La bella Italia. Traveling can be one the best and biggest eye-opening experiences we as pizza makers can have. Growing up I thought I knew what pizza was. Going to Italy changed everything. It’s not that the pizza we make in the U.S. isn’t pizza, it’s that the pizza we make is an evolution. We have changed it over time to suit our needs and appetites. We’ve adapted it to our surroundings using the ingredients and equipment we have available and in turn, it has transformed into something unique to America. Because of pizza’s resounding success in America the products and techniques we use are completely different from the rest of the world. Pizza is one of those food items that can be found in almost every country worldwide and everyone defines it as something different. Italy is no exception. Since Italy claims pizza as their invention, there are some pretty strong opinions on what defines it — but no two regions or cities uses the same definition.
Starting from the beginning, dough techniques and flour range from north to south. Regions have their own specialties, and they stick to them. Naples has high temperature, wood-burning pizzas and Rome has more than one variety that can be thin or thick and baked on the stone or in a pan. But one feature that binds them is the light and airy nature along with a distinct crisp. In Genoa, Sicily, and in a few other areas, there’s focaccia or a thick pan pizza. Sometimes it can be soft and pillowy and in others it can be crispy on the bottom but soft in the middle.
Although not all of Italy agrees on how to define pizza, there are a few things that everyone is doing when it comes to their dough. Most pizza in Italy is made with lower protein flours. You can still find Manitoba and flours with a higher protein content, but a vast majority are using lower to mid-range protein contents, i.e. 12 to 13 percent. The type of yeast used is usually fresh or instant as opposed to dry active, and predominantly all pizzerias are using spiral or fork mixers. For those who specialize in Neapolitan pizza it is also common to find claw or diving arm mixers as they are gentler on the dough.
One major factor stands out in my mind when I think about how dough is made in Italy. History is very much alive in Italy and can be seen every day in the architecture and construction of their buildings. Yes, they have modernized to a certain extent, but there is pride in their history and a sense of preservation everywhere. If a piece of history in the form of a building can be saved, it is. For Americans as tourists this is a treat. We can walk down the street and experience a piece of the past that we can’t get when we’re at home.
The problem with this is that there are restrictions on changing anything. Older buildings normally mean smaller rooms and problems with electricity. This normally translates to limitations on refrigeration or little to none of it. In the U.S. our buildings are a lot larger, and we have ample refrigeration, which in turn translates to longer fermentation times. The lower protein content of flours plays into this. In Italy, with little refrigeration that means length of fermentation time decreases.
With high temperature cooking, like in Naples, all of this combined translates to what is Neapolitan-style pizza. Most pizza doughs are made and matured in room temperature conditions. Attention to detail is required as temperatures fluctuate, which means pizzas are made quicker from start to finish. You will see a lot of doughs made early in the morning or late at night the previous day and then used quickly. With no refrigeration and fluctuating temperatures yeast activates a lot quicker. When done correctly, pizzas are light and airy.
Italians are obsessed with digestibility. With the plethora of aperitifs and digestifs it is easy to see how the food they eat is not just supposed to taste good but be good for the body. The techniques they employ with using the right flour for the temperature they will be cooking at and coupled with room temperature fermentation, every shop’s dough technique is unique but classically Italian.
The other distinction I see when it comes to pizza in Italy is the toppings used. Each region is known for specific ingredients. Whether it is bufala mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes from around Naples to pesto from Genoa and basil from Pra to prosciutto and Parmiggiano Reggiano from Parma and all of the many aged salumis. There seems to be a specific cheese native to every town (and don’t even get me started on the types of pasta), but there’s a pride in these ingredients because they were grown and made locally. It is a part of their living history. Most toppings on pizzas reflect these local ingredients and are normally very fresh. Usually, pizzas only have max maybe four to five ingredients on top. And if there are more they are added sparingly or fresh after the bake is done. Americans tend towards “more is better,” but in Italy simplicity and freshness reign supreme. Keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it local.
All in all, pizza in Italy is simple. Yes, they have their complexities, but if I have learned anything from Italians it is to not over-complicate things. Tradition and history play a part in every pizza made.
Laura Meyer is owner of Pizzeria da Laura in Berkley, CA.