Pizza in all its forms

It’s well known how fickle Quebecers are when it comes to food. Pizza is one exception to that rule. Everyone has a favourite pizza joint on speed dial. Whether you’re in Montreal, Naples or New York, the image is still very much alive of the Italian with lightly-floured hands who expertly rolls out pizza dough near the burning embers. I don’t know why, but men love to make pizza. Wherever you go, they are masters of the wood-fired oven.

Variations on the pizza theme

I always look forward to opening the oven door to get a look at and whiff of my pizza. I love the smell of the tomatoes, the crust, the golden hues that multiply as the cheese melts… and that little ball of dough taking centre stage, coveted by every member of my family.

Defining what constitutes a real pizza can be a real challenge. You’ll find forerunners of modern-day pizza throughout the world. Whether it’s a pita, chapatti or pastry dough, bread remains the one constant from continent to continent.

Around the world

The bar was raised when Californians got fired up about pizza; the list of toppings has become endless, ranging from the best to the worst.

These creative outbursts have been positive and some have stood out among this culinary cacophony. The innovative spirit of Wolfgang Puck, chef/owner of Spago restaurant in L.A., is well established. Among other things, he created a pizza topped with goat cheese and dried tomatoes, now referred to everywhere as the “California” pizza.

Today, the pendulum is swinging the other way… simplicity, authenticity are in. This means a few, but quality ingredients. The table is set to rediscover “Neapolitan” pizza and its different variations.

The beginning…

In Italy, the love affair with pizza goes back a long time. Two hundred years ago, Italy was a Greek colony. Pistores (millers transformed into public bakers) already made fifteen different types of bread, such as strepticius, a kind of focaccia. The recipe was described as dough prepared by kneading flour, olive oil and pepper, all cooked on a scorching-hot plate. Many consider this to be a direct ancestor of modern pizza. But the real explosion took place in the 19th century when a baker from Naples had the brilliant idea of combining white pizza (without tomato sauce) with a newcomer to Europe: tomatoes. Add to that a bit of basil and some fresh mozzarella and you’ve got the most famous dish on the planet.

Simple to make, easy to transport and to eat, this inexpensive food belonged to the people.  But the nobles eventually succumbed. Ferdinand 1st, King of the Two Sicilies, wanted pizza included on the list of official court dishes. Queen Margherita was crazy about pizza with colours that imitated the Italian flag, made from tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Pizza with these toppings is still called a “Margherita.”

We love pizza

The fever intensified after the opening of the Pizza Hut chain in Kansas in 1958. It has never subsided. Today, 350 slices of pizza are eaten every second in the United States and $25 billion worth is consumed annually. Supermarkets followed suit by offering more and more do-it-yourself pizzas, frozen pizzas, ready-to-top pizza shells, not to mention a wide range of pizza toppings. In Canada, the market is worth $200 million.

Unfortunately, extreme industrialization, the lure of more profits and the American principle of “bigger is better” have each significantly contributed to degrading the quality and image of the product.  However, this is not a completely negative thing; it helped to democratize a really great food. As with artisan bread and other local products, we now enjoy discovering quality pizza, making a clear distinction between pizza that comes from a chain and a steaming and mouth-watering slice that comes out of the wood-fired oven at a family trattoria.


Pizza stone

How a pizza is baked is crucial to its taste. The wood-fired oven is unique and unrivalled. That bit of smoke in the oven contributes to the aroma of the pizza. There’s an almost imperceptible fine layer of ash that remains on the pizza stone and acts as a condiment, kind of like salt. Until the 18th century, the poor used to cut salt with a bit of ash to salt food.

The challenge is making an amazing-tasting pizza without building a wood-burning oven at home. A pizza stone works well and is easy to find in speciality kitchen stores. You can pick up a good baking stone for around $50 and there are different types of stones.

A board is handy for making the pizza and sliding it on a pizza stone into the oven. 

Tip: if you don’t have a pizza board, use a cookie sheet without edges.