London’s third annual pizza festival is just around the corner—to get you in the mood, Italian chef Ursula Ferrigno tells us how to make the perfect pizza at home
When I was commissioned to write this piece on pizza, my initial reaction was ‘great’. As I paused and thought about it, it intensified to ecstatic, for so many reasons.
When I was a child, pizza was enjoyed so much as a family meal, often shared on Sundays in Minori.
The oven would take several hours to heat up to the correct temperature and it seemed like we waited hours for the dough to be ‘ripe’—the result was happy, family fun, sharing delicious, aromatic crispy thin pizza, with plenty of merriment thrown into the mix. I never really questioned the outcome, or what made the pizza so memorable—I was too young.
Very many years later in England, I published my second book Pizza, Pasta and Polenta. I am rather embarrassed to say my recipes also reflect the fact that I did not write in very much detail. The results were rather average—not awful, but not spectacular pizza.
In 2017, we have become as cooks so much more curious, excited and discerning about this magnificent food. There are so many regional twists. Nowadays, we are making and wanting to make authentic, memorable pizza. Unlike the nineties, we have access to buffalo mozzarella, 00 flour, good quality San Marzano tomatoes, fresh yeast, and all the other delicious ingredients that take a pizza from average, to delicious. We use wood burning ovens. We demand better.
I teach hundreds of people a year how to make good pizza, and my students are always so earnest in their quest.
We have come such a long way, it’s something to celebrate. In 1830, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba opened in Naples. It is widely believed to be the first ever pizzeria. It quickly became a meeting place—for those who could afford it. However, poverty was widespread, so eventually a system called ‘pizza a otto’ was developed, which meant customers could ‘eat now, pay eight days later’. The local joke became the question of whether pizza might be a man’s last free meal—if he died before he paid.
Another story goes that the first classic pizza margherita was made by Raffaele Esposito of Pietro il Pizzaiolo, a pizzeria now called Pizzeria Brandi. In 1889, Esposito was invited to the palace to create three pizzas for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy. The queen declared that her favourite was the one resembling the Italian flag, topped with red tomato, white mozzarella and green basil. Pizza margherita, so-called after the queen, fast became the classic pizza of Naples, and is still considered as such today.
I have worked in Italy and in London in pizzerias, and there is a science to the dough, oven and toppings. Nobody is wrong or right; everybody is convincing. Whatever the origin, for me, a good pizza is still that perfect marriage of dough, tomato, cheese and topping. Never, ever, a dustbin of flavours; always simple and in harmony.
Key ingredients of the perfect pizza
San Marzano tomatoes
Freshly torn basil
Choosing your dough
2-day old dough—plenty of acidity. Very good
4-6 hour old dough—my favourite
1-2 hour old dough—okay…
Classic regional variations
—Sfincione, Sicilian pizza: often stuffed with meat and aubergine
—Sardinian pizza: rich pizza dough with egg and butter and no cheese. Very tasty indeed with anchovies and olives
—Napoletana pizza: thin, soft crust, made according to strict guidelines established by the Italian government
—Roman pizza: pizza al taglio, cut by the metre with a wide variety of toppings
—Pizza bianca: no tomatoes or cheese, just salt. A crisp and skinny pizza
There are of course many more, but these are the most obvious.
Truly humble ingredients, elevated into a scrumptious meal, enjoyed world wide in so many guises. I have never met anyone that doesn’t enjoy pizza. Made well, it is magnificent—I can still smell my childhood pizzas on the terrace in Minori. Oh, those balmy evenings. Have a go, be thrilled and proud. It will become a family ritual, just as it is for me.