Oct 9, 2009

Biba on Fire: A Pizza Story

Friday is pizza day at the Dream Kitchen.

Ever since Biba Caggiano's Trattoria Cooking came out in 1992, I have been making my own pizza crust from her recipe. My book got scorched on the gas stove the day I first made pizza for my husband, who was then a nervous date pretending to like zucchini, and I was a nervous hostess setting my cookbook on fire. I think the book got soaked one other time, but maybe that was just Chris Schlesinger's Thrill of the Grill. Strangely, that one hasn't been scorched. And now, apparently, my Trattoria Cooking has been misplaced. I rarely look for these things--it will show up someday and I'll be so happy.

The reason I got this book is I went to "study" aesthetics in Rome for four weeks with the Temple University Rome Program in 1991. I remember sleepily reading Kant on a train for ten minutes, and attending lectures on Bernini while daydreaming about, you guessed it, the next trattoria.

The best pizza I ever had in Italy was on a hasty stop at a respected pizza mecca in Naples, on our way to Capri. We had a train to catch and were bordering on frantic. We got off the train from Rome with our overnight bags, dashed over to this pizza place that started with an M, sat down and ordered. Of course they only had two kinds, margherita and marinara, and the only beverage was a bottle of Coca-Cola. We sat at long tables with lots of loud men, some with gorgeous clothes and others with workers' uniforms.

The walls were blank, except for two things, a recessed shrine to Mary, and a soft-porn picture of some starlet. The pizza margherita was light, crisp, ethereal, with the purest, freshest tomato sauce adorned with basil. Even the cheese was levitating. The Coca-Cola, I'll not call it "Coke," in its wondrous bottle, was bracingly cold and sweet. Then we split for the station, practically running. We made our train.

Now back to my homemade pizza, a completely different genus than the Neopolitan because it's thick and I use a rolling pin and put a whole bunch of stuff on it and five other reasons. Because that was there and then, and this is here and now.

Biba Caggiano's Basic Pizza Dough Recipe (Doubled), Filtered Through Memory Because I Can't Find the Book

I usually put the following ingredients in the bread machine, but you could always knead the dough for about six minutes until the it's soft and pliant. It will take about the same amount of time to rise. But you should proof the yeast in the water for four or five minutes if you're kneading by hand.

3 cups flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
heaping teaspoon salt
1 2/3 tablespoons yeast (actually it would be 2 tablespoons but seems like too much)
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (I nuke for 30 seconds)

After I push the start button, I set a timer for 7 minutes so I can check it later and make sure it's forming a ball. I often need to add more flour and scrape the sides with a spatula.

When it's ready (about 1 hour and 40 mins. later), I punch it down and take it out. I flatten it by hand at first and then use an oiled French rolling pin. That's the kind that's thick in the middle and narrow on the ends. Then I crush 2 cloves of garlic and put it in my mortar and pestle with a little olive oil and fresh ground pepper. Love to crush stuff in my mortar and pestle. Have no idea whether this is the right thing to do, don't care. It's immensely satisfying. Then I schmear that over the crust with my hands.

Oh, I've preheated my oven to 450 by now. I look in the fridge for provolone, or even cheddar or pepper jack . . . work with me, here, because pizza night is also use-up-the-fresh-veggies and cheese night. Tonight there's quite a bit of sliced provolone in the lunch supplies, also some broccoli rabe from the CSA. I like to caramelize a couple onions ahead of time. Today it will probably be the broccoli rabe, lightly steamed and wrung dry (no soggy pizza!), a finely chopped jalapeno, raw onion in thin rings, and I guess some pepperoni to appease the guys.

I bake it for 14 or 15 minutes.

It's kind of a thick pizza but I need this much to feed us all, and I'm too lazy to make two thinner pizzas. So it's kinda Chicago. I don't preheat the stone, either. Again with the laziness, along with an unwillingness to deal with a peal, or sear my flesh. Plus, it's just great as it is.

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