A Small Lesson in Pizza 2


I’m home from my trip and back in my kitchen, thinking about what to feed my family….as usual. I’ve been very lucky that my professional life often gives me the opportunity to learn new things, and usually fun, interesting things such as pizza-making. The skills I’ve learned in Italy have come back to my kitchen with pretty decent results. Interested in trying your hand at homemade pizza? I’ve got some tips from the pros.

Pizza is a dish so typical in the US that most of us have no memory of it being anything other than American staple food. It’s wasn’t so 75 years ago. There was pizza in the US, but only in Italian neighborhoods and restaurants. It was only after World War II that returning soldiers brought their love of pizza back from the front lines in Italy and it became what we know it as today.

If you go to Italy, you may not recognize pizza, not in the way you know it in the US. Pizzas are ordered one per person, and the crust is so thin that one person can easily eat the whole thing. I remember years ago, taking a group to a famous pizzeria in Naples that served pizzas 16″ in diameter and having a woman look at me in an alarmed way, not understanding why I’d ordered a pizza about half her size. At the end of the meal, not a crumb was left.

The toppings are often confounding for us non-Italians. Egg, potatoes, carrots, corn, tuna, mussels, broccoli, asparagus and all manner of meats can be found on top, hot dogs included. Asking for a pepperoni pizza will land you with a pizza topped with red bell pepper. Pizza alla Diavola,  Devil’s Pizza is what you’re looking for. Spicy pizzas are not really common, at least not as common as in the US. So if you make a pizza in your own kitchen, be creative and toss whatever is needing to be used in your fridge on the top. You’d be surprised what works. My favorite, for example, has ham, cheese and pistachio paste on top. Weird, yes. Good, oh my goodness yes!

Making the dough is easy enough. If you have a bread machine, this is the best and laziest way to do it. I will dump the ingredients in when I leave in the morning, then come home in the evening to dough that’s ready to go. Bread machines are cheap and easy to find, especially at the Goodwill. Otherwise using your hands or a stand mixer will work just fine. I’m including a semolina dough recipe because this is what you’ll find at the best places in the south, particularly Sicily. Semolina gives it a bit of crunch and flavor that flour alone can’t.

Here’s a professional secret- what makes the dough really sing is aging it. Most quality pizzerias make the dough at least the day before, and it’s good for a couple of days after that. This gives the time for the yeast to mature, lending the dough a tangy flavor. The best dough I ever made was a batch that I forgot about…for a week! It had a great flavor, but there are limits. You know you’ve left it in the fridge too long when it starts to turn gray. I know this from sad experience.

Ideally, pizza should be cooked at close to 600 degrees in a wood-fired brick oven. I’ve been hoping someone would build one of those in my back yard, but sadly not yet. So instead I turn my oven all the way up. Adding a pizza stone improves the results too and crisps the bottom of the pizza. I keep the pizzas small and the toppings light. Another Italian secret, learned when I took a vacation with 25 Italians to Yellowstone a few years ago, is to par-bake the dough when you make sheet pizzas. We were feeding a big crowd, so they popped the dough in the super-hot oven for a few minutes, then took it out and loaded on the toppings, then back in the oven. This technique kept the bottom from being soggy.

I’m sort of enchanted with barbecuing pizza at the moment. The par-baking technique works perfectly on a barbecue. Roll out your dough, pop the rounds on the grill for a few minutes, then take them off, top, return to the grill over indirect heat. I did this for my sons’ birthday party and was able to make 30 little pizzas in a flash. BBQs can often go super hot as well, especially propane ones, which can simulate a pizza oven better.

My last pro tip is shaping the dough into a round. I’m not so great at this, I must admit. But I did get some great shots of a master pizzaiolo named Gabrielle from a pizzeria in Taormina called Villa Zuccaro. He’s so good, he competes on an international level for pizza dough tossing. It’s really a sport! Freestyle Pizza, you can find it on YouTube. Start with a lump of dough about the size of an orange. The trick to making a perfect circle seems to be in making an indentation in the middle and working outwards, pushing sideways and rotating the dough on a floured work surface.


Top it as you like, tomato sauce, real mozzarella and a bit of basil are the traditional choices. Bake in the oven 7 minutes or so, until the crust is golden and cheese is melted. Please don’t use American mozzarella. It’s gross. Get the kind that comes in a tub, immersed in water. It’s worth the extra cost, I promise. You’re making an Italian masterpiece here, so use the best ingredients possible. Buon appetito!

Sarah’s Semolina Pizza Dough

1 cup warm water (could be more or less, depending on the weather)

2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp yeast

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup semolina

Put all ingredients in bread machine in the order written, wet stuff first, dry on top. Put on dough setting.  Otherwise combine everything in a big bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until combined, then kneed on a floured surface until smooth. Let rise for 2 hours, covered with a damp cloth. Refrigerate at least 12 hours for best taste. Bake at the highest temp that your oven will go, 500 is good, for 5-7 minutes.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


2 thoughts on “A Small Lesson in Pizza

  • Diana

    Excellent! You’ve got all the facts and cultural habits down. Ham, cheese, and pistachio sounds yummy. And isn’t it crazy that some Italian Americans can actually remember when no one outside of their neighborhood knew what pizza was?? It feels like it’s been a part of American culture forever.

    One idea the Italians could adopt from Americans that would make me happy: BBQ sauce! Love it on pizza…though it’s totally blasphemous (they don’t really eat BBQ like Americans do, with all the amazing sweet-savory sticky sauce).

  • Kirsten Williams

    The ham, cheese and pistachio paste pizza sounds very intriguing, especially since I’ve had a jar of pistachio Sicilia traditional paste in my pantry for nearly a year now and I’ve been wondering how best to use it. Can you give more details on how you make it? It’s an interesting combination that I bet is really good!

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