Is it just me, or is it every time you flick on the television you find yourself gazing at the impeccable Stanley Tucci tucking into ravioli in Liguria, or at the endlessly enthusiastic Clive Myrie trying to win the tiramisu world cup in Treviso? “There is something I clearly need that Italy provides,” Clive told us on his recent BBC Italian Road Trip series. Yes, and I think I know what it is.
Clive claims Italy is “the friendliest, most beautiful and most inspiring place on earth”, and this summer its most popular and inspiring export – pizza – is having its moment in the sun. I can’t walk down my street on a weekend without detecting the whiff of woodfired dough spiralling out of back gardens and I’ve not seen a wedding gift list in the past two years that didn’t feature a pizza oven.
Some of the credit for the expanding pizza-at-home trend can be given to the innovation and relative affordability of the current wave of outdoor ovens.
Once an expensive and permanent fixture, pizza ovens were few and far between in UK gardens. But that all changed in 2012 with the launch of Ooni, the first portable pizza oven and one that promised it would enable you to “cook world-class pizza in your own back garden in just 60 seconds”.
As its range has evolved, the brand has enjoyed phenomenal growth, including a huge spike in sales during the pandemic, and a 264 per cent increase in revenue reported last year.
Now joined by several rivals, including Gozney and DeliVita, the new-generation pizza ovens can reach and maintain the high heat (500C) needed to produce a Neapolitan-style pizza previously unattainable in a domestic cooker.
Such a recipe is minimal and consists of a basic dough, a simple tomato sauce, mozzarella and a few basil leaves. But with so few ingredients required, each one must be decent in order to get the best results.
When eating out, we’ve come to expect good grub. Martino Mainiero, managing director of the Italian food importer Delitalia, which supplies restaurants, says the company’s goal is to help the UK access better quality products.
He notes that at first it was difficult to get his customer base to buy into the steeper pricing on higher grade ingredients, but that demand has shifted over time. Now, Delitalia’s customers are moving away from cheaper strong white bread flour towards stone-ground Italian grain flours with scientific preparation methods.
Mainiero believes this is driven by diners expecting the same authentic taste at their favourite Italian restaurants in the UK as they enjoy on holiday in Italy. “It’s great to see that quality is at the forefront and that British diners want to spend their hard-earned pound eating the best they can,” he says.
At home, there’s a desire to work with top-end ingredients, too, including designer flours. Petra – produced by Molino Quaglia, which has been milling since 1914 – has a cult following and commands up to £4 a kilo. “It’s the best pizza flour I have ever used,” claims Daniel Clifford, chef patron of the two Michelin-starred Midsummer House, in Cambridge. “Nothing compares to it. The hydration is amazing, and once the dough is prepared and rested, you will get the best pizza ever.” Ratton Pantry, which sells pizza supplies from anchovies to artisan flour, tells me that “Self taught pizza enthusiasts are seeking out the best products available such as Fior di Latte Mozzarella Cheese, DOP San Marzano Tomatoes and premium Italian “00” flours from Caputo and Dallagiovanna.”
But even equipped with the kit and the ingredients, can we really make trattoria-standard pizzas at home? Italian food expert Joe Hurd believes so. “You can rival what’s on offer in many pizzerias quite easily,” he declares. “If you’re willing to invest the time and money, you can have a pizza in a back garden in Derby and think you are on the Via dei Tribunali in Napoli.”
Once the investment has been made in an oven, and even if you splash out on the best ingredients, the price per serving can be a fraction of what you’d pay in a pizzeria. For my 85-year-old Italian mum, making pizza is a day-long event and results in a houseful of oven-sized trays of pizza and calzone, which are cut into portion-sized squares and distributed among family and friends.
Thanks to the pizza-oven revolution, however, her crown is being challenged by her 26-year-old grandson, my nephew, who needs only a couple of hours in the garden to be able to feed the entire extended family with pizza as good as you’ll find anywhere.
So, what are the vital components of a perfect back-garden pizza?
If, like my nephew, Nick, you prefer to spend your money on good toppings, an inexpensive strong white bread flour (along with dried yeast, salt and water) is all that’s needed to make a decent pizza dough.
Not everyone agrees. “You can make a pizza using supermarket flour that will pass muster, up to a point,” says Hurd, “but these flours are mass produced and designed to work with minimum effort. Also, heavy, powerful white flours can be hard to digest, and won’t take lots of hydration.”
A good flour, argues Hurd, “should contain nothing: no added gluten or additives, and [it should] be milled with care and technology, so the good nutrients and proteins are retained”.
If your purse doesn’t stretch to the price of Petra, I can recommend my old favourite, Marriage’s strong white bread flour, for making dough.
The tomato sauce
Buying good-quality tomatoes is essential and is money well spent for the flavour you’ll be rewarded with. “Making a tomato sauce for a pizza is the simplest and most rewarding thing,” says Hurd.
“Just take a can of whole tomatoes, the best you can buy – because unlike poorer-grade tomatoes, they don’t add so much water and citric acid – and crush them, either with your hands or in a food mill, add plenty of salt and a little pepper.”
Like the rest of my family, I’ve always made the tomato sauce in advance, bubbling it for a fair few hours until it’s dark and thickened. But Hurd advises: “Never cook a tomato sauce. It’ll get too concentrated and become jammy.”
Nick spends his pizza budget on pricier canned San Marzano tomatoes, which are considered the best, and prefers to make his cooked sauce the day before.
Like Hurd, he uses a mouli to create a smooth texture. “Never use a blender, it might be quick, but it incorporates too much air and makes the sauce foamy and horribly orange-coloured,” he says. I won’t reach for my stick blender next time.
If you don’t have a mouli, I’d recommend using good-quality, finely chopped tomatoes, such as Mutti Polpa, which cost about £1.40 for a 400g can. San Marzano plum tomatoes cost upwards of £2.50 per can. It’s best to avoid passata, as the texture is just too smooth.
If you asked my mum, she’d say the best flavour and texture comes from a tasty, stretchy mix of mozzarella and mature cheddar – a basic combo that has served her well.
However, the purists argue that for a true Neapolitan-style result, pizza should be topped with fior di latte, a cow’s milk mozzarella.
As Hurd explains: “It has a mild flavour and releases less moisture when cooked, so your pizza doesn’t turn into a swamp of whey and watery misery.”
He asserts that “The best fior di latte comes from the Monti Lattari [milk mountains], in southern Italy, where the cows are just left to wander and eat wild grasses, herbs and flowers.”
Try M&S Traditional Italian Fior di Latte Mozzarella (125g for £2.10), which scored full marks on Xanthe Clay’s recent taste test. Or the authentically packaged Gioiella Fior di Latte Mozzarella, 250g for £4.70 at Ocado.
The kit – what you need and what you can do without
I’m using an Ooni Karu 12 Multi-Fuel pizza oven, £299, powered by wood logs. Happily, there’s no assembly required and it’s pretty much ready to go straight from the box. I’m in good company, it seems – Dolly Parton and Beyoncé are both Ooni owners.
The only accurate way to gauge the temperature of the cooking stone (450C minimum) before cooking.
The metal sheet on the end of a pole that’s essential for manoeuvring the pizza from counter to oven. The Ooni perforated aluminium peel performed brilliantly during my testing and didn’t stick at all. Having a second peel would be useful if cooking for a party, so a pizza can be cooked while the next in line is being topped.
A turning peel I found this really helpful for spinning the pizza in the oven without having to take it out to rotate it. Nice to have, but not vital.
A stand mixer with dough hook
This will make short work of kneading, but it’s not strictly essential. I really enjoy kneading dough by hand and only use my mixer for large quantities.
Lidded proving trays
These are useful if you plan on making pizza often and will keep the shaped dough balls airtight during proving, without the need to use clingfilm. Just make sure the trays will fit in your fridge.
How to make a perfect pizza Margherita
The dedication needed to create a perfect sourdough base or achieve maximum hydration (water to flour ratio) in your pizza dough is commendable and can no doubt lead to brilliant results.
However, for my first outing with a wood-fired oven, I stuck with my tried-and-tested, classic dough recipe. Make the dough either by hand on the counter or in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
1. For four pizzas, stir together 500g Italian 00 grade flour or strong white bread flour, 10g salt, a generous ½ tsp (3g) dried active yeast and 300ml lukewarm water.
2. Knead until smooth and soft, but not sticky, adding extra flour only if you need to. Shape into a neat ball, then place in an oiled bowl or food container, cover and leave at room temperature for a good hour or so until doubled in size.
3. Then, divide the dough into four equal-sized plump balls. Cover and leave to prove for an hour at room temperature, or chill if using the next day (take the dough out of the fridge at least two hours before using).
4. Once the oven is at the correct temperature (450C-500C), use the fingertips to stretch the first dough ball from the centre outwards, pushing the air towards the edge.
5. Stretch between the hands to form a 25cm circle, leaving a deeper border to form the crust. Dust the peel with flour and lay the dough on top.
6. Spoon some crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce into the centre and spread out evenly with the back of the spoon. Tear over the cheese – 60g or so per pizza is about right.
7. Scatter a few basil leaves, drizzle a little olive oil and season. Slide it into the pizza oven and cook for about a minute, rotating it every 20 seconds or so, until the base is cooked and the crust is puffed and browned (to cook in your kitchen oven instead, preheat to the highest setting and bake for 20 minutes or so, until the base is completely cooked through).
8, If you don’t have time to make it from scratch, dough can be found both fresh and frozen in supermarkets and Italian delis. And one other thing to note: dried yeast loses its potency over time, so keep an eye on the date and make sure the tub is kept tightly sealed.