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Pizza: Food For Thought

Updated: Jan 31


Food for thought. (Pun intended).


We all have a love story with pizza.

What's your love story? When did it start?


Was it the school lunch pizza? Church pizza? The Boardwalk pizza from vacation? The perfect slice with the perfect person?


What role did pizza play in your teenage years? Was it the center of the universe for you as it was for me?


Take a minute. I'll wait. You have a story; I know you do.


I have such fond memories of hanging out at any of the pizza shops in my home town, McKees Rocks, PA.


From upper Broadway and Billy D's where my sister worked part time while raising her boys to Fox's on the corner of Broadway and Seventh Street. After every high school football or basketball game you were sure to find sometimes hundreds of people at the corner pizza shop. Was it the best pizza? It depends if you like thin crust already made shells. The pizza was ok, but that didn't matter- their nachos* were legendary.


Sometimes you could find kids breakdancing at the adjacent gasoline station, just a stone's throw away from the infamous pay phone (does anyone know the number? ) where people would call to see who, if anyone, was hanging out. Then the walk to Pasqui's-- all the way down Broadway to Chartiers Avenue. Pasquarelli's Pizza undoubtedly the best pizza that ever came out of The Rocks. I know that's a bold statement; but my friends, it just might have been.


We'd walk from one shop to the other, searching for whomever was out that we could hang with. Perhaps your crush was there too (Oh! Gosh I hope so!), or maybe is was to just be with your friends. We were kids of humble means but that didn't stop us from thinking 15136 was the center of the universe.


Some of us would walk in fancy metallic Baker Shoes flats that immediately ripped blisters on every heel. Or kids would be seen dribbling basketballs all the way up or down the route. That was life in The Rocks. And damn, was it fun!


I don't know anyone who doesn't have at least one fond memories growing up in The Rocks. And I know all of those memories at one point have pizza involved with them.  Or nachos. Or a carton (yes, of the cardboard style) of Taylor's iced tea to drink with our pizza.


If we had step counters then, we surely would've gotten our 10,000 steps in. Every night.


So many of our memories are anchored around pizza and pizza places.


Some of our pizza memories are based on what we could afford, like Little Caesars in college. The WVU Mountainlair (student union) was home to the $5 Little Caesar's Pizza pizza! Or Giovanni's in Sunnyside, on the way home from a long night out at fraternity parties or bars. Add in curly fries and you got yourself a gastronomical equivalent to Pepto Bismal. (It settled the post TGIF stomach).


Then there's that perfect slice with the perfect person. Quite possibly my most favorite movie of all times, Mystic Pizza.


Mystic Pizza in Mystic Connecticut was opened in 1973 by a hard-working and dedicated family. It quickly became a huge favorite restaurant in town, and Mystic Pizza was eventually cast as the set of the renowned movie, Mystic Pizza, that was released in 1988.




Everybody has a favorite one. Every town has a shop- some on every corner. New York City claims to have the best in the world. But if you grew up in The Rocks, you know where the best was created. There is a region in Italy where it originated. And parts of the world where it's been perfected.


Pizza.


Possibly the most consumed food on planet Earth. And beyond.



If there's one dish that has transcended borders and delighted taste buds across the globe, it's undeniably pizza. Originating from humble beginnings, this beloved culinary creation has a fascinating history that spans centuries.


Ancient Beginnings:

The roots of pizza can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all had their own versions of flatbreads topped with various ingredients. These early renditions laid the foundation for what would eventually become the modern pizza.


Naples, Italy: Birthplace of Pizza:

However, it wasn't until the 18th century in Naples, Italy, that pizza as we know it truly emerged. Street vendors in Naples began selling flatbreads topped with tomatoes—a novel ingredient at the time—thanks to the marital union of garlic, oil, and herbs. This dish quickly gained popularity among the working class for its affordability and delicious flavor.


Per the Smithsonian Museum, Spanish conquistadors who traveled to Mesoamerica in the early 16th century are thought to have brought the seeds back from their expeditions, introducing them to Southern Europe. Some researchers believe the famous conquistador Hernan Cortes brought tomato seeds to Europe in 1519—but not for food. People who lived in cooler climates didn’t eat tomatoes until the late 1800s—they only used the plants ornamentally.


So, tomatoes originated in the Americas? Huh!?? And then were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century at which time Italy received them as a wedding gift.


Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (who reigned from 1537–1574) and his wife, Duchess Eleanora di Toledo, like their Medici family members, never traveled to the Americas. But they continued to acquire plants, animals, and other objects from these far-away lands.


Cosimo was partly able to collect Americana because of his marriage to Eleanora, a noblewoman of the Spanish court. Their marriage in 1539 helped to cement a Medici alliance with Spain, which would aid Cosimo in his collecting practices. The two grew maize, and apparently even started to cultivate tomatoes and medicinal plants.


(On a side note, the The Medici Family (15th to 18th Century) – would be worth a cool $129 Billion in today's money standards. The family earned its wealth through commerce and banking. The family is well-known for its support of the arts and humanities during the Renaissance in Florence, supporting the likes of Leonardo DiVinci, and making Florence the cultural center of Europe.)


Initially met with skepticism, Italians eventually embraced tomatoes as a staple in their cuisine. The transition began in southern Italy, and by the 18th century, tomatoes became a key ingredient in Italian dishes, including the iconic pizza in Naples. This culinary adoption transformed Italian cuisine and contributed to the global popularity of tomato-based dishes.


Margherita's Mark:

The turning point in pizza's history came in 1889 when Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Naples. Legend has it that a local pizzaiolo named Raffaele Esposito created a pizza in her honor, featuring tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil—representing the colors of the Italian flag. This iconic creation, known as the Margherita pizza, not only delighted the queen but also solidified the classic combination that remains a staple today.


Migration to the Americas:

Pizza made its way to the United States with Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially confined to Italian neighborhoods, it gained widespread popularity following World War II. Soldiers returning from Italy brought back a taste for pizza, contributing to its rapid spread across the nation.



Global Domination:

In the latter half of the 20th century, pizza chains like Domino's and Pizza Hut further propelled the dish into global stardom. Today, you can find countless variations of pizza worldwide, from the traditional Neapolitan to creative, regional adaptations.


Artisanal Renaissance:

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional and artisanal pizza-making. Artisan pizzerias focus on quality ingredients, wood-fired ovens, and time-honored techniques, preserving the authenticity and flavors of the original Neapolitan style.


As we savor each slice, it's essential to appreciate the rich tapestry of history woven into this beloved dish. From the ancient flatbreads to the iconic Margherita, pizza has evolved, adapted, and conquered hearts globally. A true culinary masterpiece, pizza remains a testament to the power of simplicity and the joy found in a shared meal.


Let's get cooking.


Cooking Class with Carol

Flour

It's all about the flour. Purchasing "pizza" flour or something called 00 (double zero) flour will aid in a soft, light and airy dough. All purpose (AP) flour is fine to use. You may want to sift it before using to ensure light and airy dough rather than clumps.


Do your own research about different types of flour. There are many chefs today seeking out locally sourced and even ancient grains for their pizza dough.



Yeast

Yeast is crucial. Dried yeast or cake yeast also known as fresh yeast are the same. Only difference is the shelf life.



Fresh yeast lends a slightly sweeter, richer flavor to baked goods compared to dry yeast. One downside, though, is its short shelf life: Unlike dry yeast, it’s highly perishable and must be stored in the refrigerator. Even then, it usually only lasts about a week or two — opened or unopened.


Compared to fresh yeast, active dry yeast has a remarkable shelf life. When left unopened, dry yeast will remain active for about two years. Chilling the dry yeast can extend that life even more, which is why many bakers prefer to store yeast in the refrigerator or freezer.


Combine all your dough ingredients together at once, including the yeast. The one small difference is that you’ll want to crumble the yeast into the recipe’s water for even dispersion, rather than tossing in the whole solid block. For best results, ensure the water is lukewarm or a touch warmer — somewhere in the 105°F to 120°F range is ideal.


Avoid putting yeast next to any salt required for your dough (if any). Salt, when placed next to yeast for an extended period of time has been known to deactivate (basically kill) the yeast.


Time

Time is of the utmost importance to develop a flavorful dough. Allowing the yeast in the dough to do its magic, it requires some time. That's not to say quick made pizza dough will not taste good, it's just that slow rise, preferably up to 3 hours. What happens if you let it proof overnight in a cold refrigerator? Here is Chris Bianco's take on proofing pizza dough from an article I found in Food and Wine.


"At three hours for the first proof, you will have a dough that will brown more quickly than a dough that's proofed for 14 hours, because the yeast will not have converted as many of the sugars. The longer the dough proofs, and the more sugars are converted, the more it will have that alcoholic smell of fermentation, and the more the sour flavors will develop. Here I don't necessarily want too many of them, because I don't want them to dominate the flavors of the pizza toppings. That said, there is no wrong way to go here. Make the dough a few times, following the recipe, until you feel comfortable.


Weighing vs Measuring


The most accurate way to measure flour is to use a digital scale. Weighing flour is better than measuring it by volume, because when you weigh it, you avoid all the problems associated with its density, or lack thereof.


No matter how experienced you are in the kitchen, the cup of ingredients you weigh today will not weigh the same tomorrow.



Make ahead

This recipe calls for at least 3 1/2 hours of proofing, with about a half hour of prep so you need to make the dough at least four hours before preparing your pizza, which could include time to preheat the oven and bake time. If you plan to refrigerate or freeze the dough for future use, count on thawing to room temperature before preparing pizza.


Legends in the Business

With the advent of streaming content and social media, we now come to learn about master pizzaiolos from across the country. Where you might only know about your local master pizzaiolo, we now can come to learn about those making a difference in the pizza game.


Daniele Uditi is the LA-based master pizzaiolo and chef at Pizzana, a Neo-Neapolitan pizzeria. He was once heard stating he smuggled pizza starter into the US from Italy.



Chris Bianco is an American James Beard Award-winning master pizzaiolo and restaurateur in Pheonix, Arizona. While his pies are of the Neapolitan style, Bianco doesn't smuggle starters in. He doesn't even use imported ingredients (which were from the Americans in the first place). Along with other chefs, Bianco uses fresh, locally sourced grains and produce to help sustain small farming industries. Check out the program Chef's Table: Pizza on Netflix


Chris Bianco's Pizza Dough

  • 1 envelope active dry yeast

  • 2 cups warm water (105° to 120°F)

  • 5 to 5 1/2 cups (600 grams) bread or other high-protein flour, preferably organic and freshly milled, divided, plus more for dusting

  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt

  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for greasing the bowl


Directions

Combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Give the yeast a stir to help dissolve it and let it do its thing for 5 minutes. You’re giving it a little bit of a kick-start — giving it some room to activate, to breathe. (You can add a bit of sugar or honey to help the process along)


When the yeast has dissolved, stir in 3 cups of the flour, mixing gently until smooth. You’re letting the flour marry the yeast. Slowly add 2 cups more flour, working it in gently. You should be able to smell the yeast working — that happy, yeasty smell. Add the salt. (If you add the salt earlier, it could inhibit the yeast’s growth.) If necessary, add up to 1/2 cup more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until the dough comes away from the bowl but is still sticky.


Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and get to work. Slap the dough onto the counter, pulling it toward you with one hand while pushing it away with the other, stretching it and folding it back on itself. Repeat the process until the dough is noticeably easier to handle, 10 to 15 times, then knead until it’s smooth and stretchy, soft, and still a little tacky. This should take about 10 minutes, but here, feel is everything. (One of the most invaluable tools I have in my kitchen is a plastic dough scraper. It costs next to nothing, and it allows me to make sure that no piece of dough is left behind.)


Shape the dough into a ball and put it in a lightly greased big bowl. Roll the dough around to coat it with oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest in a warm place until it doubles in size, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. When you press the fully proofed dough with your finger, the indentation should remain.


Turn the proofed dough out onto a floured work surface and cut it into 4 pieces. Roll the pieces into balls and dust them with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let them rest for another hour, or until they have doubled in size.


The dough is ready to be shaped, topped, and baked. If you don’t want to make 4 pizzas at a time, the dough balls can be wrapped well and refrigerated for up to 8 hours or frozen for up to 3 weeks; thaw in the refrigerator and let come to room temperature before proceeding.


Sauce

If you're adding tomatoes to your pizza, there are some things to consider.


Pizza sauce and spaghetti sauce are not the same.


According to my beloved CIA trained chef neighbor turned cousin Cindy Litterini-Smith, pizza sauce has a clearly different flavor. And that has to do with the herbs that are used. And not used.


Pizza sauce's distinct flavor is because of oregano.


The tomatoes used should be quality tomatoes with sweetness. Thicker sauce is needed for pizza, so cooking the sauce down on low heat will yield the correct consistency.


If using tomato "sauce", the addition of tomato "paste" will help thicken the sauce. Cooking the paste in the pan will reveal a depth of flavor you won't find by just dumping in the paste to sauce. It will also alleviate a lot of the bitterness found in tomato paste. (A dash of sugar could help too)


I like using crushed tomatoes, whether I crush them myself by hand or in mixer- or I use canned crushed tomatoes, I feel it gives the sauce the body it needs to withstand the baking process. It also isn't as watery as plain sauce.


28oz can of whole tomatoes, crushed

1 T tomato paste

1 t extra virgin olive oil

2 t dry oregano

1 t crushed garlic (optional)



In a cold sauce pan add oil and garlic. Turn heat on to medium and allow the oil to warm up, infusing the garlic flavor as it heats. Carefully watch oil so the garlic doesn't burn.


Add tomato paste, allow to cook 1-2 minutes.

Add oregano. Release the flavor by rubbing the oregano through your hands into the pan. Stir quickly to incorporate.


Add tomatoes, stirring in all of the contents from the pan. Bring to quick boil and allow to simmer 10-15 minutes, or longer until the thicker styled consistency is achieved.


Now making Margherita Pizza-- that's a whole different beast-- that's just the freshest of ingredients- tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.


Pizza I've enjoyed eating or making throughout the years.


Enjoy!


*Fox's nachos are legendary. But that's for another blog.

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