AUTHENTIC PIZZA, the myth……
When we started our business in 2008, it grew organically out of a landscape design and build company that I had run for over 20 years. We had moved from London, somewhere I knew like the back of my hand, to near the old market town of Bradford on Avon where I knew no-one. It was hard work getting to know new people but the hamlet where we ended up gave us some solace, most were ex Londoners who had already made the precarious jump some 20 years before us.
We carried round our ‘London-ness’ like a badge of honour. I’m not a Cockney by any stretch but I do have a London lilt growing up in Essex/East London suburbs and living for the most part after I had left home in South east London. Local blokes took the piss, ‘awwhite mate’ they would say in pure EastEnder, I shrugged and laughed and said ‘Arrr fairrr to middlin’ in faux west country.
My point is we take our authenticity round with us as if we weren’t anything ‘true’ unless we did. The true answer is we are a whole load of different traditions and my own is a case in point. I’m half Indian and half English, half middle class Indian half poor working class South East London. A lot of people with similar mixed backgrounds choose their identity and go with one or the other only to get confused later on.
That confusion never goes away but thankfully, apart from the racist bigots who constantly remind you of what THEY think you are, most people are very accepting of ‘differentness’ and are fine with it.
AUTHENTIC PIZZA or just pizza
In 2008, all I saw was Neapolitan style ‘authentic pizza’ being pushed in the wood fired oven market, how to cook it at home in your own ‘authentic’ wood fired pizza oven at 500C. Companies like Forno Bravo had staked their business model on it and I duly bought from them and sold their ovens to my smattering of nervous customers. They had bought into a tradition and were happy.
I had travelled a good part of Italy in my 20’s and 30’s and knew that other pizza existed, the bready chewy pizza of Sicily, the rolled out thin pizza in Rome, the deep fried pizza fritta in parts of Naples, the focaccia style of the North. Pizza was supposed to have been ‘invented’ in Naples and they hold on to their tradition by law, the ‘ Disciplinare’, rules for making and cooking pizza that is protected by VPN, Vera Pizza Napoletana. The water, the flour and rising times are defined to give that unmistakeable spotty charred puffed ‘cornicione’ or crust created when cooking at around 500C.
The reality is Italy has only been a unified country since Risorgimento in 1871 and all the multi cultural peoples who have loved and worked and travelled around the former disparate states finally found they had all been unified into one country. All their combined traditions fed into what is now ‘authentic’. I despair but completely understand these hankerings for rules.
Jump to 2021, a lot has changed, pizza has travelled the world, the VPN still exists but the first thing I’m asked when a customer makes contact is “can I make a Neapolitan pizza at 500C in one of your ovens”.
Yes of course you can if that’s what you want to do BUT don’t get hung up on it. Customers see ‘authentic’ Neapolitan wood fired ovens online, with round dome and external smoke hood usually with mosaic or tiles and think they’ve got to have the same oven to reproduce the same style of cooking.
Well yes if you’re in Naples, maybe you have to, but rules are there to be broken and the new generation of chefs running restaurants are pushing the definition……..Check out fine dining restaurants like I Tigli in Verona and you’ll see where the pizza ‘tasting’ trend is heading and Trapizzino, pushing pizza back to its street food origins in Rome, Milan and now NYC.
Most good quality wood-fired ovens like our own Four Grand-Mere wood fired or gas ovens will cook a Neapolitan pizza because its only part of the story. The dough and how its prepared is also very important; the proofing time and temperature, quality of flour and its protein content whether you add olive oil and even the pH of the water you use.
The reality of actual commercial restaurant pizza making at 500C is that the pizzaiolo has very little time to cook more than one at a time as it will cook so fast that it has to be kept moving if its not to burn. Run the oven at 400C there is a fighting chance you can cook 2-3, at 350-375C maybe 5-6. The result will be exactly the same but when you’ve got large table groups to feed, cooking 5-6 may be a necessity.
The trend is for change. Like the Neapolitans before, keep some traditions alive but try new forms. The pizza as we know it won’t be going away but chefs are now rediscovering new flavours and food combinations that were previously thought of as heresy. Keep the ingredients the best quality you can afford, organic and fresh if possible and you’ll be rewarded with your own take on a little slice of Italy!