We never set out to write a book about pizza; it just happened. A few years ago Michele went to southern Italy on a trip organized by the International Olive Oil Council. The first stop was Naples, and though her stay there was brief, she came back full of descriptions of the city's wonders--the setting, the people, the music. The food was fantastic and the pizza was the best she had ever tasted. Charles was not convinced--after all, he had eaten his share of fine pizzas all over Italy, but Michele obviously was enchanted and longed to return. Since we had not been to Naples together in more than twenty years, it seemed like a good idea.
The views, with the broad sweep of the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius in the distance, palm trees, and baroque architecture, are incomparable. We walked everywhere and looked at everything, tasted everything. And Charles was gripped by a pizza frenzy. After his first pizza at Ciro a Santa Brigida, one of the city's great restaurants, he was unstoppable. He ate pizza everywhere, several times a day, in restaurants or from takeout places while we walked around the city.
When we returned home, Charles had only one question. Where can we get pizza like we ate in Naples? Michele jokingly replied, make it yourself.
Until that trip, we had thought that, as knowledgeable Italian travelers and New Yorkers, we knew all about good pizza. But Neapolitan pizza is different from pizza anywhere else. Each pie is hand shaped so that it has a natural look. Baked in wood-burning ovens, the crusts are blistered and even slightly charred with a wonderful smoky flavor. The crusts are thin, though not too thin, perfectly balanced between crispness and chewiness. Toppings are light and intensely flavorful. Everyone gets his or her own pie.
Charles set out to duplicate those unforgettable Neapolitan pizzas in our home kitchen. We should explain that this was a pretty incredible notion. Charles was infamous for never having cooked a thing in his entire life. He had never made so much as a pot of coffee or scrambled an egg. Until our trip to Naples, he would never even think of making himself a meal or even reheating takeout food.
Michele decided to humor him and gave him some cookbooks to read on how to make pizza and bread dough. With a little guidance, he began to experiment. He had to learn everything--the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon, how to measure flour and water correctly, and to dissolve yeast. Soon he was reading everything he could about pizza ingredients. He began hanging out in pizza parlors, watching the pizzaioli at their work, tasting their pizza, and asking questions. Motivated by his love for Neapolitan pizza and the difficulty of finding it, he was determined to prove that good Neapolitan-style pizza could be made at home. Charles made pizza after pizza, each one a little better than the one that preceded it.
You never know how many friends you have until you start making pizza. Skeptics, who had heard about Charles's passion for pizza, began clamoring to taste his pies. They were amazed at how good they were, and at how Charles, who had never cooked anything in his life, was able to make pizza from scratch all by himself.
Based on the premise that if he could do it, it must be easy, our friends began to ask Charles to show them how to make pizza. He was delighted to share his newfound ability, reinforcing his knowledge by methodically explaining his techniques to others. Michele, too, became involved in making pizza--after all, the kitchen is usually her domain. Together we continued to experiment and improve our pies. Everyone said, why don't you two write a book about pizza.
Most guidebooks to Italy describe Genoa as unsafe and uninteresting. But we found the exact opposite to be true. We loved to walk through the narrow medieval streets, browse in the markets, and gaze at the grand palazzi. Genoa is the city where Christopher Columbus was born in 1451, and where Marco Polo, locked up in prison, dictated his famous book of travels. Though the city was heavily bombed during World War II, there is still much to see and do.
Genoese cooking is excellent, too. They make many special kinds of pasta, including one made with chestnut flour. Delicate pesto, made from basil with the tiniest leaves we have ever seen, is the typical pasta sauce. Genoese cooks are also famous for their sweets and pastries. Marrons glacés, candied chestnuts, were invented in Genoa. Our favorite discovery, though, was focaccia, served hot, sprinkled with coarse salt, and infused with luscious green olive oil. It appears at every meal, often topped with herbs or olives or sliced onions. People crowd (Italians never line up) into bakeries, waiting for the focaccia to come out of the oven.
For a thicker focaccia, bake the dough in a 12 x 9-inch pan.
1 package dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
6 tablespoons olive oil
About 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1. Sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let stand 1 minute, or until the yeast is creamy. Stir to dissolve the yeast. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour and the salt. Add the yeast mixture and stir until a soft dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding more flour if the dough seems sticky.
3. Lightly coat a large bowl with oil. Place the dough in the bowl, and turn it to oil the top. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Oil a 15 X 10 X 1-inch jelly-roll pan. Flatten the dough and place it in the center of the pan. Stretch and pat the dough out to fit. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise about 1 hour until puffy and nearly doubled.
5. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Set the oven rack in the center of the oven. With your fingertips, firmly press the dough to make dimples at 1-inch intervals all over the surface.
6. Drizzle the remaining 4 tablespoons oil over the top. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt.From the Trade Paperback edition.