Ravenous food lovers may chomp down on several fresh-from-the-oven tomato sauce-laden pizzas in a matter of minutes, but the Italian staple wasn’t invented in a vacuum.
Its history can be traced back to various civilisations with differing versions of seasoned flatbreads. However, it was the introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries that gave birth to the true modern Italian pizza, specifically in Naples in the 1700s.
It was deemed as food for the peasants – inexpensive and could be consumed quickly – and judgemental Italian authors often described this eating habit ‘disgusting’. Pizzas were eaten for any meal and sold by street vendors or lower class restaurants. Leftover bread dough was baked with basic ingredients tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies and garlic; similar ingredients we now enjoy very much on our pizzas.
It was not until the early 1980s that pizzas began its gourmet conception, with upscale toppings such as duck, Gorgonzola and wagyu beef.
Queen of pizzas
It has been documented in culinary history books that the oldest kind of pizza is the Marinara and Margherita; both all-time favourites loved by many. The most basic of all pizzas, the marinara has a topping of just tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The Margherita is layered with generous amounts of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil.
Legend has it that when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889, the royal pair asked for an assortment of pizzas from the city’s first pizzeria (simply because they became bored with their everyday French haute cuisine). The queen favoured the variety with soft white cheese, red tomatoes and green basil; coincidental reference to the colours of the Italian flag. The story went on and that topping combination was called pizza Margherita from then on.
“The Margherita is the first pizza topping every chef working in an Italian restaurant learn to make,” exclaims Chef David Wong, head chef of the newly opened Atlas Pizzeria in Shoppes at Four Seasons Place Kuala Lumpur.
A perfectionist by nature, Chef Wong enjoys working with fresh produce and making things from scratch. “There are no short cuts,” he says. ”Real pizza doesn’t use a lot of cheese because it’ll get a tad bit too oily for common liking. A balanced ratio of tomato, cheese, basil and drizzle of olive oil would make a good piece of pizza.”
That being said, the prolific chef is quick to add that there is more to just fresh ingredients when it comes to making the perfect pizza. The peasants of the past may only be thinking about feeding their empty stomachs, but the basics of pizza-making have since been refined and developed into a more technical culinary expertise.
“The science is getting the dough right and your tomato base perfect. What sets you apart is the quality of sauces that go on top of your well-risen dough. More importantly, everything has to be fresh. Nothing canned and precooked for me,” he iterates.
The humble dough
A mixture of flour, oil, water and yeast makes the basic pizza dough. Chef Wong suggests the use of ground sea salt to give a touch of saltiness but not too overpowering. At his pizzeria, he ensures that the dough is made in small batches which makes it much more manageable.
“You don’t want to overwork the yeast,” chef explains.
Very quickly, the chef portions the dough into small balls in equal sizes; then set to rest overnight in a chilled room until they expand to double the size. He proceeds to gently press into the well-rested dough with his index finger; checking its stretchiness.
He warrants: “Look at the bounce on the dough. There’s a lot of air inside and you want that because it allows your pizza to have great texture and qualities of well-made bread. The most common mistake is to flatten the balls with a dough-rolling machine (or rolling pin). When the dough rose so beautifully, why would you flatten and eliminate all the air inside the dough?”
Onto shaping the pizza crust, the circular movement of the palms (as you press and form the dough) makes the pizza round. Chef Wong maintains a calm look as he nimbly demonstrates.
“First, use the warmth on your palm to first ‘warm up’ the dough to room temperature. Gently press the centre and feel the air pockets move inside the ball. Let gravity shape the dough as you turn and press the dough until you get the form right without losing the air bubbles. As it gets to room temperature, the dough gets stretchier,” he elaborates. He makes one last ‘frisbee’ flip as the pizza dough lands on the countertop – just the way he likes it.
Wong stresses that pizzas have to be cooked in high temperate from between 90 seconds to 3 minutes. Any longer than that, the dough gets chewy. He explains: “It needs to be cooked fast so it rises fast. Some Italian thin crusts take slightly over a minute to be cooked. And there’s no way you can check on the pizza when it’s cooking at over 400 degree Celsius. So lots of practice and listen to your instinct.”
The classic Italian-style hand-pressed pizza has a rustic charm because of the way the dough is shaped, as well as how it rises. “With pizzas, it is a game of chance,” says the London-trained chef. The dough rises differently with many affecting factors. But most times, chefs basically get them 99% right. The remaining 1% forms the charming imperfections, which make each pizza individual.
Topping it off
“Always keep it simple. Firstly, don’t complicate the dough by doing sourdough or gluten-free options. Second, respect the ingredients when making pizza. The freshness and amazing natural flavours do speak for itself,” Chef Wong opines.
With a good base, the toppings are truly one’s own prerogative. However, the humble chef stresses again on the importance of making your own tomato sauce. At Atlas Pizzeria for instance, he uses 5 tomato varieties (all cultivated and sourced locally) for their fresh tomato sauce.
He also believes in putting on the best ingredients on his pizzas. He avoids the use of mass-produced processed meat such as pepperoni, bacon and ham. Instead, the chef makes his own cured and air-dried meat as an alternative.
And in Malaysia, the inevitable spin-off of a pizza happens with the need to ‘Malaysia-nise’ everything on the dining table. From nasi lemak burger to durian-filled macarons, foodies are never out of new things to try in the local culinary scene.
Wong agrees with the need to modify certain recipes to suit the Malaysian palate but it is important to keep the basics fundamentally right. In other words, almost everything can be on the modern pizza – catered to your own personal liking.
Besides the classic pizza Margherita, he recommends the perfect combination of lamb and pecorino, as well as beef with Gorgonzola. And you can never go wrong with a glass of Pinot Noir to wash it all down.
“Here’s what you got to look out for in a pizza. The air pockets in the dough, a thin middle, fresh tomato sauce and a creative mix of ingredient combinations. Lastly, there’s nothing apologetic about eating pizzas,” he muses. “When you eat pizza, you want to make a mess and I love that — the messier the better!”