Of all the pizzas in the world, this one catapults my memories to bustling pizzerias back home in Trastevere, Rome. Loudly shouted demands for brick-oven-birthed pizza, shiny paper tablecloths, gutsy deep-red house wine and the warmth and din of other revelers all around you … people you never met, but recognize as that chaotic, energetic, sassy crowd that makes Romans feel so at home, so alive. The crowd is the secret ingredient that transforms a good dinner into a memory. And that’s not unique to Romans, right?
When I was growing up, there was no Cantonese, sushi, burritos or even deep-dish pizza to be had. There was only our pizza: Roman, thin-crust, cooked in a wood-fired brick oven and lightly topped with your choice of savory tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella, same-day-picked zucchini blossoms and lightly salted anchovies, or porcini mushrooms and dry-cured prosciutto. (Mmmm…thank you, Mr. Pig.) And no, I never felt deprived. I loved it. Flavors so overwhelming to the senses, they possessed the capacity to embed themselves in your memory and leave you lusting for them for decades to come. I looked forward to it every single time. At age 8, I recall asking my mother for a whole month, "When are we going out for pizza?" until finally she replied in exasperation: "Tonight." (It's still one of my fondest childhood memories.)
In Italy, Rome and Naples compete for bragging rights to the best pizza. As a Roman, I must admit Neapolitan pizza is not bad... edible at the very least. Knock yourself out. Woo-hoo. (Perdonami, Ilaria.) It's a different style, with a larger cornicione (the edge of the pizza, rather thick in a Neapolitan pizza) and a softer, more bread-like consistency. Either has its advocates. There'll never be a consensus who makes the best kind, like crowning the best burrito place in San Francisco. I have to give Neapolitans credit for bringing pizza to the States, and for having the good manners to return to the New World the favor of gifting Europe the tomato.
Roman pizza crust is thin and crunchy but never, ever hard to chew or like a cracker. When you bite into it it will have a little of the softness of bread, counterbalanced by a crisp bottom, and the whole thing should almost melt in your mouth. Cooking it in a pan will not allow the dough to release moisture, leaving it thin and soggy. Cook yours in the now ubiquitous and inexpensive pizza stones, which absorb moisture throughout the cooking process and guarantee crispness.
Roman thin-crust pizza dough recipe
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups pastry flour (very important for its final consistency)
1/4 cup semolina flour (this helps with making it crisp)
1 teaspoon instant yeast (or 1 and 1/4 teaspoon dry-yeast)
1 3/4 teaspoons sea salt
1 3/4 cups plus a couple of tablespoons of water (do not use distilled, purified water, since you’ll need some of the mineral salts present in water to add to the flavor; Roman water is extremely mineral-rich)
If using dry yeast, dissolve it in a large mixing bowl with the warm water and wait five minutes. Mix in the rest of the ingredients.
If you’re using an electric mixer, mix with the dough hook for about 4-5 minutes, until the flour gathers into a coarse ball. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then mix again for 2 to 3 minutes. It should clear the sides of the bowl and be just a tad sticky, like used tape. If it’s too sticky, add a little bit of flour, a tablespoon at a time and mix a bit more; if too stiff, add a tablespoon of water and mix it in. Do not knead the dough too much, as this might overdevelop the gluten network, making the dough too chewy for Roman pizza. This is very important and something to watch out for, especially with an electric mixer.
If mixing by hand, knead for about 4-5 minutes until the dough stiffens, and add a bit of flour or water, depending on need. Don't add too much flour; the dough needs to stay a little wet and supple.
Once the dough becomes a little stiff and comes together, let it sit covered with a damp cloth for 5 minutes, then knead again for 2-3 minutes. Again, very important: Do not overknead.
Once the dough feels ready, soft, slightly wet and supple, shape it into a ball. Grease a bowl with a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, place the dough in it, roll it so it gets coated with the olive oil, then cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then place it in the refrigerator overnight, so that the yeast can do its magic and extract all the flavor from the flour. If you need to use it the same day, let it sit out for a couple of hours, then refrigerate it for a couple of hours, and take it out and shape it 2 hours before you will need to cook it. Make it in the morning for use at dinner.
If you used the flavor-enhancing overnight method, take it out a couple of hours before kneading it to let it come back to room temperature and revive the yeast. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked.