Among the month of October’s claims to fame, is National Pizza Month. Here’s the deep dish on America’s favorite slice of life, a beloved industry that has swelled to $30 billion a year. When archaeologists excavated the “frozen” city of Pompeii, they discovered shops that resembled modern pizzerias.
The ancient Roman pies were naked flat breads — sans the tomatoes and mozzarella cheese — as the former were considered poisonous, and the latter had not yet made a pit stop in Napoli. By this time, the pioneer pizzas sold throughout Naples by street vendors had become a popular peasant food since they were cheap, tasty and satisfying.
Famed baker Raffaele Esposito had a solid claim as any to the creation of the modern pizza pie. In 1889, when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy toured their Italian kingdom, Esposito baked a special pizza in honor of her majesty, topping it with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil to represent the colors of the Italian flag – red, white and green. This patriotic pie, the Pizza Margherita, named for the beloved Queen, is still a much-enjoyed tradition.
Pizza’s popularity caught on like hot cakes when American soldiers stationed in the Italian territories during World War II returned home and spread the word about this delicioso dish. Pizza quickly emerged from the little Italian neighborhoods into mainstream city cuisine.
Today the average North American eats 23 pounds of pizza per year, taking second spot only to hamburgers as this country’s favorite food.
Pepperoni is requested on roughly 36 percent of all pizza orders, but you can dress it up and take it out to your druthers. Pizza Romana in Naples is topped with tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, oregano and oil. When in Rome, I had pizza capricciosa with a motherload of mushrooms, artichokes, olives and hard-boiled egg slices in the bulls-eye.
New York-style pizza is a hand-tossed thin crust, light on the sauce, sold in humungous slices that New Yorkers deftly fold in half on the vertical bias when chowing down.
The Chicago-style is a deep-dish pie that starts with cheese and ends with sauce. Aussies and western Americans prefer Hawaiian pizzas with Canadian bacon and pineapple.
I’ve recently seen a pizza dressed with roast chicken Caesar salad, while other kitschy toppings include oysters, dandelions, Cajun shrimp, venison, duck, tuna, mixed salted nuts, PB and J, and bacon and eggs.
Women favor veggies, while men choose carnivorous toppings. Some pizza fans prefer a white pizza that swaps out the red sauce for a creamy Alfredo.
Today’s crusts do the gamut from traditional white flour to whole wheat, spelt, herb or gluten-free. Any way you slice it, 3 billion pies are sold a year which translates to 350 slices of pizza each second.
Let’s get the dough on the road with this scratch crust.
2 packages active dry yeast
pinch of white sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/2 cup of the water, and set aside until it foams.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the remaining 3/4 cup of water, olive oil and yeast mixture. Mix the flour and salt and stir in one cup at a time until the dough forms a ball. Spoon onto a floured board and knead until smooth. Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover. Set aside in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough down. Knead on a floured board. You can make 1 large or 2 medium pizzas. Roll out into a thin circle. Grease a round, vented baking pan and dust with cornmeal. Place the dough on top, spread marinara sauce evenly, sprinkle a blanket of mozzarella cheese, and toppings of your choice. Bake at 450º F for about 10 minutes or until bubbly.