A common food available on every street corner, pizza is a family friendly and favorite food.
Friday nights in any Italian neighborhood you can find pizza, tomato pie, white pie or several variations as a gathering point for families.
Growing up in West Philadelphia, on a Friday night, in a row home basement bakery, people would gather and wait for the steaming pies to come out of the ovens. They took home their pies wrapped in brown paper and tied with a length of twine. The aroma of that crusty dough rising and baking would fill the air. You always knew it was Friday by the scent of tomato and melted cheese.
Lately the allure of actually owning a wood fired pizza oven is very real. You can buy pizza stones, pizza peels, 000 flour to make the dough, just about any gadget to make that dream a reality.
This enormous interest in Pizza has sparked some very different and delicious toppings, anything from oven roasted vegetables to a drizzle of fig jam or a blessing of balsamic glaze, pizza comes in all flavors.
On a trip to Abruzzi, the ancestral home of my father, we went visiting cousins and paesano. We sat around tables laden with homemade pasta, freshly roasted chickens, porchette, redolent with the aromas of rosemary and garlic, but my favorite meal of all time remains the 10 different types of pizza made in a cellar pizza oven, eaten and enjoyed around a 15 foot farm table with homemade wines as centerpieces, instead of candles or flowers.
Luigi and Lorella live in a home built by their sons, surrounded by fields of grapevines and olive trees, tomato plants and the rolling vistas of the mountians of Abruzzi.
"Come for pizza"a simple dinner she said, 8 o'clock. We arrived hungry and with anticipation, Lorella is a fabulous cook using all the fresh ingredients surrounding her home.
Down the marble steps to the cellar, we gathered around the pizza oven as she, with the helping hand of Rina, her son's fiance' stretched out the dough, roasted the vegetables, broke up the pieces of cheese and tore the fresh basil into pieces. The sound of Beach Boys echoed through out the house, they wanted us to feel at home, American music playing just for us.
The toppings were unforgettable, whole gamberetti, still with their eyes staring at us, vegetables kissed by the heat of the oven, growing in the garden just that morning, cheese made from the sheep and cows that roamed their land, sausages and prosciutto cured that past winter, sliced thin and laid gently on the cooked pies.
We couldn't have dreamed for a more luscious and satisfying meal. Homemade wines, chilled, in colored bottles lined the long tables as pie after pie came out of that burning oven. It is a meal I will never forget.
I thought many times of recreating, as best I could that memory of pizza. I have to say I am daunted by pizza, the throwing of the dough, stretching it to a perfect circle, crisp not soggy, light yet flavorful. But as with anything I am reticent about I jump in with two feet, in this case two hands!
I was determined to make pizza!
Not having the resources of owning a pizza oven, I took my ideas to the grill. The best way for me to learn how to make a fabulous pie was to teach a cooking class, this way I would be forced to create, think and do.
I scoured cookbooks, talked to my son Dominick, his favorite food of all time to eat and to make is pizza, he and his wife Carrie, along with my parents, were with us at the wonderful feast prepared by Lorella.
"A Taste of Summer" my cooking class advertised. Farm fresh foods, light, colorful~ a perfect summer meal.
On the Sunday before class Clint and I stopped at the roadside farmers markets that line Jerseys` back roads. There I found inspiration and farm fresh produce.
Bright green string beans, long yellow wax beans, fat peppery radishes, thick cucumbers, a colorful array of peppers, a big round watermelon was tucked in my backseat, startlingly white button mushrooms, woodsy Shitake and Crimini mushrooms purchased earlier in the week at a local farmers market rounded out my ingredients, I had an assortment of savory cheese, Pecorino, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella, a smoked Gouda, grated Locatelli. I made a saute pan full of golden garlic cloves swimming in olive oil, I cooked down huge Vadalia onions, slowly in Amish sweet butter until all that remained was a paste so good you could eat it with a spoon. I chopped baby arugula, made a balsamic glaze with a touch of honey to temper the sharp vinegar taste, cooked some broccoli rabe with red pepper flakes keeping the bitterness intact, I sliced yellow plum tomatoes, chopped artichoke hearts swimming in olive oil, I was ready!
The trick to doing pizza on the grill is to BE READY, have everything at arms length ready to go. If you look away you will have a blackened crust in no time flat.
My cooking class included some flavorful and light salads, Watermelon with Feta and shredded Mint, Yellow and Green Bean Salad with thinly sliced radishes and chopped grape tomatoes, a Greek inspired Cucumber Salad with speckles of dill, Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers floating in extra virgin olive oil with shreds of Italian parsley, a Pasta Salad made with yellow and red tiny tomatoes that rested in a bath of olive oil, basil, coarse salt and freshly cracked pepper for most of the day producing a juicy dressing that coated the pasta with the bright flavors of summer. I made a marinated, Grilled Spicy Skewered Shrimp that was accompanied by a Cantaloupe and Honeydew Salsa.
I also made a variety of Panini, stuffed with imported Capicola, arugula and tomato, fresh baby spinach and ricotta cheese, oven roasted pork sprinkled with rosemary and garlic, sliced thin and served with bitter broccoli and sharp provolone cheese, a Ciabatta roll brushed with basil pesto and filled with oven roasted vegetables, white baby eggplant, peppers, mushrooms and charred thin asparagus.
The star of the show was the pizza, blistered and hot with an array of toppings, they came off the grill in minutes to a waiting crowd. Slipped onto a big wooden pasta board and sliced with a pizza wheel, everyone gathered around to oh and ah, sipping wine under the stars twinkling through my big backyard tree.
My night in Italy was recreated! The pizza was perfect, the crowd happy and as I stood by the grill cooking 15 pizza pies to the laughter and encouragement of all whom came to my class, I thought to myself "Does it get better than this???"
I am an optimistic and happy person.. I would rather see life as exciting and challenging and enjoy every minute than dwell on the negative .. I love to cook and have my family around .. big family dinners and celebrations are always held in my home.. I have a huge table 10 feet long ..filled with food and family.. I have learned many of my mom's old recipes and try to recreate many of the dishes I grew up with .. I am teaching my grandsons to cook .. they love it! I have a wonderful,happy, loving relationship with my husband. He supports me in everything I do and is my biggest fan and taste tester.. he loves all things Italian too!
I love to cook, write, eat and laugh .. I wrote a cookbook in 2004.. the title? LIVE,LAUGH,COOK! what else!