- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

In pizza-crazed America, fans of true Neapolitan pizza know that the real thing is almost impossible to find. That’s why Regina Margherita Pizzeria in Pittsburgh’s trendy Lawrenceville neighborhood has a cult following.

Owner Roberto Caporuscio is a real Neapolitan pizza maker. He studied at Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a prestigious school in Naples, the city where modern pizza is said to have been born.

In Pittsburgh, the brick-walled space with handsome copper fixtures was designed by an architect from Naples. The tables were topped with marble imported from Puglia, in southeastern Italy. The wood-fired brick pizza oven is also from Italy and has an operating temperature of about 1,000 degrees.

It takes 45 seconds to a minute to bake pizza in that oven. A special flour suited to high temperatures is imported from Caputo Flour Co. in Naples.

Pizza toppings are excellent but limited and include crushed tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, fresh oregano and basil, artichokes, Italian baked ham, and mozzarella cheese. That’s it. No sausage, no pepperoni, no pineapple. The result is a simple, light pizza with robust, uncomplicated flavors and a pleasant chew.

I watched as Mr. Caporuscio, who was born in a small town between Rome and Naples, demonstrated the fine art of pizza making. “Americans spin because the wheat flour is strong and elastic, and it must be tossed to get it into shape. In Naples, we do not spin.

“Our flour makes a dough that is soft and light, and it would tear from the stress of the spinning. Besides, it is much faster to stretch by hand. I’ll make you a classic Margherita because it is our signature pizza.”

He placed an 8-ounce ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface.

“You must work fast so the dough does not stick. But never use too much flour, or it will burn on the bottom of the pizza. This yeast dough was made eight hours ago, and it has been resting and raising.”

Using three fingers of each hand, he pushed and turned the dough into a circle, always keeping a finger’s width away from the perimeter of the dough to leave a slight ridge. When the soft dough was as wide as the palm of his hand, he switched gears.

“Now we stretch the pizza,” he said. “I usually pat, stretch, top and bake four at a time.” From this routine, the dough becomes a 12-inch disk in seconds. It is topped with a large spoonful of crushed tomatoes, distributed clockwise once around the circle with the back of the spoon.

On go a handful of buffalo mozzarella cubes and a sprinkling of quartered cherry tomatoes. Basil leaves are showered over the surface, followed by a squiggle of olive oil.

“There is no time to measure everything like on the television,” Mr. Caporuscio says. “When we pour the oil, we make the motion to draw a number 6. It’s easy to remember, delivers just the right amount of oil and is fast.”

The pizza is deftly transferred to a slightly charred wooden peel and shoveled into the oven. The fire, fueled by logs of maple, oak and cherry, is off to one side of the oven, its orange flames licking the ceiling.

Switching to a smaller, metal peel, Mr. Caporuscio rotates the pizza and lifts the edge to see how the bottom is browning. As a final touch, he raises the pizza on the peel to the top of the oven so that it is flame-kissed and picks up a slightly smoky flavor.

Out it comes. The cheese is melted and fragrant, the tomatoes slightly charred and the thin crust brown. It will have a light chew and a soft inside but will not be cracker crisp. The whole process took slightly more than three minutes, slow by Mr. Caporuscio’s standards because it was a demonstration.

The oven heat has worked magic on the pizza in three ways: The floor browns the bottom. The heat of the air cooks the pizza throughout. And radiant heat reflected from the low ceiling cooks the surface. Standard home gas and electric ovens just cannot compete in the pizza-cooking category.

Italians like to say pizza was born in Naples, although some insist it developed from Egyptian flatbread. The first Italian pizzas were simply topped with lard, pecorino cheese and basil. Around 1735, the “marinara” appeared with tomatoes, oil, oregano, garlic and basil.

One hundred years later came mozzarella and tomatoes. Then, in 1889, Queen Margherita of Italy was offered a pizza containing the colors of the Italian flag. Pizza maker Raffaele Esposito delivered it topped with tomato, mozzarella and green basil leaves. The Margherita pizza was born and named in the queen’s honor.

Margherita pizza

This recipe makes enough for two 12-inch pizzas. Buy the dough or make your own. It isn’t Naples, but it comes close.

Dough (homemade or purchased) for two 12-inch pizzas

1 cup canned crushed Italian tomatoes, drained

½ cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Coarse salt

8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

12 small fresh basil leaves torn into pieces

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more, if desired

If using a pizza stone, place it in the oven and preheat oven to its highest setting, about 500 degrees.

Roll or stretch pizza dough into 2 12-inch rounds. Spread each with half the crushed tomatoes, and scatter with cherry tomato halves. Sprinkle with coarse salt to taste.

Scatter cheese over, and sprinkle with basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil.

Transfer one pizza to hot pizza stone or onto a baking tray. Bake until the crust is brown and somewhat crisp on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Because ovens vary, watch carefully during the baking time. Remove the first pizza and bake the second one in the same manner. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over each, if desired, and serve.

Makes 2 12-inch pizzas.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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