Pizza is the New Black

And pizza makers are the star chefs of the moment

Pizza is the New Black. The Absolute food. The Trend. Until a few years ago, nobody would have bet on it. We Italians have always eaten meatballs, spaghetti and... pizza. Three foods considered as bland as they are derogatory. Who would have thought that one day we would have had Mark Bittman, on the New York Times, discussing dough hydration, flours, gluten structure... But above all: who would have bet that pizza makers, quirky characters that had always been looked down on by gastronomic experts, (for me, the symbol of this will always be Sofia Loren in the masterpiece “Side Street Story” and the fried pizzas that she sold crying “accattatavelle”), would have become the new star chefs?

An epochal shift that has certainly been facilitated by the spread of the sourdough culture, the use of mother dough, as well as by people's fascination with the art of leavening. Pizza dough has become more than just dough. Dough bears culinary and chemical philosophy, as “Bien Cuit”, an impressive book written by Zachary Golper and Peter Kaminsky, shows. With luxurious binding, illustrated by Thomas Schauer, the book is an ode to the art of leavening, both for pizza and bread. The two authors, owners of an extremely famous bakery in Brooklyn, make the bread that is used by the most important New York restaurants.

Their trademark? The copper crust that is the real challenge for every baker. A refined and complex technique is behind it, a technique that the book reveals step by step. But what strikes me most about this work is the almost scientific approach to a subject on which my grandmother Olga wouldn't have spent more than a few words: take good flour, water and yeast. Knead with your hands, and depending on the weather, on the humidity, use more or less flour. If you want, add a touch of milk. Salt. Allow it to rise in a bowl wrapped in a woollen cloth, maybe near a heat source. For how long? It depends. Check it after a couple of hours. Bake in the oven that has been preheated. Add mozzarella and basil at the end. 

That's it. Because pizza dough was something for a Sunday night when you didn't have anything to eat at home. Something for a children's party. For entertainment. Nothing complicated. You would end up eating pizza just for fun. To have something that was simple, cheap and always the same. For that reason, it is extremely comforting.

Today, I must confess, not much has remained of those comforting qualities. Because pizza is the new aspirational food. Thus, it is gourmet food. Whether you are preparing it at home, or you are eating out. The ever increasing number of pizza restaurants, both in Italy and abroad, offer a dish that is light years away from the original street food. There is no street food on the menu of Franco Pepe, the patron of pizza chefs, or in his CurteFranca pizza: great historical and local research is behind it. Like the pizzas of Lievità, a trendy restaurant that has opened in three different parts of Milan under the lead of Master Pizza Chef Giorgio Caruso, who has very precise rules. For example, the use of wholemeal and semi-wholemeal flour of type 1, both from 100% Italian selected stone-ground soft wheat. The dough is given a long fermentation time (24/48 hours, using proprietary mother dough). 

The ingredients are all of the best quality, mostly DOP, IGP food and adhering to the Slow Food movement. And to understand its complexity, know that on the menu you can find some pizzas classified as “extreme gourmet”. Or look at the example of Matteo and Salvatore Aloe, brothers and owners of the Berberè restaurant, who, after having introduced the “hipster pizza” to Italians, are delighting Londoners with their pizzas. But the most surprising change to the look of pizza has happened right in Naples, thanks to the work of a crowd-pulling little devil, Ciro Oliva. He has been able to achieve complete success in his restaurant, “Da Concettina ai Tre Santi”: he has wiped out any Baroque iconography of the typical Neapolitan pizzeria and created a modern/traditional restaurant in the Sanità area in Naples, fully following the “Naples trend”, more similar to the films of Manetti Bros. than those of Mario Merola. Making everyone say (throughout Italy) that his pizzas are amazing. A path that had already been laid by Ciro Sorbillo, the first among star pizza chefs to understand the importance of social networks.

And what about us, those who knead the dough alone in their home? As usual, there aren't many rules: good flour, quality yeast, soft water. In addition, a teaspoon of sugar, a good enough oven, and in case you don't have a mixer, good hands and a lot of patience when you need to work a big batch of dough. If you also want to enjoy the newest trends, you can try the (very special) pizza described by British vegan chef Anna Jones in her latest book “A modern way to eat”: the dough is made with cauliflower, oats and ground almonds - a crispy mix that serves as the base for mozzarella, tomato and fennel that lie on top. Only for the adventurous, of course.

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