Many moons ago, when I had no husband, no children, no pets, and not much, I left home to fend for myself. However different things may have been back then, I was already an Italophile. All these years later, my feelings of affection for the country remain, and I still cherish one of the very first cookbooks I was ever given: Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook.
Their were two printings of this book, one a glorious oversized coffee-table book, and the version I received, which was in the form of a small datebook. It was a Christmas present to me from a family friend, who'd pulled my name out of a hat after Thanksgiving dinner in 1990. We "kids" used to arrange a gift swap every Christmas, and Italy the Beautiful was chosen for me based on a rather obvious hint I'd supplied: "I really want this!" I'd been ogling it for months at Border's during my after-work forays.
I spent a lot of time gazing at the beautiful photographs and reading the explanations of the food traditions in the various regions of Italy. And, over the course of years, I spent many evenings attempting to make the dishes pictured in the book, learning how to make Beet Greens with Anchovies, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Zuppa Pavese, Gnocchi alla Romana, Beet Ravioli, and Radicchio with Bacon. But my favorite, by far, was the simple Pizza Margherita. Even though the book is ring-bound, with no spine, it still generally falls open to this page because I made this pizza so often. It was my favorite. Yesterday I made it for the first time in a while, and it is just as good as ever, and still one of my favorite foods.
Pizza Margherita/Traditional Pizza
1 oz. (30 g.) fresh yeast or 1 envelope dry yeast (2 tsp.)
4 cups (1 lb./500 g) all-purpose (plain) flour
1 lb. (500 g) plum (egg) tomatoes, peeled and cut into thin wedges
10 oz. (315 g) mozzarella, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/3 cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) extra virgin olive oil
Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup (4 fl oz/125 ml) warm water. Heap the flour in a mound on a board, make a well in the center and pour in the dissolved yeast. Add enough extra water to form a soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Cover with a towel and let rise in a large bowl until doubled in volume.
Press and stretch dough out in a circle 3/8 in (1 cm) thick on a floured board with the fingertips; do not use a rolling pin.
Flour a baking sheet and place the dough onto it.
Cover the pizza base with the mozzarella slices, top with tomato, sprinkle with oregano and drizzle the oil over. Bake in a 450F (230 C) oven until the crust is lightly browned. Serve hot. Serves 4-6 [not really].
Sometimes I make the dough, sometimes I buy it. Sometimes I have sliced mozzarella, sometimes shredded. Sometimes I have plum tomatoes, sometimes diced, or sauce from a jar, even. You make do with what you have. Over time, the only lasting tweak I can recommend is a sprinkling of salt added to the tomatoes. When I was in Venice last winter, I carefully watched a pizza maker using the same simple ingredients, and noticed that he added salt directly to the can of tomatoes, which he then gave a stir. Seems like a good idea, for evenness.
It feels sweet to see my husband and sons enjoy this now, because this pizza is a part of my history, a part of me; and I wonder now if perhaps I felt lonely eating it alone! It's so nice to share it with people I love.
While the 1991 datebook is no longer available, you can still get a copy of the cookbook Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook by Lorenza De Medici