There’s no doubt that pizza is one of the most popular foods in America. The $37 billion industry centers on a product that was once considered ethnic food but is now a dietary staple. From coast to coast you can find pizza in an astonishing array of variations. Whether you’re an East Coaster who prefers large slices of thin crust or a Midwesterner who craves a chewy, deep dish, it’s all based on a classic Italian street food: Pizza Napoletana.
This food from humble beginnings can translate to big business, based on current customer demand. Today’s diners are looking for local and seasonal ingredients, adventurous flavors, eco-friendliness, and they appreciate the process with which their food is created. Across all restaurant segments, consumers are seeking out delicious food prepared with an artisan touch and quality ingredients. Naples-style pizza fits the bill.
The resurgence of classic Naples-style pizza is a boon for bakers. With the right tools and ingredients, any baker can put his or her stamp on the Italian classic. The crux of Naples-style pizza is simple: delicious dough, fresh toppings applied with a light hand, and a hot, fast bake.
Naples-style dough is simple and lean, utilizing only flour, water, yeast and salt. At 60 to 65 percent hydration, the dough is extensible enough to be hand-formed into its typical 10-inch round. The dough is minimally fermented, as it is typically used on the same day it is made. This is an area where an artisan baker could improve on a classic. By extending to overnight fermentation or applying some preferment techniques, bakers could increase the flavor depth and complexity of the finished crust without straying from the simplicity of the product.
The native Neapolitan bakers used their local Type 00 flour. Italian law establishes that flour is to be produced to specific characteristics and then labeled as specific flour type: Type 00, 0, 1, 2, or Wheat. The different designations are relative to milling extraction levels as expressed by the ash value of the flour. Domestically, we do not have flour standards that mandates ash levels and do not have designated flour types.
While many in the pizza industry pay the price for imported flour to recreate the “authentic” pizza, there are reasonably priced flours available domestically that can produce a Naples-style crust. A medium protein winter wheat bread flour will create a nice, extensible dough similar to that prepared with Type 00 flour.
The most popular Neapolitan pizza preparations are Marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano), Margherita, and Extra Margherita (both with tomato, basil and mozzarella). As serious as Italians are about their flour, they may be even more guarded about pizza toppings; when prepared in Europe, Neapolitan pizza must, by law, contain only the aforementioned ingredients.
For American artisan bakers there is plenty of room for creativity while adhering to the tenets of Italian cuisine. The key is to respect the tradition by using a select few quality ingredients that complement each other. Crafting the right product for your customers may begin with local preferences. Is your bakery near the local wharf where you can get fresh shrimp? Add some red peppers and call it a day. A few dollops of ricotta and sprinkling of wild mushrooms make a delightful pairing. Keep it simple – if you load your Naples-style dough with barbecue sauce, pineapple, and ham, the Italian Pizza Police may come knocking.
The last, but definitely not least, component of creating Naples-style pizza is proper baking. In order to achieve the characteristic crispy yet chewy crust that dances on the line between fresh and charred, the pizza must be cooked rapidly. Achieving this perfect baking scenario is largely dependent on the oven. Stone hearth ovens have been in use for thousands of years and continue to product delicious pizza in Italy and across the globe.
As consumers demand more artisanal products, many bakers across the United States returned to stone hearth baking. Michael Brockman, corporate chef at Wood Stone Corporation, explains the significance of baking in a stone hearth oven: “The brilliance of the open flame and the stored heat in the floor and dome create an intense cooking chamber which caramelizes natural sugars in the food. This unlocks waves of natural flavors simply inaccessible with using other types of ovens.”
With cook times averaging 60-90 seconds, baking Naples-style pizza requires oven floor temperature of around 750º F. Pizzas are added to the oven in small groups, spun 180 degrees as they reach the open flame, and then lifted 4-6 inches off of the oven floor into the smoke-filled dome for the last 10-15 seconds. This technique creates perfectly crisp crust, golden-colored tops, and enhances the flavor profile.
If authenticity is your aim, a wood-fired stone hearth is oven is crucial to recreating the true Neapolitan experience. The rustic flair added by the aroma and smokiness of the wood fire will enhance the flavor profile of your pizza and the ambience of your bakery café.
While oak is the perennial favorite of most bakers, there are many options to consider. Picking the right fuel depends on your location, available wood, cost, and preference for flavor qualities of various wood types. Selecting wood based on its specific characteristics and imparted flavor can further showcase your command of the craft.
Use the table below to weigh the pros and cons of various types of wood and decide which works for your bakery. Medium-hard and hard woods are the best for burning and maintaining heat. Depending on your location, this could include oak, maple, ash, beech, or birch. It also includes fruit and nut trees – like apple, almond, cherry, pear, pecan and walnut – which are favored for their fragrance.
Other highly fragrant options include hickory and mesquite, which you’ll recognize as the preferred wood of the barbecue industry. Steer clear of conifers (pines) as they are a poor fuels source. Their high levels of sap and oil creates lots of sparks, too much smoke – imparting an unpleasant taste to food – and prevent the m from producing enough heat.
While many crave the authenticity of a wood-fired oven, gas fueled stone hearth ovens can create a nearly indistinguishable product.
“We discovered that the fuel source is not the secret of the oven; the stone hearth is the secret,” say Brockman.“ By producing the gas-fired stone hearth oven, we’ve solved the problems that wood fire can produce – namely, venting and operational challenges. With gas, operators are able to open in locations previously untenable and standardize their operational training.”
Expanding your repertoire to include Naples-style pizza is an easy way to capitalize on some of the hottest food trends today. Artisanal pizza bridges the gap between gourmet and street food, bringing a high-quality product to a casual atmosphere. It doesn’t require imported ingredients, expensive new equipment, or complicated recipes. Following the three simple elements of Neapolitan pizza – simple dough, unassuming toppings, and the perfect bake – can transform your bakery into a artisanal pizza café.
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