant. When the dough gets to this point, place it in a floured bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a cloth and leave in a warm, non-drafty place for an hour to an hour and a half.

At least 45 minutes before you plan to bake the pizza, preheat your oven to 500º F / 260º C. If you are lucky enough to have a pizza stone, put it in the oven before you start to preheat it.

If you are making your own tomato sauce, peel the tomatoes and strain them to get nice solid pulp. Otherwise, just open the can (but if you go with canned tomatoes you should still buy canned San Marzano tomatoes because they are the best).

Prepare the toppings by washing the olives and capers and tearing the basil into little bits. When you have all your toppings ready and after the dough has doubled in size, take the dough out of the bowl and gently shape it into a flat circle, making it as thin as you can. If you haven't yet mastered the art of spinning pizza dough into the air and elegantly catching it on your fists, just try bouncing it back and forth from fist to fist (no nails!) and then stretching it out further on a flat surface, pinching the ends a bit.

Transfer the pizza to an oiled baking sheet (if you're not using a baking stone) or a pizza peel (if you are using a baking stone).

Spoon the tomato sauce in an even, not-too-thick layer over all the pizza except the outermost rim. Distribute the olives and capers evenly over the pizza, and then place the anchovies on in strips radiating out from the center. Sprinkle everything with the basil and oregano and add just a drizzling of olive oil.

Put the pizza into the oven as quickly and as carefully as you can. Let bake for 7-8 minutes, remove, and serve piping hot!

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