Next to barbecue, no culinary subject divides people like pizza. What is the baseline? What is authentic? Who are the charlatans? New Yorkers want thin, pliable crust you can fold. The whole Chicago deep-dish thing is a doughy maelstrom of preferences. And that doesn’t even get near the issue of sauce-to-cheese balance. Toppings disputes have cleaved more family trees than princes marrying commoners against Mummy’s wishes.
One thing we can agree on: nearly every culture has some sort of dough-plus-filling branch of its cuisine. One of the many Italian variants on this (besides the closed pockets, such as ravioli) is pizza, which at it simplest is a flat crust of simple dough baked in an oven with few or many adornments. The origins may have been Mediterranean or Egyptian, but pizza reached one of its peaks in Naples around the 16th century. Even today, Neapolitans claim pizza primacy, not without justification.
But naturally, pizza is a matter of culinary art all over Italy. After tromping around in the caves below the hill town of Chiusi (see yesterday’s post), we had worked up a serious appetite. As we left our guide, he mentioned a place in town where the corner of a building still bore the gouges ripped out of the stone by a quickly turning Nazi tank. My son, a World War II history buff, suggested we investigate. But after a block or two of walking, he gave in to hunger too. After all, we were assaulted by aromas.
Most sidewalk cafés in Italian hill towns look innocuous enough. (If they don’t, flee. The more glitz and Dean Martin style, the more they’re angling for tourists and ignoring the food quality.) The one we sat down in had shade, which was key. And pizza? Jackpot.
As is so often the case with basic Italian food, the pizza at Osteria Etrusca (Via Porsenna, 53043 Chiusi) was the result of the careful treatment of a just a few ingredients, all of them fresh. There must have been 15 different pizzas on the menu, not all with cheese (an important consideration for a dairy-allergic member of our party).
The foundation of it all was a magnificently simple crust: thin, crisp, a little north of a cracker in taste and texture but certainly not doughy or spongy. The closest thing we Floridians could think of in comparison is really well made Cuban bread. But even Cuban crackles more than this stuff did. The Etrusca crust — and we found similar examples throughout our trip — was best described as substance with lightness.
Of course, I had to find out how they accomplished this. I made for the kitchen.
My wife once had a Taiwanese colleague who, whenever they went out for a business dinner in Asia or the west, would burst into the kitchen of Asian restaurants and start making demands in loud, choppy Mandarin. And he got results. Hearing my bride snicker as I stepped toward the back, I decided on a different approach.
“La cucina…possiamo vederla?” I said to the waitress. “Devo imparare fare le pizze come questa.” I must learn to make pizza like this. She was delighted to lead me back to the chef, who happily advised us. Gas or electric stone-lined ovens are good, she said; electric is best. Avoid wood fires; too moist. (This surprised me at first. But all combustible wood has some moisture content, if only a little — ever heard a fire crackle?) Climate matters, of course. Ingredients? Simple, usually: flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil.
On we chatted, but not too long…she had a number of dough balls ready to roll. But if there was a way to make what we had already eaten taste even better, that kitchen conversation was it.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr
Photographs by Adam Barr and Teresa Barr (who, by the way, is the real pizza crust expert at our house)