Growing up in Guelph in the 70s, I have many fond memories of my father, a downtown business owner, bringing home a pizza from the local independent pizzeria to watch Hockey Night in Canada in our living room on Saturday evening.
Fast forward to today and Guelph, like any city in Canada, has too many pizzerias to count. Independent pizzerias have mostly been replaced by franchises, and the beloved pizza has become just another fast food joint. They still have a place in the market, but authentic wood-fired pizzas, like those found in Italy, are another option.
To really delve into this topic, we must first look at the types of pizza available in Italy today. Rome, among others, is known for its pizza al trancio, with an assortment of toppings and cooked in a skillet. It’s thick, bread like crust is light and airy. Makes a perfect snack or light lunch. This is what I call a “thick crust pizza”.
The famous wood-fired pizza is sold in pizzerias and usually just for the “cena” or evening meal. These are thin, round, individual sized pizzas baked directly on the pizza stone with the char marks on the crust. That’s what I’m talking about.
They’re appearing on menus more than ever, and they’ll be offering things like “00” flour, San Marzano DOP tomatoes, and mozzarella di buffala. So what exactly are these ingredients and does a good wood-fired thin crust pizza have to have them to be good?
To answer this question, you have to break down the pizza into three elements: crust, sauce and toppings, plus the cooking method.
A wood-fired thin crust pizza should have a thin crust. The best way to achieve a thin crust is to use mostly imported Italian “00” flour or North American ground “00” style flour. (This is an extra finely ground flour with a specific protein range for pizza).
And just as important as the flour is the dough. There are many recipes for making this type of dough, but the best one has a long fermentation or “rise time” which gives it the right gluten development, stretches to get the thin crust and flavor development.
The thick crust pizza mentioned above would use an entirely different flour and dough recipe.
A wood-fired pizza should have a simple tomato sauce. For this reason, the best quality tomatoes, such as San Marzano Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP tomatoes, are generally used. I like to squeeze out some of the extra liquid. Then simply mash by hand with a little salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is all you need. The sauce will cook with the pizza in the oven.
Mozzarella cheese and toppings
Typically, these pizzas are all about the perfect ratio of crust, sauce, cheese, and no more than about three total toppings. Again, due to its simplicity, the best fresh mozzarella is used, either a mozzarella di bufala or a fior di latte. Either preforms well at high temperatures and although they have a high moisture content, dry heat takes care of it.
To create wood-fired pizza, you need a wood-fired oven with a stone floor. Most are imported from Italy. A wood-fired oven can reach temperatures in excess of 900 Farenheit and this dry heat creates the perfect environment for the thin, airy crust. The pizza stone ensures that the heat is evenly distributed and the crust does not burn.
Although you can try a thin crust pizza in a regular oven, with all the right ingredients, the results will never be the same.
Specialized ingredients and a wood-fired oven are absolutely necessary to create the optimal wood-fired pizza. There’s even an association of real Napoletana pizza, AVPN, founded in Naples in 1984 that outlines all the strict requirements for creating real Napoletana wood-fired pizza. This is the specialty wood-fired pizza found in Naples with the distinctive “cornicione” or raised rim crust, with the characteristic charcoal marks.
Since about 2011, wood-fired pizza has been available in Guelph, and at last count there are five locations in town that have a wood-fired oven. They all serve the classic wood-fired pizza, and one has the AVPN distinction, which means they create the real Napoletana wood-fired pizza.
I recently spoke to Bernie Dyer, owner/operator of Buon Gusto restaurant downtown, which was one of the first restaurants in Guelph to have a wood-fired oven.
Dyer describes their wood-fired oven, imported from Reggello, Tuscany, as the restaurant’s “il cuore,” or heart.
Dyer told me; “with such a large Italian community in Guelph and how close it is to Toronto; most patrons already knew what to expect and many were thankful they no longer had to go out of town for those specialty pizzas. »
True to Italian wood-fired pizza, their pizza chefs prepare their daily fresh dough with imported “00” flour and they use imported San Marzano DOP tomatoes with fior di latte mozzarella cheese. The dough is stretched by hand and the pizzas are baked at 900 degrees Fahrenheit for just 90 seconds.
So it seems that even though we don’t travel much these days, you can still get a taste of Italy right here in our own backyard. Are you now going to enjoy wine with this pizza or this beer?