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Fresh Tomato Margherita Pizza | Sortachef

Fresh Tomato Margherita Pizza

Intense rivalry charged the warm air that lingered around the Piazza del Campo in Siena that night. Hoards of young Italians swarmed the square with flags held high, ranting, gesticulating, and then moving off to blend into side streets.  Some were in street clothes and some medieval costume. As groups came through in waves, each behind a different flag, bellows and catcalls rang from within the old stone buildings all around.

This was Sienese bravado – centuries old bravado – all in a fantastic lead-up to the Palio, Siena’s famous horse race.

A couple of cute Italian kids sporting Palio flags in the Campo

Our waiter ducked beneath a section of folded-back bleacher and came to us looking deflated.  “Va via!” he said shooting a dark look at the latest group crowding the flimsy barrier at the edge of the temporary dirt track, and stared until the revelers moved away.

“Aren’t you from Siena?” I asked him, surprised at his rancour.  

“Si, si, my family has been here for many years,” he said.  Yellow light lit his face as he pulled himself up proudly. “We are the bakers, Il Lupo. But this race means nothing to us, because my contrade is not a part this time. Besides, even when we do race, we have not won since I was a boy.” He took our order and went to glare at some Germans homing in on the next table over.

As the sky darkened the warm tones of the Campanile evolved into a more stunning backdrop for the medieval pageant that played out before us. We settled back into modern chairs, watching bats flap down to scoop up unseen bugs over the heads of the revelers. At ground level heat wafted from warm cobbles. By the time our pizzas arrived we’d slipped into a thoroughly blissful state.

Now while we were only spectators to the events preceding the Palio, we could pretend – just for the moment – that we were locals. It was easy to do in such a setting, with the centuries-old drama playing out on the enormous square, which doubled for now as a race track. After all, we said, we could growl with the best of them. And so, with our bellies full of Pizza Margherita, we raised our flags high and waded out into the crowd.

 

Siena Style Pizza Margherita with Fresh Tomatoes

 

For each 12” pizza:

11 ounces of pizza dough (see recipe below)

6 ounces of thinly sliced vine-ripened tomatoes

3-4 ounces of fresh mozzarella

10 leaves of fresh basil

1 Tablespoon of good olive oil

¼ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of dried oregano (optional)

 

Make the dough: Mix 2½ cups of all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons of dried yeast and ¾ teaspoon of salt with 1 cup of warm water. Knead well and put into a large bowl with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil to keep from sticking. Let rise at least 2 hours in a warm place. This will make enough for 2 pizzas. (For better pizza dough, we use half caputo flour from Italy, cut the yeast in half and let rise for 5 hours.)

For baking in a woodfired oven: Start the fire 2½ hours before you plan on baking the pizza, and build up a mature fire with a nice bed of coals in the center of the oven. An hour before baking put several 3-inch thick sticks on the fire and, once they’re flaming, move the fire from side to side to heat the floor. The oven is ready when ash on the side walls and top is white. Move the fire to the back and put on another few mid-sized logs. They should have a nice even flame when the pizza(s) go in. Brush the floor clean of ashes.

For baking in a conventional oven: Put a pizza stone or quarry tiles on the center rack of your oven and preheat to 450º for at least 30 minutes.

Make the pizzas: Divide the dough into two pieces and spread each piece out on a floured surface until it is 12” in diameter. Sprinkle two peels or cookie sheets with a little cornmeal or flour to allow the pizzas to slip and then move each pizza onto them. Top with basil, olive oil, thinly sliced tomato and pieces of well-drained fresh mozzarella. Sprinkle with salt (necessary) and oregano (optional).

Bake the pizzas: Slip each pizza directly onto the floor of the pizza oven or onto the quarry tiles. Pizzas are baked when the edges of the crust are browned and the cheese is bubbly. In a hot woodfired oven, they will be done in 4 or 5 minutes, and in the conventional oven they will reach perfection in 7 or 8. Turn pizzas around halfway through cooking.

A note about the ingredients: With such a simple pizza, the quality of the ingredients is everything. The best oil, good fresh mozzarella from a local source and freshly picked basil can make all the difference. If you have the time, use the smaller quantity of yeast and let your dough rise for a full 5 hours. And last but not least, use your own vine-ripe tomatoes or buy them from a farm stand. I find the best tomatoes and ripen them for a few days on the kitchen counter until they’re barely soft to the touch.

Now you’re talking Italian!

The Camponile in Siena at night

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At Woodfiredkitchen.com, Sortachef takes you on adventures in the kitchen and beyond, with tales to suit. Many of his offerings are woodfired - a flaming good recipe for pizza, bread, or something different. All recipes are original and tasty. Enjoy!
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