When chef Oriana Tirabassi describes the preparation for a pizza, it is like watching someone talk passionately about an emotional book they have just read or a movie they have watched. She compares the dough for the crust to a little baby that needs to be nurtured. She explains, with animated gestures, how it’s a crime to use a rolling pin on the dough. “It kills all the natural enzymes in it,” says the Italian chef at JW Marriott, Mumbai. The crust needs to be made with delicate strokes of the finger, “like a massage”. That allows it to be perfectly cooked all around.
For her, the perfect base makes the best pizza.
Pizza is a popular fast food that changes according to the location where it is sold. Pizza chains in India have popularized chicken tikka pizza and keema pizza. When the California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) opened recently in India, it introduced the red curry pizza. From its most popular pie, the delicious BBQ Chicken Pizza, to combinations such as Thai Chicken Pizza and Greek Salad Pizza, it’s creativity with toppings that keeps this Californian chain going. “Nobody else provides the kind of fusion we do. We constantly innovate so our pizzas can be different,” says chef B.C. Park of CPK.
In India, it’s usually the topping that is king. But there’s one pizza that goes without any topping—the Margherita is all about few and fine ingredients.
Very little is known about the crust on which the entire setting stands. In Italy, the thickness of the crust changes depending on the area. Alessandro Persico, chef de cuisine, Cellini at Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, the Italian restaurant popular for its pizzas, says: “The original base from Naples is about 1cm in thickness and if you go towards the south, it gets thinner, about 3mm. Crispy on the side and soft in the middle.” Tirabassi says. In Italy, says Tirabassi, the base is thick when the household is poor—it could go up to about 5cm in thickness since there may not be too many options available for toppings.
Ace of base:(clockwise from left) Chef Tirabassi uses buffalo mozzarella for her pizzas; Pizza Margherita; and Tirabassi tosses the base. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
If the base is made correctly, she says, the pizza is easy to digest. At her hotel kitchen, while shaping the dough into a flat base for the crust, she points to the sides. “I never touch the corners. It’s supposed to be thicker on the sides. All the air from the dough collects here,” she says. What makes this pizza easy to digest is that the air from the dough is collected on to the sides and released when the pieces are cut, instead of being ingested. The base is best when the dough is allowed to rise for 24 hours at least. “If the oven is good and heated to the right temperature, you do not need oil,” she says.
Tirabassi says she loves fusion pizza, but it’s important for chefs to stay true to basics. Her sauce is simple, with peeled tomatoes, basil and garlic blended together. “Some people cook the sauce. That’s wrong,” she adds.
Since cheese is the only topping on the Margherita, it has to be perfect. “Use only buffalo mozzarella. Mozzarella is not called mozzarella cheese. That’s wrong,” she says. Tirabassi breaks the pieces of mozzarella on the pie and it’s ready for the oven. The oven needs to be heated at least 4 hours in advance. Although a wood-fired oven is the best, getting the right kind of wood is difficult. So she uses gas to get flames in her oven.
In around 5 minutes, the pizza is ready. She cuts the pieces and pulls them out. “Mozzarella is not supposed to stretch like elastic,” she says. She points to the vapour releasing from the hollow sides of the pizza.
Serve the pizza on a wooden tray so it doesn’t turn soggy. Pick up a piece and fold it in slightly from both sides of the broad end. If it’s made well, it won’t fall limp at the narrow end. “Now eat. No need for a fork and knife,” says Tirabassi.