As any Italian will tell you, a pizza shouldn't be messed about with. I may have come across some of the most disgusting-sounding toppings in a pizzeria in the northern city of Turin ('Irish pizza' with stewed beef and potatoes, 'Russian' with caviar and vodka), but I'm pretty sure that was just for the tourists.
In fact the citizens of Naples, who are credited with inventing the pizza as we know it in 1889 in honour of the king's wife, Margherita, secured official EU protected status for their pizza, to distinguish it from inferior imitations. For a pizza to be called Neopolitan, amongst other stipulations it must be topped with genuine buffalo mozzarella and the tastiest San Marzano tomatoes.
Not everyone's content to keep it simple though. At New Year, my housemates and I tested two pizza recipes, pitching a Gordon Ramsay pizza against a reader's. Both recipes were restrained on the toppings, much to my housemates' disappointment. Where was the pepperoni?
To my mind, a plain Margherita can be just as satisfying as a pizza with five toppings. It all comes down to getting the basic elements right - if they're good enough, a pizza needs no embellishments.
Let's start with the dough. Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi of the Cucina Caldesi cookery school in London use Italian beer in theirs, the added yeastiness making it really bubbly and springy. Cookery writer Jane Hornby saves time by not leaving her dough to rise - she says it's not necessary for a thin-based pizza. I prefer a more open-textured crust, so I usually let the dough rise overnight (sometimes it does go a bit crazy and spill over the bowl, but that's half the fun).
Then there's the crispness factor. Nothing beats the intense heat and smoky flavour that comes from a proper wood-burning oven, but if you're cooking pizza at home, the Caldesis advise turning the oven to its highest temperature and placing a pizza stone on the top shelf to heat up, before placing the pizza directly onto it and quickly shutting the door. Jane Hornby suggests preheating an upturned tray if you don't have a pizza stone, which I find works really well. Gordon Ramsay pan-fries the bases before adding the toppings and putting them under the grill, but I find this leaves the middle a bit under-cooked.
As for toppings, all the chefs seem to agree that it's best to be sparing with the sauce and not go too mad on extras, so as to avoid overloading the base and making it soggy. My favourite toppings are garlic prawns (yes, I know, shellfish and cheese is a big no-no to Italians but it's what my mamma makes), artichokes or aubergine and ricotta.
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