Eating pizza was one thing that wasn’t possible here in Fredericksburg when I was growing up. Even in the mid-60s, when I was teaching in Seguin, I had to drive to San Antonio to get a pizza to bring back for an after-football game party. In fact, until the mid-60s, a pizza place was a very rare occurrence in Texas. A Seguin couple did open a home-made pizza joint in the early ‘70s in Seguin. They even opened one in Fredericksburg at the corner of U.S. 87 S and Friendship Lane for a short time, Fredericksburg’s first pizza parlor. It was called the Pizza Pub, but it didn’t last long – it was a little too soon for our German town to embrace.
Little did we know in our part of the country at the time that this was the beginning of a revolution in American cuisine. Today, 100 acres of pizza are consumed in the U.S. each day. Three billion pizzas are sold annually. Norwegians hold the world record, however, for consuming 11 pounds of pizza annually per person. The USDA estimates 13% of Americans eat it every day.
Pizza was once associated only with its birthplace of Naples, the 3rd largest city in Italy. It was brought to America by immigrants who settled primarily in New York. It began as a metropolitan street food in the United States around 1900, and then transformed into an American staple after WWII. Until the 1960s, pizza in Italy was unknown outside of the city of Naples. I traveled to Italy in 1964 and do not remember seeing pizza anywhere because I did not go to Naples. We also know that European food has always been regional. Each region has its specialty and other regions do not try to replicate what another region is known for. The local ingredients, the climate, all are considered, and because of this it is thought that regional dishes should remain the specialty of where they come from. It is Italian Americans here in America who have made pizza the phenomenon that we know today.
American creators of pizza combined traditional methods with locally available ingredients to produce a simple, yet popular dish. These had a very thin crust as their base, with puffy dough around its sides that formed an airy crust. Pizza was considered poor-people’s food, but so successfully adapted to American tastes that it surpassed all other forms of cooking imported from Italy. In American pizza parlors, the toppings reigned supreme.
Pizza did originate in Italy in the 1100s and was roasted on hot stones by ancestral Etruscans, but not all pizzas today are the same. Pizza al taglio is pizza baked in large rectangular trays and unique to Rome. New York pizza is thin, but sturdier than Neapolitan (Naples) pizza, and a Sicilian includes a variety of cheeses with a thick dough crust. Cast Iron Pan Pizza is a thick and crip with extra cheese and touted by Americans who savor a thick-crusted pizza. Grilled Pizza is said to have been invented in 1980 at a restaurant named Al Forno, in Providence, Rhode Island. Its dough is grilled or charred on both sides with the aid of a brick-lined oven that reflects heat back onto a pizza’s top. This style of cooking is heralded in northern Italy. Deep-dish is uniquely American and is 75% crust. It is a challenge to keep it from becoming tasteless or soggy by being overwhelmed by the heavy dough. The key is lightly frying the crust with oil to produce a caramelized exterior. Finally, Provençal Pizza is a signature dish from Nice, France — not Italian at all.
Some tips from the experts on making an authentic pizza: Pizza should be made in a special wood-fired brick oven heated to a blistering 750ºF. Its crust should be thin, crisp, and baked directly on a pizza stone. Pizza dough is nothing more than bread dough with oil added for softness and suppleness. Bread flour, not all-purpose flour, makes the crust chewy and crisp. Use fingers to stretch the dough instead of a rolling pin. Some recipes call for allowing the dough to rise for 24 to 72 hours creating a softer crust. Use Semolina Flour, its gluten makes the dough less elastic.
Bill and Sylvia Varney moved here in the ‘80s to educate us about the wonderful world of herbs. They eventually opened the Herb Farm. Their book Along the Garden Path contains two recipes for pizza. Here is one:
Basil Tomato Pizza
2 tbls olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 ¾ cup Provolone cheese, shredded
¾ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 recipe pizza dough
¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
Heat oil in small skillet.
Sauté onion until tender, but not browned.
Add tomato and garlic.
Cook for 10 minutes or until liquid evaporates, stirring occasionally.
Mix ¼ cup basil, salt, and pepper.
Line pizza pan with pizza dough.
Spread tomato mixture evenly to within ½ inch edge.
Top with cheeses.
Bake at 425ºF for 20 minutes or crust is golden brown.
Sprinkle with basil before serving.
1 cup warm water 110 degrees F.
2 1/4 teaspoons Active Dry Yeast 1 packet
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or semolina flour
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon Lawry’s Garlic Salt
Place warm water, yeast, and sugar into bowl of a stand mixer with dough hook attached.
Mix gently then let sit until doubled in size, about 5 minutes.
With mixer on low, add flour, olive oil, salt, and garlic salt. Scrape sides of bowl and let mixer knead dough for 5 minutes. Dough should have the sides of the bowl cleaned. Add sprinkles of flour or water if needed to get the bowl cleaned while kneading.
After 5 minutes of kneading, remove dough from mixing bowl with floured hands (put a small amount of flour in your hands and rub together), and transfer to a floured countertop.
Fold dough over itself a couple times then form into a round ball.
By Mark Wieser