I have been asked to submit a posting for Writing at the Kitchen Table. Over the past four years, I have served as spouse of the author and more recently as food critic, sous chef, and blog editor. In all respects I have performed admirably. As spouse because I’m one heck of a great guy and as food critic because I’m a glutton.

What occasionally comes out in the blog is the fact that I’m also a decent cook in my own right. I tend to play it safe, but this may be due to my Midwestern upbringing. The result of this will be that my postings will not be considered gourmet, but will, nonetheless, be yumaroo.

Pizza is one of my oldest childhood memories. There were several delicious pizza places near my parents’ home in LaCrosse. Rocky Rococo has already received mention in this blog, but I will expound. Affectionately known as Rocky’s, this pizzeria is a third of a “triumvirate” (My brother Lee’s word for it) of cheap food joints one must visit while in LaCrosse (The other two being Taco Johns and Coney Island (from whence our greyhound got her name)). Although, after recent visits, I must comment that Rocky’s is not as cheap now as I remember it to be. This hasn’t detracted from the greatness of their food though.

The Rocky’s experience is far from traditional Italian. The pizza is more in the vein of Chicago style deep-dish heavily laden with sauce. Most Americans have no idea what constitutes Italian cooking and what we do ingest is about as far removed from the Mediterranean as the fictitious “founder” of Rocky’s is from a proper Italian. Okay, it’s true, he’s supposed to represent a Sicilian, but apart from the Fedora… I digress. I remember walking home from elementary school and stopping in for an enormous rectangular slice for $0.75 at least once a week. (The same slice is now smaller and about $2.50) Every time Freya and I go back to America we’re bound to hear no less than two times per trip, “Do you kids want Rocky’s?” as my mom knows that this will always be a hit. After years of the English variety, Freya wouldn’t even touch a pizza until she was introduced to the Super Slice of the Day! That’s how influential this pizza is.

Closer to the spirit of the Italian tradition is Edwardos (Pizza Wagon in my youth). The strange spelling owing to a corruption of the owners Celtic name Edwards. As a child, I remember Pizza Wagon ‘za being the quintessential New York variety. You know the kind! You see it in episodes of Seinfeld or old New York grindhouse movies (Freya calls it Driller Killer pizza (only she can watch a movie like this and feel hungry afterward)). It comes in a thin plain white cardboard box. The pizza itself is as thin as the cardboard and greasier than a teenage pajama party. You know it’s not good for you, but when you see one, you want it!

I have really vivid memories of the pizza my mom made when I was young. It’s definitely not traditional, but it was always really good. I have her crust recipe, but I can’t get it to work like she did. Mine always comes out doughy and soggy. The sauce she used was a recipe from Gin Schelin, a family friend. This sauce is nearly a perfect balance of sweet and savoury and I still use the recipe with only minor tweaking.

I know I’ve managed to conjure up in your mind the archetypal American with a hotdog in one hand, a hamburger in the other, and an instinctive need to wage war, but I don’t care. Foods from childhood are very important. As children we don’t have much say in anything, but our parents tend to feed us what we like. It’s just easier for them. The result is that most people have very vivid memories of childhood food. They represent autonomy, comfort, and, in my case, a sense of community. As we get older, we think back to times we spent with family and friends; to picnics and Thanksgiving dinners (if you’re lucky enough to celebrate this great tradition), to Friday night fish and chips, July 4th barbeques……and we’re instantly transported back to a time when other people took care of us and paid our bills.

Now I’ll return to the matter at hand. Pizza. I have experimented a lot with pizza recipes over the years and have finally come up with the best pizza ever! It was quite simple really. I just turned to a traditional Italian recipe and strange as it may sound, the Italians make a great pizza! Traditional pizza should have a slightly sour yeasty crust that doesn’t rise after an initial proving. As with most recipes in Italy, the sauce should not overwhelm the rest of the dish. The pizza itself should be cooked in a clay oven or on a pizza stone.

Sauce Recipe (modified Gin Schelin):
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1/4 cup tomato puree
1 tsp sugar
2/3 cup chopped onion
2 cans tomato
small bunch of fresh basil roughly torn
1 tsp salt
splash of malt vinegar
Over low heat saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent. Add remaining ingredients, crushing tomatoes with back of spoon. Simmer over low heat for a minimum of 50 minutes.
Crust Recipe: Based on a recipe by renowned Italian-American food writer Marcella Hazan
Yields two 10 inch pizzas
3 cups durum wheat semolina flour (I like a mixture of 2c refined Italian semolina and 1c unrefined (usually found in health food stores.))
2tsp sea salt
1 sachet dry yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pour flour onto work surface or mixing bowl, make a hollow in the centre.
Fill the hollow with the salt, olive oil, and dissolved yeast. Mix all ingredients until they form a ball you can work with. Knead the dough for 8-10 minutes until it feels solid and slightly rubbery.
Put the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a damp tea towel. Allow to rise for 3-4 hours until the dough has doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and roll out to form a circle.
Place the circle on a preheated pizza stone. I like some cornmeal sprinkled on the stone before adding the crust. That’s how my mom did it!
Ladle sauce onto circle, cover with cheese and toppings of your choice.
Bake for 20 minutes at 190°C/380°F

A postscript about toppings:
There are plenty of basic ingredients which everyone is familiar with; onions, peppers, pepperoni, etc. American readers may be as shocked as me to find that a popular combination in England is tuna and sweetcorn. In Italy, it’s traditional to crack a raw egg on top of your pizza after it comes out of the oven. My wife really likes a white pizza (no tomato sauce) with thinly sliced fried potatoes, spring onions, green chillies, and creme fraiche on top. My favourite is a good quality Spanish chorizo with green olives and jalapenos.


Anonymous said...

really enjoyed reading this blog about pizza. Brought back many memories and it was nice to hear from the child's side.

Kristen said...

What a great guest columnist column. That pizza looks fantastic!

Paul said...

I only feel the need to wage war when I don't have a hot dog in one hand and a hamburger in the other.

Great post! I love Rocky's too.

Freya said...

This is an ancient post! I did update it last night though because I sent Rocky an email asking for coupons for a free slice. That's the only reason I can figure why I'm getting comments now.
The pizza is also very easy to make. I'm tempted to make some for lunch, but I have plans.
The hot dog has to have chilli on it and the hamburger should be a butter burger with some Kopps frozen custard on the side.
I'd do anything for some sweet, sweet Rocky's right now! Instead, I'm having a can of Manwich that I've been treasuring since buying it two years ago.

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

If you like chorizo, may I suggest the "iberian acorn" kind. This spanish charcuterie comes from iberian race pigs that are raised in the wild and fed with acorns and grasses.
More about iberian acorn chorizo
... and if you've got a FEW extra bucks with you, you might be interested in tasting "spanish iberian ham" too!