A perfectly round, thin-crusted pizza of the kind you can eat in the best pizzerie is a hard thing to make at home. It takes practice and talent to be a first-rate pizzaiolo, or pizza-maker. (I know because I’m trying to master the art!)
But there is a simpler version that is pretty easy to make at home and, while rather different, is also very good. Angelina used to make this pizza casareccia, which she called ‘a pizz in her dialect, for us kids all the time. It was thick–more like a foccaccia perhaps than what you might usually think of as pizza. Angelina’s pizza makes for a wonderful snack or even an informal primo or antipasto. No special skills required.
To make the pizza dough, begin by mixing a small envelope of yeast (7g) into warm water with two teaspoons of sugar and the same amount of salt and mix well. Then put 500g (1 lb.) of flour in the bowl of a mixer, together with 4 tablespoons of gluten if using (see below), turn the mixer on to a moderately slow speed with the dough paddle attached. Add the yeast mixture and then a splash of olive oil (about 4 tablespoons). When those have been incorporated, start adding tepid water until a dough is formed–about 300ml (1-1/4 cups) or so, but exactly quantities are not really possible because there are so many variables, including the weather! The dough you want will be quite elastic but quite soft, even somewhat ‘wet’–much more so than, say, pasta dough–but it needs to be firm enough so you can work with it manageably. Then switch to the dough hook and knead the dough for a good 5 minutes or so. If you find that the dough is so wet it is not forming the proverbial ‘ball, then add some more flour, bit by bit. After kneading, remove the dough from the bowl, plop it onto a lightly floured spianatoia or other surface, and knead it some more by hand, to make sure it has the right, springy consistency. Here’s the test: if you stick your finger into it, the dough should spring back, leaving no trace of your finger.
[In the alternative, if you don't have a mixer or just prefer to do it by hand, pile the flour (and gluten if using) on a surface, making a well in the middle of it (which is called a fontana or "fountain" in Italian). Add the yeast and oil into the middle and begin to incorporate flour by cupping your hands and drawing some of the flour from the sides into the 'fountain' and mixing. Add more water, a bit at a time, and incorporate more flour, until you have formed a dough, then knead by hand for a good 10-15 minutes.]
Now take your dough ball and let it rest in a deep bowl, covered with a cloth towel, for about 2 hours. (Lightly flouring or greasing the dough helps it to rise and prevents it from sticking to the sides of the bowl.) The dough should have risen quite a bit, doubling or even trebling in volume. The dough is now ready to use, although you can punch it down and let it rise a number of times if you like. The longer you let it rise, the tastier it will be. One of our favorite pizzerie in Rome, Dar Poeta, was famous for letting their doughs rise for 24 hours!
To assemble and bake the pizza: Oil a baking dish generously with olive oil. Place the dough in the dish and spread it out with your fingers so it covers the entire bottom of the pan. Cover again with a towel and allow the dough to rise once more for about an hour.
Now top the dough with crushed tomatoes that you will have drained in a sieve to remove the excess liquid. Spread the tomatoes across the top gently with a spoon or spatula, leaving a rather thin coating. Now you can add whatever other toppings that you like: anchovies (as pictured), capers, olives, etc. Sprinkle with just a bit of oregano if you like (please, not too much, just a pinch) and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the oven for about 30-45 minutes. The dough should puff up but don’t allow the top to brown too much. To make sure it is cooked through, slip a small knife into it to see if it comes out clean and the dough feels ‘dry’. If in doubt, you can try a piece–the texture should be a bit chewy but not at all ‘doughy’–and put it back in the oven for a few more minutes. Allow the pizza to cool before eating–slightly warm or at room temperature, it’s delicious!
NOTES: The best flour to use for pizza (and for bread, in my opinion) is high-gluten flour, which is to say flour with a protein content of 12% or more. But if like me you cannot find high-gluten flour in your local market, you can substitute all-purpose flour mixed with gluten, which is fairly easy to find commercially. For 500g of flour, use about 4 teaspoons of gluten. Or, if you live in North America, you can order high-gluten flour online from the King Arthur Flour company. Gluten gives the resulting pizza much more body than regular flour alone. But if you can’t find high-gluten flour or gluten, no worries–the pizza will turn out a little softer, but every bit as delicious!
As mentioned, the choice of toppings is yours. Angelina typically used either just tomato or (my personal favorite) tomato and anchovies. My Mom tells me that Angelina also sometimes topped her pizza with fried bread crumbs–something I don’t remember but I will have to try. If you want to top your pizza casareccia with mozzarella, add it only toward the end of cooking, and remove the pizza when the cheese is well melted.
You can use pizza dough for other purposes, too. Angelina used to make little savory zeppole–balls of pizza dough, stuffed with anchovies and fried in olive oil. Hmm, those were really good. And, of course, zeppole can be sweet, too, dusted with confectioner’s sugar and, if you like, stuffed with jelly and other sweet things. In Rome, these are called Bigne di San Giuseppe, and are served on St. Joseph’s Day (19 March).
By the way, I made my first attempt at the pizzeria-style pizza, which I made on a pizza stone in my barbecue. (Barbecues are practical in the summer, as they don’t heat up the kitchen, but they also have the advantage of getting much hotter than your average oven.) Here’s a shot of my first attempt: the flavor was actually quite good, but I need to work on getting the dough thin–I like my crust very, very thin, Roman style–and, even more, shaping the pizza… )