I've ranted about this elsewhere on this blog, but I'll say it again: I hate chain pizza restaurants. The main reason I hate them is for their disgusting stinginess when it comes to pizza toppings. When you're paying over a tenner for what is essentially a slice of bread with some cheese and tomato on top, the least the restaurant could do is be generous with ingredients that cost them a few pennies. But no, every time I am disappointed, presented with a measly slab of dough garnished with a couple of token vegetables or pieces of chicken. The leek, roasted veg and blue cheese pizza I had in a chain restaurant a while back springs to mind: three slices of frazzled, dried-up leek that resembled potpourri, a few slices of red pepper that tasted raw, and a couple of dollops of blue cheese in the middle of the pizza. The rest was a vast expanse of unadulterated tomato, a desert of sauce where no item of veg had ever gone before. As I picked at the bland item of food in question, I calculated the probable mark-up of this pizza; it must have been around 1000%. Depressing.
You'd never find such things in Italy. I remember visiting a hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Venice one summer. Now, this is Venice, bear in mind. In Venice you can be charged for pretty much anything: bodily functions, space on the pavement, the right to wield a camera, oxygen... And yet, the pizza cost about a fiver and fed two of us. It also came absolutely laden with aubergine, mozzarella, tomato sauce and herbs; I'm pretty sure I staggered under the weight of it and had to sit down on some steps outside a church to consume it. Quite handy, really, because eating that pizza really was a semi-religious experience, a hymn of worship to the god of generous toppings and a crisp base.
Essentially, if you want good pizza in England, you'll have to either seek out somewhere with a proper wood burning oven and Italian staff who understand how to top a circle of tomatoey dough, or make it yourself. I often choose the former, but it's been a long time since I last made my own pizza, so I decided last weekend to have another go at it.
It's a big reward for very little kitchen work. I find that moment where a ball of dough has magically risen to something that resembles a giant alien mushroom incredibly satisfying; even more fun is knocking all the air out of it, rolling it out, and getting a feeling of heady anticipation as you realise that molten cheese, tangy tomatoes and that unmistakeable hint of oregano are moments away. This really is incredibly easy, and I'd urge you, if you've never made pizza before, to try it. You'll never want to buy a supermarket pizza again.
So seriously do the Italians take their pizza, that in Naples, where it was supposedly invented, they have the 'Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana', the True Neapolitan Pizza Association. It's like a fancy gentleman's club, but for tomato-topped carbohydrates. Founded in 1984, it has established specific rules that a pizzeria must adhere to before it can bear this golden standard. The pizza must be baked in a wood-fired oven at 485C for no more than 60-90 seconds; the base must be kneaded by hand and not rolled with a rolling pin (you may have seen Italian chefs spinning the base around in the air with their hands to stretch it); the pizza must not be bigger than 35cm in diameter or more than 1/3 of a centimetre thick at the centre. I remember seeing pizzerias in Naples bearing the plaque above their doors announcing that they made pizzas conforming to these exacting standards - I was usually straight in the door after spying it, and I was not disappointed.
Now, I'm fairly sure my home-made pizza failed to meet every single one of these criteria. Actually, no - I did knead it by hand, and it didn't exceed 35cm in diameter. That's about it, but considering I lack a wood-fired oven, and the Italian skill for spinning a pizza base on my hand, my attempt was pretty incredible, even if I do say so myself. I could have tried to spin the base on my hand, of course - I may have uncovered my only secret talent, if only I'd tried - but I didn't fancy pizza with a topping of kitchen floor, so I refrained.
What's more, home-made pizza could not be easier. It's about as close to those disgusting cardboard-like ready made pizza bases you get in the supermarket as fillet steak is to a can of Spam. It's also not much more effort. Mix yeast, water, flour, olive oil and salt, knead for a few minutes, put somewhere warm to rise (in a bowl, obviously - don't chuck it in the bath or on top of the radiator or anything) for an hour, roll out, and you're ready to scatter with all sorts of goodness.
I went for a combination of tomato, parma ham, mozzarella, mushrooms, parmesan and basil. It's good. Very good. The ham hardens and becomes crispy in places, and lends a nice saltiness to the earthy mushrooms and the fresh basil. The cheese melts beautifully and starts to bubble and brown on top in the heat of the oven. But you don't need me to tell you in detail what a good pizza tastes like, hopefully. Let me just assure you that this is as good as most pizzas I've ever eaten in restaurants (except, of course, for those Neapolitan treasure-troves).
Home-made pizza (makes two pizzas, around 25cm in diameter):
350g strong white bread flour
2 tsp salt
2 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
Sift the flour, salt, yeast and sugar into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the olive oil and 240ml hand-hot water. Mix to a dough, then turn onto a floured surface and knead for about five minutes until springy and elastic.
Put in a bowl, cover with clingfilm or a tea towel and place in a warm place for an hour (I used the airing cupboard). It should double in size.
Pre-heat the oven as hot as it will go - I heated it to 250C - and knock all the air out of the dough once it has risen. Sprinkle a worktop with polenta/cornmeal (this gives it that lovely Italian grainy texture on the crust) and roll the dough into two balls. Flatten each one and roll out thinly with a rolling pin. Place them on a piece of baking parchment, and you're ready to top them with whatever you fancy.
When topped, simply place the baking parchment directly on the oven shelf, and cook for around ten minutes. Delicious, almost-authentic Italian goodness is now yours to devour.