Cooking Up a Cultural Experience: Learning to Make Pizza in Italy

Food & Wine, Italy — By on November 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

By Briana Palma
LG Contributor

Anyone who spends time in Italy naturally transforms into a buona forchetta – a good, hearty eater. By the end of a stay, long or short, one will also have learned to perform la scarpetta, swishing a piece of bread over the last drops of an exquisite meal. These are no grand accomplishments, though, considering the national cuisine includes pizza made with milky buffalo mozzarella, pasta covered in thick, deep green pesto sauce and cold, silky gelato served with fresh whipped cream. And while indulging one’s taste buds is unarguably a favorite pastime on the boot-shaped peninsula, that experience wouldn’t exist without another revered tradition: cooking.

The daughter of a Sicilian-born chef, I grew up eating homemade, gourmet-quality fare, simplified for my young, picky palette. As a teenager, I began to experiment in the kitchen, always trying to imitate my father’s culinary excellence. Over the years, however, my attempts have often ended poorly: burnt quesadillas, overly sweet cookies, tasteless tomato sauce. So even before I arrived in Rome, I knew it was here that I wanted to learn to cook, hoping someday I, like my dad, would manage to prepare an absolutely delicious meal, the kind that fills people up and leaves them with a combined look of gratification and stupor on their faces.

After two months contemplating the experience and building up my language skills, I finally enrolled at A Tavola Con Lo Chef, a culinary school with a variety of professional and amateur courses. I decided I would learn to whip up a cultural icon, a dish that, if I managed to do it well, would surely impress friends and family. I chose pizza.

I arrived to the first day of class feeling overwhelmed with excitement and apprehension, the later exacerbated by the fact that my chef-instructor Maurizio Capodicasa’s last name translates to “boss of the house.” Yet his friendly smile with its deep mid-cheek dimples defied my preconceptions and eased some of my fears, even when I realized I was both the only foreigner and the youngest in the small group. Luckily, Daniela, a mom with daughters my age, came to the rescue, showing off the kindness and warmth that’s so common among Italians. With her help I mixed together flour, yeast, water, olive oil and potatoes to make a little mound of squishy dough that would mature to perfection overnight in the refrigerator.

On the following three days I showed up feeling more comfortable as I knew what to expect and had grown relatively accustomed to measuring in metrics. I interacted with my classmates, including Mauvi, a 26-year-old student who explained that she had a wizard-in-the-kitchen mother but, just like me, those genes had somehow skipped her. So not all Italians boast that natural ability to make culinary magic, I thought with touch of satisfaction.

Nevertheless, Mauvi and the others seemed to possess a strong, innate curiosity about food. They constantly scribbled down notes and bombarded Maurizio with questions about the tiniest details, like exactly how much water to add to mayonnaise when preparing a tuna pizza. And whenever the chef demonstrated a technique, we all looked on in awe, watching an artist create on an edible canvas. Each evening, Maurizio, his fingertips dusted in flour, worked the dough first into small round balls, gently pulling up the sides as if wrapping a present, and later into flattened circles just waiting to be adorned with toppings. Witnessing him transform bags of grain into creations both aesthetically and palatally pleasing inspired me to try to do the same.

A few days later I had the opportunity when my friend Elisabetta hosted a house warming party at her new apartment. The night before, I labored in my small kitchen, meticulously measuring, mixing and kneading until I had created a large mass of dough. The following day, due to time and ingredient constraints – wrong type of mozzarella, store-bought tomato purée and no fresh basil – I modified my plans, scrapping a white pizza with zucchini and instead preparing a red one with fresh buffalo mozzarella as well as a few ham, mozzarella and prosciutto calzones.

As I watched the fruits of my labor cook in Elisabetta’s oven, the idea of testing out my new cooking skills on a group of Italians brought on the nerves. After all, in Italy people eat well even for the simplest of meals. I knew that my pizza couldn’t live up to their expectations, as it bore little resemblance to Maurizio’s version that I had tried to reproduce. Still, the taste (slightly) surpassed the ugly appearance and soon enough only crumbs remained on the aluminum pan.

The calzones proved more successful. When the golden-brown blobs (meant to be half circles) came out of the oven, they were sliced and passed around before I could even get a taste. After my sarcastic friend Gianluca bit into his, he told me, “Hey, this really is good.”

Seemed like one of his typical quips though, so I responded with a look that said, “Come on, don’t be a jerk.”

“No, I mean it,” he replied with sincerity in his eyes.

At that moment I felt a sense of delight for having prepared a special meal for good friends and understood just why that tradition continues to thrive in Italy today.

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  • Great post, Briana! But I’m curious: I’ve been making pizza dough for years without the potatoes. What exactly do they do for the dough?

  • Briana says:

    Harriet, thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay – I was waiting to hear back from Chef Maurizio to be able to answer you correctly.

    The addition of potatoes (200 grams per 1 kg of flour) adds starch & sugar to the dough, thus creating a flavorful and softer crust. Though not a necessary ingredient, the potatoes will increase the quality of the dough especially when not cooking with professional-grade flour.

  • Harriet says:

    Ah, thanks, Briana!