Pizza margarita. | wikipedia


In the late 1950s I was living and working in Reading and spending most weekends in London. My favourite Italian eating place was a cafeteria in Soho called Gaggia House. Their lasagna was so memorable I never wanted to try any of their other pasta dishes. Gaggia House meant lasagna, and no other dish was ever considered. I didn’t even get round to trying their coffee (Gaggia is the name of a famous Italian espresso machine for bars) because I preferred my coffee from a nearby shop called Madame Berteaux, which had the best French pastries in town.

The pizza still hadn’t arrived in those days. An Italian director of B films called Mario Zampi had imported a pizza oven from Naples in the early 1950s for his Romanella restaurant in Soho, but it was ahead of its time and it never got going.

When I left England in 1960 no Soho restaurant was doing pizza, but I had my first one soon after arriving in Palma. Not at an Italian restaurant — I made my own from a recipe in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, first published in 1954.

Dishes known as pizzas have existed for centuries but what we now know as pizza evolved from Neapolitan flat breads made from bakers’ leftover dough. They had a topping of meltingly soft sliced onions and sometimes salted anchovies and black olives, and were sold as a midmorning snack for workers. The world’s first pizzeria opened in 1830 in Naples.

In Palma in 1960 a Mallorcan of Italian descent was selling fresh pasta at his La Favorita grocery in Calle San Miguel. A short time later an Italian opened a mini factory producing fresh long pasta and stuffed pastas such as ravioli and tortellini. He soon opened a restaurant called La Trattoria in what is now El Terreno’s Calle Robert Graves, where he sold his fresh pastas with a variety of the better known Italian sauces.

Quite soon after that a Catalán and his partner bought La Trattoria, called it The New Trattoria and started to serve pizzas, made in the Neapolitan style — with very thin pastry bases.

I never got round to accepting those skinny pizzas, so floppy you cannot cut a piece and pick it up. You must first fold it over on itself and then eat it — which is a messy mouthful I’d rather avoid. The texture of the skinny base is almost non-existent.

My huge dislike of these ultra thin pizzas is also because I discovered the French pissaladière at the age of 13 when spending the summer holidays in Toulon with the French-Italian side of my family. The pissaladière is made with thickish bread dough and has a sliced onion and anchovy topping, like the original Neapolitan flat bread that evolved into today’s pizza.

Another reason I could could never like the skinny pizzas from Naples is that the pizza I first made from a recipe in Italian Food was precisely done with a yeast dough with butter and an egg that produces a true pastry.

Elizabeth David called this dough ‘casalinga’, a word that can mean housewife or home cooking. She said it produces a more elegant kind of pizza because it is a yeast pastry instead of a bread like dough.

One of the really great things about the ‘casalinga’ pizza is that a leftover piece can be eaten cold next day, and it can also be heated up successfully in the oven. A typical Neapolitan pizza, even before you have finished it, can be so tough it is most unappetising. As for eating it next day, perhaps a very hungry fox would find it acceptable.

Deep dish pizza "Chicago" style.

The ‘casalinga’ dough calls for 200 grs flour, 70 grs butter, one large egg, half a teaspoon of fresh yeast dissolved in a little water, salt to taste and extra water to form a medium stiff dough. Cover it with a tea towel and let it rise for two hours.

Divide the dough into two pieces and roll them out into rounds. You can also press them into rough oval shapes with your hands and that will give you a more rustic look.

The toppings can either be those for traditional recipes, or you can make up your own with just about anything that takes your fancy.

I am not at all in favour of exotic toppings with chunks of pineapple, slices of mango or wedges of grapefruit. My pizza toppings are like my pasta sauces: blatantly basic, strictly simple and utterly usual.

The Margherita topping is ideal: tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and some basil. On the few occasions I’ve ordered a pizza in a restaurant, it has always been a Margherita. But I’ve never actually made one.

For that first pizza I made with the ‘casalinga’ pastry from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, I used an adaptation of her ‘sardenara’ topping, a speciality from Liguria, whose major port is Genoa, home of pesto sauce, among other glories.

I wanted a very moist topping with lots of sauce made with fresh tomatoes, but no onions and not a scrap of rubbery cheese.

As I used more black olives and salted anchovies than is usual in a ‘sardenara’, I compensated by doing the fresh tomato sauce without a grain of salt.

My version of the ‘sardenara’ topping turned out to be most moist and flavourful and was ideal for the ‘casalinga’ pastry when it was served hot, and also next day when it was cold. With later versions I discovered the ‘casalinga’ pastry could be successfully warmed up in the oven.

That the pastry and topping are totally acceptable when cold, means a ‘casalinga’ pizza is a good traveller and is perfect fare for a picnic if carefully packed.

Eventually Palma and the whole island became chock-a-block with pizzerias, but I was never one of their eager-beaver customers because all of them without exception served the typical skinny Neapolitan versions.

But every time I went to Argentinian restaurants (which was as often as possible because I’ve never had a bad dish in any of them) I ordered a slice of their pizza…which always has a thickish base.
Millions of Italians in the 18th and 19th century emigrated to Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina and took their pastas and pizzas with them.

Italian pizzas in those days had the original thick base and Argentinians learned to bake them like that. The skinny Neapolitan pizza was never accepted by Argentinians and you’ll never be served one in any of the island’s Argentinian eateries.

So to experience an Italian pizza as done in the old days, head to the nearest Argentinian restaurant. You could also make your own by using Elizabeth David’s ‘casalinga’ recipe.