THE PIZZA MAN
Wednesday at 11 am, Fernando and I headed down the ridge to the little frazione of Agropoli, Madonna dell’Carmine. We were going to see Giovanni the Pizza Man. Giovanni had agreed to show us the secrets of making good pizza dough. And good pizza dough, friends, is the secret of making good pizza.
There was a bit of a problem, though. It seems that Giovanni was out buying ingredients and would be back ASAP. In the meantime Fernando took me to his favorite local paneficio, bread bakery. Madonna dell’Carmine is Fernando’s town, and Italians are obsessed with good bread, so his recommendation carried considerable weight. And then there was the name of the place: Il Pane di Nonna Rosa, Granny Rosa’s Bread. How could it not be good? The bakery is operated by Raia Ciro and family, who were kind enough to let us take a look around in the work room. Pride of place went to a huge forno a legno, a wood-fired oven. But not just any oven. This one, Raia told us, belonged to his grandfather, a baker in Ercolano, some 80 miles north on the Bay of Naples. When the Ciros decided to open a bakery in Agropoli they had this old beauty laboriously hauled south and ensconced in its new home. Traditions are important here, and Raia told me he was the fifth generation of bakers in his family. And a handsome ragazzo, Raia’s son, obviously took every bit as much pride in the tradition as he showed me around the workshop.
The family treasure is supplemented by another huge oven, but this one burns little reconstituted wooden pellets sold in 20 kilo bags. More eco-friendly, so I am told. And doubtless also cheaper. Wood is expensive in Italy. But Ettore showed me the cupboard where oak logs are kept for the star of the show.
We bought several styles of bread and headed down the street to U’ Cirillo, where Giovanni was just starting the day’s dough making. Giovanni is Giovanni Cirillo, and he too is proud of his family’s tradition. Giovanni explained that his grandfather founded a famous pizzeria up in the Centro of Agropoli, very close to Dave’s mother church, La Chiesa delle Pizze Squisite, otherwise known as the Ristorante-Pizzeria Barbanera. Giovanni’s nonno’s place is called U’ Sghizz, and I’ve noticed that strange dialect name a half dozen times but have never tried it. Giovanni’s own place is relatively small, a walk-in arrangement with a wraparound counter behind which the action takes place, and off to the side a seating area which looks to be large enough for about 20 people. Giovanni has been in this location for eight years. Behind the counter Giovanni and his wife Ciccia, who is a talented pizzaiola in her own right, keep an array of toppings at the ready. Dominating the work area is, you guessed it, a forno a legno, this one a rectangular affair about 6’ X 10’, with a gable ‘roof’ on it topped with ceramic roof tiles, the front decorated with red ceramic tiles so that the whole thing looks something like a little red schoolhouse from the 1800s.
Giovanni had a large stand mixer on casters so it could be rolled around the floor. It was equipped with a corkscrew dough hook, much like some of those expensive stand mixers you can buy in the states, only much larger. In it was a loose ‘sponge’ with lumps of dough in it, to which Giovanni added a bit of olive oil and salt. I asked what the leaven was and Giovanni quickly corrected me; no lievito (yeast) here but crescito, a starter from the previous day’s workings. Commercial yeast, according to Giovanni, has a chemical preservative in it that he doesn’t like.
When the mixer had broken up the lumps of dough from the starter sufficiently, Giovanni took a 25 k bag of Antonio Amata 00 flour and poured about 15 pounds of it into the mixer. Flour marked ‘00’ here is what we would call ‘all-purpose’ flour, but it is actually somewhere between all-purpose and bread flour, the latter made from winter or durum wheat, having a stronger protein structure and therefore better for breads. Giovanni let the mixer do its thing for about five minutes, eying the pasto (dough) carefully from time to time till he saw what he wanted, then took a plastic pitcher and poured in about two liters of water. After the mixer had thoroughly mixed in the water, more flour again, more mixing, more water, and a final load of flour. By this time Giovanni had used about two-thirds of his 25 k, so about 40 pound of flour. I asked him what exactly he was looking for and he simply nodded toward the dough. Not a surprise, of course, but the whole process is completely empirical; Giovanni has done this so many thousands of times that he just ‘knows’ when it’s right. I, on the other hand, noticed that the dough by now had taken on a smooth, consistent texture which the dough hook was looping into beautiful spirals, and was just beginning to pull away from the hook in the center of the mass.
The secret to leavened bread is fermentation, as I’ve explained in a previous blog, fermentation which produces carbon dioxide gas. But unless there is something to trap the gas and make the dough inflate, you’ll have a very flat, dense product. Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which, when mixed with water and physically manipulated, form a protein matrix which we call gluten, and gluten makes the dough elastic. A really good dough can be stretched till you can literally read a newspaper through it.
By now Giovanni was eyeballing the dough even more intently, and he took first one handful, then two more handfuls of flour and sprinkled them onto the surface of the pasto. And suddenly, for reasons only Giovanni knew in the room, the dough was ready. The mixer went off, Giovanni brought out a bottle of vinegar, sprinkled a bit on one of the marble work counters, and vigorously scrubbed the counter with a cloth. Good, organic sanitizer! Taking what can only be described as a large putty knife (I’d be willing to bet it came straight from a local hardware store), Giovanni cut into the mass of dough, took chunks of it which he placed on the counter and, with the fingertips of both hands, pushed the dough into a roughly rectangular mass about three inches thick and about 2’ by 4’ in area. This, Giovanni declared, is the panetonne, the ‘big bread’. The last bits of dough Giovanni scraped from the hook and sides of the mixer, quickly kneaded into a ball about 4” in diameter, dropped into the bottom of the bowl with a satisfied ‘plop’ and declared simply, “Crescito.” This was the starter for the next day’s pizzas, so Giovanni covered the bowl of the mixer with a large kitchen towel and pushed the mixer under the counter so the little yeast cells could multiply.
Then something happened which I’m still not sure I believe. Giovanni had scraped any remaining bits of dough from a series of white, stacking, plastic proofing trays, about 18” X 24” X 4” and he placed one on the counter down from the panetonne. He quickly ‘pinched off’ a mass of dough and, working so quickly that my little camera could not catch the action, pulled the edges of the dough over into the center of the mass from all sides to form a ‘skin’ on the outside, pinched off the place where the bits of skin met between his the knuckle of his index finger and thumb, placed this orb on the counter beneath his palm and, curling his fingers and thumb gently over it, rotated his hand to work the dough into a perfect orb which he placed on the proofing tray. And repeated the procedure. Again and again. It could not have taken more than 15 seconds to create each dough. He neatly placed them in seried ranks in the tray, three abreast and four down.
But I was puzzled. No weighing! I guess you just get whatever size pizza luck sends your way. As if reading my thoughts, Giovanni declared with authority, “Trecento grammi.” Three hundred grams. Seeing the slightest hesitation on my part, Giovanni brought out a scale from the back, placed it on the counter, formed a dough and plopped it into the the tray of the scale. Three hundred grams on the nose! I could not believe my eyes; we went through eight little orbs of goodness and Giovanni nailed it every single time! I don’t mean got close; there wasn’t so much as a two-gram difference in any of the doughs! So of course Giovanni had to prove a point making making old Dave try his hand, while Fernando chortled in the background. I sweated with concentration, eyeballing Giovanni’s little doughs with intense concentration, and finally, the perfect dough! Plop! Two hundred forty-seven grams; the Americano goes down to ignominious defeat. I cannot imagine the sort of ‘muscle memory’ that allows this young man to do this, but I saw him, so you make your own decision. Giovanni explained that our panetonne would make between 48 and 50 pizzas, enough for one night’s service.
As it happens, we had met and ordered pizza from Giovanni the night before, so I can tell you the rest of the process. You order your pizza at the counter and stand while it is made on the spot. Giovanni and Ciccia spring into action, Giovanni grabbing a now-risen dough from a proofing tray, plopping it on the counter, working it into a rough circle, then stretching and rotating, stretching and rotating, until he has a dough about 14” in diameter. The whole process takes well less than a minute. Meantime Ciccia has the toppings for the first pizza at the ready and while Giovanni forms another dough she spreads them on, moves aside the metal door from the throat of the oven, takes a long pala (pizza peel) and deftly flicks, flicks, flicks the formed pizza into the center, spins and deposits it on the opposite side of the oven from the brightly glowing embers of the oak, giving an assertive tug backward to clear the pizza from the peel. By this time Giovanni has formed another dough and Ciccia repeats the process with news toppings, aided by Giovanni. And into the forno it goes!
But don’t sit down! My first experience with Italian pizza was back in Perugia many years ago where I was foolish enough to ask the pizzaiolo what my ‘number’ was. He laughed uproariously and said simply, “Aspetta!” (“Wait!) And three minutes later, out popped our pizzas. A forno a legno generates 300° C; that's almost 600° F. Plus the direct heat of the brick floor. Can we talk about ‘fast food’? And I’m happy to report that the pizzas prepared by Giovanni and Ciccia were every bit as incredibile as the people who created them.