Pizza, Anyone? History and Recipes

First, Some Pizza Background

Margherita Pizza
Michele Falzone/Getty Images

Pizza and pizza-like creations are common throughout Italy, and a number of regions claim the honor of having invented pizza in the first place. Not that pizza's invention could ever be proven -- the idea of slipping a flattened disk of dough graced with a topping into a hot oven and baking it quickly is amazingly simple, and many people must have come up with it independently.

Indeed, in a post to It. Hobby. Cucina, the Italian general cooking newsgroup, RoDante da Fano traces pizza's origins from Ancient Egypt to Imperial Rome, where there were a number of different kinds of flat baked breads with a variety of sweet or salty toppings, and goes on to say that the descendents of these proto-pizzas were common throughout the peninsula in the 1700s. In 1835, he continues, Alexandre Dumas noted in his diary that "in Naples pizza is flavored with oil, lard, tallow, cheese, tomato, or anchovies…" Other chroniclers listed other common toppings, also noting that pizza was a cheap food that Neapolitans ate for breakfast or lunch; in the 1870s things stabilized to a degree, when a Neapolitan pizzaiolo created the Margherita, which he named after Italy's beautiful queen, by sprinkling a few fresh basil leaves over a pizza topped with mozzarella and tomato -- red, white and green, the national colors.

The Margherita is still the most popular pizza today, perhaps because it's simple, light and tasty. It's also, in some ways, a better foil for the pizzaiolo's skill than some a pizza with a more elaborate toppings, because what little there is has to be perfect: Well-risen well-turned dough; mozzarella di bufala, made from the milk of the water buffaloes that are raised around Naples; good light tomato sauce; good extra virgin olive oil; and fresh basil. Ideally it should be baked in a wood-fired oven, whose hot floor will rapidly crisp the dough.
At home, a pizza stone can take the place of the terracotta floor of the wood-fired oven, and one can substitute the mozzarella di bufala with mozzarella fiordilatte made from cow's milk (as do most Italian pizzerias). The important thing is that you use good quality ingredients, and make your pizza with care.

To make the dough for 2 12-inch pizzas, you'll need:

  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons, or about 20 grams) active dry yeast
  • 1 1/3 cups (330 ml) warm (105-115 F, or 42-45 C) water
  • 3 1/2 - 3 3/4 cups (400-430 g) all purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • A healthy pinch of salt

Begin by dissolving the yeast in the water, in a large mixing bowl; let it stand for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and mix, either by hand or with a mixer set to low speed, until the ingredients are blended. Now hand-knead the dough or mix it with a dough hook setting the speed to low for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Coat the insides of another bowl with olive oil and turn the dough in it to coat it too, then cover with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place to rise for an hour, or until it doubles in volume.
For the baking, if you have a wood-fired pizza oven, fire it up. If you are instead using your kitchen oven, preheat it to 475 F (250 C) -- if you are using a baking stone it should heat for at least 45 minutes. Otherwise grease and dust two flat baking sheets with corn meal. Divide the dough in half, shape each half into a ball and let them sit for 15 minutes. Then shape them into disks, stretching them out from the center on a floured surface. Do not roll them, because rolling toughens the dough.

You are now ready to assemble the pizzas: Ladle and spread a half cup or so of tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes over the disks, leaving an inch of sauce-free rim, add the toppings, and bake. If you're using a baking stone and have a baker's peel (a thin metal disk with a handle), lightly flour it, slide the pizza onto it, and transfer it to the stone with a deft yank -- the flour will keep the dough from sticking. If you don't have a peel, use a flat cookie sheet instead, lightly flouring it, to transfer the pizza from the work surface to the stone. If you're using a metal baking pan you should bake the pizza towards the bottom of the oven. In a recent post to Rec.Foods.Cooking Karen suggested baking on the bottom rack for about 4 minutes, or until the pizza is firm enough to slide off the pan, and then slide it from the pan straight onto the rack to finish cooking.

The pizza will, in any case, be done when the crust is browned and the toppings are cooked; this takes 3 minutes in a wood-fired oven and about 15 at home. If you discover that the mozzarella begins to brown before the other ingredients are cooked to your satisfaction, the next time add it after the pizza (with the other toppings) has baked for about 5 minutes. Having said all this, once you have your dough, what to do with it? The standard topping combinations one encounters in Italy differ somewhat from those I have encountered elsewhere. The quantities given below will be sufficient for one pizza each, so if you make the dough given above you will need to double the amounts, or select two. Pizza: History and background, traditional and modern recipes, and off-site links.

Begin by either making or buying pizza dough. And now, some suggestions:
Pizza Margherita:

 to honor the Queen
You'll want 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, about a quarter pound of shredded mozzarella, and 3-4 fresh basil leaves. Spread the tomato sauce on the dough, sprinkle with the mozzarella, drizzle with a few drops olive oil, add the basil and bake.
Pizza Marinara: the garlic-lover's delight
You'll want two cloves (or more or less to taste) finely sliced garlic, and 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes. Spread the sauce over the pizza, sprinkle the garlic, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Pizza al Prosciutto: a standby
You'll want 2-3 ounces finely sliced cooked ham, shredded, 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, and 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella. Spread the tomato sauce, sprinkle the with the mozzarella and ham, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Pizza Prosciutto e Funghi: another standby
You'll want about a cup finely sliced Champignon mushrooms, 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 2-3 ounces finely sliced ham, and 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella. Spread the tomato sauce, sprinkle the other toppings over it, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
La Napoletana: yet another standby
1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella, 3-4 anchovy filets or more to taste, 1 tablespoon or so rinsed salted or pickled capers, a dusting of oregano. Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza, dot it with the remaining ingredients, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
L'Atomica: A fiery wonder
Though the one constant is a healthy jolt of crumbled red pepper, the other ingredients vary considerably from pizzaiolo to pizzaiolo.
Variation 1: 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, a tablespoon or to taste salted or pickled capers (rinsed), 3-4 anchovy fillets, boned, a dusting of oregano, and crumbled red pepper, to taste. 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella is optional. Assemble the pizza, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Variation 2: 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 3/4 cup finely sliced mushrooms, a dusting of oregano, crumbled red pepper to taste, and 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella (optional). Assemble the pizza, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Pizza Quattro Stagioni: The four seasons
1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 3-4 canned artichoke hearts, quartered, 5-6 black olives packed in brine (you'll want the sweet variety), 1/2 cup finely sliced mushrooms, 2 ounces finely sliced ham, shredded, and 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella. Spread the tomato and the mozzarella, arrange the other four toppings each in its quarter of the pizza; drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Pizza Capricciosa: Everything in the house
Not really, but it seems like that. It's usually the richest pizza offered, and every pizzaiolo makes it differently. This is based on the Pizzaria Giancarlo, outside Florence's Porta San Frediano. 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella, 1 finely sliced hot dog, 1 link sweet Italian sausage (about 2 inches long), skinned and shredded, 8 thin slices salamino piccante (pepperoni in the anglo-saxon world) 2 ounces thinly sliced ham, shredded, 2 canned artichoke hearts, quartered. Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza, sprinkle the remaining ingredients over the sauce, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.
Pizza ai Quattro Formaggi: Cheese Galore!
1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella, 1/3 cup (each) shredded pecorino, gorgonzola, groviera (Swiss Cheese), and fontina or asiago, one black olive. Spread the tomato, and sprinkle it with the cheeses; the pizza will look almost white. Dot it with the olive and bake.
Pizza alla Bismark:
For reasons unknown to me a pizza with an egg cracked over it so it emerges from the oven sunny-side-up is called a Bismark. Excactly what else goes onto the pizza is up to the pizzaiolo, but ham goes quite well. So: 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes, 2-3 ounces thinly sliced ham, shredded, and an egg. Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza, sprinkle the remaining ingredients over the sauce, crack the egg over the middle of the pizza, drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.<br/>Pizza Vegetariana:
Again lots of variability, though the vegetables used are almost always cooked: stewed peppers, stewed eggplant, artichoke hearts, spinach, and what have you Begin with the standard 1/2 cup tomato sauce or chopped canned tomatoes and 1/4 pound shredded mozzarella, and go from there, adding the cooked vegetables you prefer. Drizzle with a few drops olive oil and bake.

Pizza is an inexhaustible art, and to be quite frank you can use anything you want as a topping. After all, you are the person who has to eat it, and if you like black currant jam (something my father once encountered on a pizza in Germany -- mixed in with the tomato sauce, he said) on your pizza, fine. This doesn't mean one cannot provide some ideas, however, and here are a few more innovative suggestions for pizzas and calzoni.
To get started, you will need: pizza dough -- you can start with frozen pizza disks but that puts you at the mercy of the producer with regards to the quality of the ingredients, and of the merchant for how well it was stored, and though you can buy (at least in Italy) fresh pizza dough from a baker or in the deli section of the supermarket, I would only use it as a last resort.
While the dough is rising, assemble the other ingredients you'll want to top your pizzas with, and come time to make them either preheat your oven to 450 F (225 C), remembering to give your pizza stone an hour to heat through if you are using one, or fire up your wood-fired oven. Everything set? Here we go:
Pizza with Olives, Or Pizza alle Olive
(And quite a bit more.) If you want to be technical, this is almost a focaccia, because the dough is baked and then topped. But it is quite zesty, and will be refreshing on a hot day.
Pizza alla Provenzale 
Pizza need not be made with tomato, and here's a tasty, oniony variation for those who do not like the golden orb (pomo d'oro, or pomodoro in Italian)
Pizza with Clams -- Pizza alle Vongole Veraci
Simple, tasty, and quite elegant. Who could ask for more?
Pizza Focosa -- Fiery Pizza
This is a wintery pizza, with beans and pepperoni to keep the cold at bay.
Pizza Orientale
An unusual pizza, with chicken breast and pineapple, among other things. Tasty, too.
Pizza delle Isole -- South Sea Islands Pizza 
Another innovative pizza, with swordfish and avocado, among other things.
Pizza with Brie and Artichokes -- Pizza Con Brie e Carciofi 
An unusual, but very tasty pizza whose flavors meld beautifully.
A Pesto Pizza 
Though people usually associate pesto sauce with pasta, or perhaps minestrone, it works beautifully in pizza too.<br/>A Maxi Calzone 
A calzone is a pizza folded over, so the topping becomes a filling. This one is beautifully balanced.

Off-Site Pizza Links: History, Etc.

  • Pizza.It
    Italy's Pizza Porthole. All sorts of advice and instruction, job listings, Italian pizzeria listings, recipes, and more. In Italian alas, but it's hard to beat!
  • Pizza Humor
    Great Cartoons!

General Instructions, Doughs & Recipe Collections

  • BBQ Pizza
    You might not think of pizza when you fire up your grill, but intense dry heat is just what you need. Derrick Riches, About's BBQ guide, gives excellent advice.
  • Pizza Therapy's Pizza Making Tools and Tricks
    The link above goes to the tools you'll need, and there are also pages with tips and more tips. From the folks at
  • The Soar Archives Pizza Collection
    An eclectic collection of hundreds of recipes, with everything from apple pizza to zucchini pizza. As always with reader-furnished collections, look the recipe over carefully before you use it.

Specific Pizzas & Calzoni: