What constitutes a real pizza and can you make it at home?
With a proliferation of new pizza places opening across the country in recent months, Alex Meehan explores what's fuelling our appetite for the Italian classic
What's more basic than the humble pizza? We're talking dough, crushed tomatoes and cheese, just three basic ingredients, and yet together they make up a dish that's served in virtually every country in the world.
This Italian classic is undergoing something of a resurgence. Pizza - more specifically artisan pizza - seems to be everywhere at the minute, with restaurants devoted to it popping up in increasing numbers. But what's the difference between a takeaway pizza you'd get delivered, a frozen one you'd buy in the supermarket, and the ones served up in these restaurants?
"People use this word, artisan, about us, but to be honest I'm not sure what they mean," says Ronan Greaney, who runs the Dough Bros restaurant in Galway with his brother Eugene.
"There are so many forms and types of pizza to begin with that it quickly becomes bewildering. You can have Chicago style, New York style, Neapolitan style - and lots of people don't even agree on what the right way to make it is in the first place," he says.
"For us, artisan comes back to the quality of the fundamentals and the respect that you approach the process with. It's also about the ingredients. We import flour from Naples, we use a particular type of tomatoes, we use buffalo mozzarella. We make the dough by hand and even stretch it by hand."
For many Irish people, their first experience of pizza is from a supermarket or mass-market delivery company. "It's a shame," Greaney says, "because it doesn't do the real thing justice."
Cheap ingredients, lots of preservatives and additives, and the wrong base to topping ratios result in a product which is pizza in name only, he believes. To make matters worse, a delivered pizza often sits in a cardboard box steaming away for up to 30 minutes before arriving at your door. The real thing is a world apart, and the differences start with the dough.
"A good dough is exceptionally pure. It's made with flour, water, salt and yeast - nothing else. When you order a pizza from a large commercial supplier, it's often got other things in the base. Preservatives, sugar and oils are common for example, as is the addition of a lot more salt," Greaney says.
"The weight of the dough is also important. In a commercial pizza, more of the product will be made up of what is basically bread, because it's cheap. The result is a much heavier meal. But you shouldn't feel like you can't get off the couch after eating a pizza."
When it comes to toppings, Dough Bros veers a little away from the traditional, using seven different cheeses across their range.
"We're lucky to have the likes of Gubbeen and Toons Bridge in Ireland, amazing local products that are true to the spirit of the original Italian products but which are uniquely Irish. They're great producers and we can guarantee the traceability of our suppliers as a result," he says.
"Toby Simmons in Toons Bridge was the first person to bring in buffalos from Italy to Ireland and offer an Irish mozzarella, and over the last while we've been working with him on the development of an Irish fior di latte, which is a kind of mozzarella made from cow's milk. Now it's on nearly all of our pizzas. It has just the right melting texture and it's delicious."
But one place where Greaney feels there's no substitute for the Italian original is tomatoes. The best in the world, as far as he's concerned, is the San Marzano, a variety of plum tomato grown in volcanic soil at the foot of Mount Vesuvius near Naples. "They're a long thin tomato and are the perfect blend of sweet and savoury. Irish tomatoes need to be cooked with sugar and salt to try to balance out the flavour, but good San Marzano tomatoes can be eaten directly from the tin. They're just amazing," he says.
While Greaney is among the new wave of Irish pizza makers, Grace Terrinoni and her family have a long history of it - they've been running Pizzastop on Chatham Lane in Dublin since 1988, making it one of the oldest pizza restaurants still in operation in Ireland. The secret to this longevity is simple, she says: simple ingredients, classic recipes and a great tasting product.
"Demand for pizza has been consistent for the last 30 years, because people love good pizza and we're known for that. We have lots of regular customers who have been coming in since the beginning, and some of them are now starting to come in with their children and even grandchildren," she says.
"It's all about fresh ingredients and a great dough. We use fresh yeast and we let our dough prove for 12 hours, and that makes a huge difference. I can't give away our trade secrets, but we consider ourselves to be staunch traditionalists and we do everything by hand."
Pizzastop was set up by Grace's husband Germano 30 years ago with the goal of offering Neapolitan-style pizza to Dubliners - and that means thin and crispy bases with just the right amount of topping. While he passed away earlier this year, the restaurant is continued by Grace and her sons.
"We do proper Neapolitan-style pizza, baked in a super-hot pizza oven so that it only takes around two minutes to cook. In terms of toppings, the classic margherita is always there but people also love Parma ham, fresh parmesan and rocket," she says.
And as for the eternal debate about pineapple on pizzas? Terrinoni has a very strong view. "We don't do it," she says. "There's no place for pineapple on pizza."
Know your pizza styles
Neapolitan: the original and most traditional pizza features a thin and crispy base topped with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, basil leaves and extra virgin olive oil. According to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the genuine thing must be formed by hand and may be no more than three millimetres thick. It must then be baked for 60 to 90 seconds in a 485˚C stone oven with an oak-wood fire. The Dublin pizza restaurant Forno 500 became the 707th restaurant to feature on the association's list of top pizzerias around the world earlier this year.
New York: related to the Neapolitan, but traditionally cooked in a coal-fired oven and featuring a much wider spread of toppings, from pepperoni to sausage, mushroom and anchovies. Also made larger so that each slice can be sold separately and folded to make it easier to eat.
Sicilian: a rectangular pizza made with a thick, focaccia-like base topped with tomatoes, onions, anchovies, herbs and strong cheese such as caciocavallo and toma.
Chicago: the original deep-pan pizza. Not a true pizza in the Italian style, but more of its own thing. Made with a buttery dough pressed into a deep cast iron dish, coated with cheese and then tomato sauce and toppings on top. It features a lip, like a pie.
Can you make real pizza at home?
Authentic Neapolitan pizza is cooked in an oak wood-fired stone oven that can hit temperatures in excess of 500 degrees. No domestic oven can produce temperatures like that, so is it possible to produce authentic pizza at home?
Ronan Greaney (below) of the Dough Bros thinks it is, but the secret is a pizza stone - a stone slab that you place in the oven in advance. "The secret is in the way heat is transferred into the base of the pizza in your oven. You need a pizza stone - Jamie Oliver sells some good ones, but a heat-resistant stone slab is all that's really needed and you can get good results with one of those," he says. "You need to whack the oven up to the hottest temperature and preheat the stone as hot as it will go. Other than that, it's about the time and effort in making and resting a good dough."
Alternatively, you can pick up partially baked bases in many supermarkets around the country, such as those made by the Artisan Pizza Company, which is run by Italian baker Gianpiero De Vallier and his Irish wife Cliona. These bases have won many awards and are made with just five ingredients - flour, water, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and yeast.
"The secret to why they work so well is that we bake them on a stone at a high temperature for a couple of minutes, then cool and package them," says Cliona De Vallier (left). "So when you get them in the shops, they're pre-baked. All you have to do is top them with sauce and cheese and you're away."
Stocked in Avoca, Dunnes, Super Valu and Tesco around the country, the bases have become hugely popular over the past few years. "It took a long time to get people onside, but the reason people buy them is because they work," says Cliona. "They produce a pizza that's as good as one made from scratch with none of the hassle of kneading and proving dough the traditional way."