Most Americans probably realize that pizza (in some form) is the number one entree in our country. Last year alone we consumed 4 billion fresh-made pizzas and another billion of the frozen variety. Many, unfortunately, look to pizza as the ultimate family-friendly convenience food and have thus turned their attention to the plethora of chains that produce a product that is not always true to the origin of pizza.
Although pizza began as a peasant food in Naples, Italy (the baker credited with the first pizza was Raffaele Esposito) in 1889, it was intended to be an end product that was a result of using fresh, local, high quality, flavorful ingredients (great flour high in gluten, nature’s water, virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella, seasonal tomatoes and fragrant garden basil and oregano). When first consumed by the Italian King Umberto and Queen Margherita, pizza quickly transitioned to a wonderful food ready for every socio-economic group. In fact, the original version still carries the name: Pizza Margherita.
The first American pizzeria was opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905 and except for a short respite and subsequent move, Lombardi’s has been open for business on Spring Street in NYC ever since. Lombardi’s continues to fire their ovens with coal producing the super-hot environment for their crispy, thin crust New York style pizza.
Ira Nevin, after returning to the U.S. from WWII (stationed in Italy), worked with his family to produce the first gas-fired ceramic deck ovens that made it possible for pizzerias to open in every town across America. There are now over 70,000 pizza parlors in the US (according to the National Restaurant Association) with total annual sales in excess of $36 billion.
So, why is pizza so popular? I have not found any scientific data to support my theory, however, I will stick by my purely subjective beliefs:
* pizza is fun, a conversation driver, intense with aroma, balanced with multiple textures, regionally ethnic and adaptable to any cuisine and it comes with it’s own built in plate (the crust).
* pizza is one of those unique products that drives as much local passion and loyalty as professional sports. Don’t ever try to tell a Chicago native that NYC makes the best “pie” or vice versa. In fact, don’t even try to say that Manhattan pizza is better than Staten Island!
PIZZA HAS A RE-BIRTH
“What goes around, comes around” and those of us who believe that food is far more than just sustenance, can relish in the fact that “great” pizza is back! It is so refreshing to see the underground of true pizza wizards who are passionate about great crust, fresh tomatoes, beautifully fresh mozzarella, fresh grated Italian parmigiana, first press olive oil and pungent fresh herbs, take the limelight away from the big box chains. Above all else, is the oven: wood-fired if at all possible, but at the very least, gas-fired with a stone or ceramic hearth. Add whatever else you like, but I will take a simple, classic Pizza Margherita anytime.
I feel fortunate to have many excellent pizza shops within driving distance (it may not be NYC but I am just as loyal to these as a resident on Spring street is to Lombardi’s). If you are in my neck of the woods (the Adirondack’s of New York), try the following:
* Verita in Burlington, Vermont
* American Flatbread in Waitsfield, Vermont (the original)
* Caffe Rustica in Lake Placid, New York
or, MAKE YOUR OWN! Try this simply perfect pizza dough recipe as a base:
– Unbleached all-purpose flour 2/3 cup
-Unbleached bread flour 1/3 cup
-Extra virgin olive oil 2 tsp.
-Active dry yeast 3/4 tsp.
-Warm water 1/3 cup
-Salt 1/2 tsp.
Mound the flour in a bowl, form a well and add the olive oil in the middle. In a separate bowl add lukewarm water and yeast. Allow the yeast to begin to bubble. Add the salt to the yeast and combine with the flour and olive oil. Fold together with your palms and then keeping your hands floured, knead the dough for 15 minutes. Place in a bowl (brush the top with oil and cover) and allow to double in size at room temperature. Punch the dough and allow to double again.
On a floured board, pull and stretch the dough to the shape you want. Place on a baking stone dusted with cornmeal. Top with fresh tomato sauce or fresh tomato slices, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh herbs.
Bake in a pre-heated 500 degree oven until crisp.