Making pizza Italian-style

Keep the toppings simple. Photo: Getty Images
Keep the toppings simple. Photo: Getty Images

Ray McVinnie takes pizza very seriously.

A Margherita pizza and a glass of red wine is one of my favourite meals.

I have also been known to eat it cold for breakfast. I don't bother with ''pizza pies'' full of processed meat and cheap cheese.

I did my Pizza 101 in Italy and this has influenced how I like my pizza (like Italians, I never put chicken on a pizza). There are two sorts of Italian pizza. I like the thin crust, not-much-topping version you find in Naples.

Auckland chef, columnist and MasterChef New Zealand judge Ray McVinnie. Photo: The New Zealand Herald
Auckland chef, columnist and MasterChef New Zealand judge Ray McVinnie. Photo: NZ Herald

One evening, I ate a pizza at the famous Brandi pizzeria in Naples where they invented the margherita (tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil), and another at da Michele where they make only two sorts, margherita and marinara (not seafood as many people think, but a margherita without cheese).

The queue was out the door and round the block, such was this place's popularity. I was easily able to eat two full-size pizzas in one evening because in both places the answer to my question - ''What makes a good pizza?'' - was that ''it must be easily digestible'' or, in other words, light enough to easily eat the whole thing. In Naples, the pizzas are baked at about 400degC in wood-fired ovens.

The other sort of pizza is the Roman pizza, pizza al taglio - thicker crust, a bit more topping and sold by the weight in slices. In the bakery in Rome I used to go to, La Renella, in Trastevere, they were sold to you by rather grim-faced women who cut the pizza slices from large rectangular pizze with scissors before weighing them. The Italians also say the secret to a good pizza is the crust, which is essentially a round of flatbread. (Flatbread with a topping is an ancient tradition in Italy.)

Bought pizza bases can be good but often have a scone-like texture rather than a more chewy bread-like texture and can contain preservatives and other additives which I am not interested in eating.

Like good bread, a pizza base should be made from flour, water, yeast and salt. For pizza dough, some smart cooks will simply go to their local pizzeria and buy raw dough for homemade pizze.

Tomato sauce

Most cooks have their own favourite tomato sauce recipe which only needs to contain plenty of extra virgin olive oil, slow-fried onion and garlic, and chopped canned Italian tomatoes.

The secret is to slowly cook it down so it is thick, like chutney, with no watery residue seeping out. I also like the Italian Mutti brand pizza sauce - you know that if it wasn't right it would never sell in Italy. But not all Italian pizze have tomato sauce on them.


Mozzarella on pizza doesn't always need to be mozzarella di buffalo. Il Casaro in Auckland makes my favourite fresh mozzarella and because the cheesemaker, Massimiliano, is from Puglia he uses cow's milk, as is traditional there. Where you want a more melting cheese there is nothing wrong with using what is called ''pizza mozzarella'', which, I think, comes from Australia.

Cooking pizza

Pizza is easy to make at home. All you need, apart from good-quality dough and topping, is an oven you can crank up to 250degC, a pizza stone (I got mine for $10 at the supermarket) and a thin wide paddle or spatula to slide the pizza on to the stone.

Thin Neapolitan pizza take about 10 minutes to cook in a domestic oven; thicker Roman pizza take a bit longer and can be baked in a rectangular tray on the stone. We often make pizze at home and it is an occasion for everyone to crowd around and eat each pizza immediately when it is ready (I only make one at a time).

Don't undercook your pizza. Other cuisines make flatbread with toppings and the cooking methods are the same.

The Margherita pizza is one of Ray McVinnie's favourites. Photo: Getty Images
The Margherita pizza is one of Ray McVinnie's favourites. Photo: Getty Images

Pizza toppings

Try the following toppings with a nod to other cuisines. You can use either pizza style (thick and rectangular or thin and round).

Get a bit Turkish and mix lamb mince with a little ground cinnamon, finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and make into small meatballs. Place side by side on the rolled-out dough, sprinkle on pine nuts, halved cherry tomatoes (they transcend seasonality, but not price) and lots of crumbled feta. Serve with a drizzle of plain, unsweetened naturally-made yoghurt and some chopped coriander.

Make a pizza margherita which is so simple you need to make sure the ingredients are just right. Make or buy good-quality dough, lash out on good mozzarella, make a thick tomato sauce and have plenty of basil leaves on hand. Put the sauce on first, then slices of mozzarella, bake, sprinkle with fresh basil and eat immediately.

Top with a thin layer of tomato sauce, slice up some L'Authentique Toulouse sausages (available at Centre City New World in Dunedin) and place side by side on the sauce. Scatter with chargrilled red capsicums, top with grated tasty or provolone cheese, and bake.

For a Greek twist, spread the dough with tomato sauce, sprinkle raw peeled prawns and crumbled feta on top, bake and serve with a tiny drizzle of ouzo or pernod and chopped chives. Italians would think such a dish was the work of the devil, but I've tried it and it was great.

Fresh basil and a rich tomato sauce are essential ingredients of a Margherita pizza. Photo: Getty...
Fresh basil and a rich tomato sauce are essential ingredients of a Margherita pizza. Photo: Getty Images

Make a big Roman pizza spread with ricotta, lots of fried sliced onions, thickly sliced portobello mushrooms and drained, rehydrated, thinly sliced porcini. Bake and serve sprinkled with rocket leaves and plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

One of my favourite pizze is pizza bianca, white pizza, of which there are many versions. I like the following: Parboil 1cm-thick slices of agria potatoes, drain, cool and place side by side on the dough. Sprinkle with plenty of finely diced pancetta, fresh sage, finely chopped garlic, pitted green olives and sliced mozzarella. Bake and enjoy.

Top the dough with tomato sauce, thin-sliced spicy salami and thin-sliced blanched zucchini which has been tossed with a little extra virgin olive oil. Finish with ''pizza mozzarella'' and bake.

Go down the puttanesca road (not literally) and top with tomato sauce, anchovies, chopped garlic, capers, pitted black olives and chilli flakes. I also like drained canned tuna in oil and dried oregano.

Boil plenty of silverbeet in salted water for about 5 minutes, drain, cool under cold water, squeeze dry, slice thinly and spread over the rolled-out dough. Sprinkle plenty of canned or jarred artichoke hearts on top, and sprinkle with finely diced preserved lemon peel and lots of crumbled creamy feta. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and bake.

Slow fry lots of thinly sliced onions and fennel for about 15 minutes, or until soft. Season well and spread over the dough. Top with flaked smoked fish, green olives, bake and serve drizzled with plain unsweetened yoghurt.



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