To understand how serious this pizza business is, keep in mind that the art of Neapolitan pizza making has become part of the Unesco World Heritage in 2017! The same foundation that seeks to preserve some pretty important things- like the Vatican and the Taj Mahal- is now also preserving the standards and traditions surrounding Neapolitan Pizza making. For this reason, some rules have been established on the quality and the way of making it, and you are about to discover some of the secrets to this ancient art.
For the classic Margherita and Marinara pizzas, the standard in Naples is San Marzano tomatoes. They are oblong, bright, red tomatoes that grow in a specific area not too far from Salerno (about one hour south of Naples). They are considered a protected and regulated product (DOP), as they must be grown in a specific way meeting high standards. They are juicy, fragrant, and just perfect for that scrumptious pizza sauce.
However, for non-classic Margherita and Marinara pizzas, some specialty tomatoes may be used. One kind that is widely used in Naples is the Pomodorino del Piennolo, which comes in red and yellow varieties. They only grow on the Vesuvius Volcano slopes, a land that is fertile and full of minerals. The yellow tomatoes are the most expensive ones - people call them “ The Vesuvius’ gold” - and when using them you would get a bright yellow pizza sauce base! These tomatoes are absolutely delicious, small like cherry tomatoes but packed with flavor- sweeter than regular tomatoes. They may either be turned into a fine sauce (passata) or just sliced into slivers and baked together with the pizza, just long enough to get a little softer and release that aromatic juice that perfectly marries the cheese.
In other parts of Italy, some other varieties of tomatoes are used, but they all share similar characteristics- they are oblong, not too watery, flavorful, and easy to turn into a dense sauce after being peeled and crushed.
SummarySan Marzano are the tomatoes by excellence for classic red sauce pizza. Some other varieties include the Pomodorino del Piennolo- yellow or red. If San Marzano is impossible to find where you live, oblong peeled tomatoes are the best next choice.
So now that you got your hands on some proper San Marzano tomatoes, how do you turn them into a great sauce?
If you are starting with fresh tomatoes, you want to quickly boil them first- just 2 minutes, do not overdo it! The tomatoes should remain firm, but as you let them cool you will see the skin starting to lose its shape so they become super easy to peel. You now got homemade peeled tomatoes! Canned peeled San Marzano tomatoes may also be used, in which case you would skip this step.
Once the tomatoes are peeled, you can crush them by hand until you get very fine chunks. This is doable if you are making just a few pizzas at home; however, restaurants use a “passino”- a strainer with manually moving blades so that more tomatoes can be crushed all at the same time.
This will create a sauce that is smooth but contains little bits of tomatoes. Passata is not used in most restaurants.
Do you want to know a great trick? Slice the tomatoes in half after peeling them and remove the seeds. You will have an even better flavor devoid of any bitterness. Seeds that get crushed may release a little bit of off-taste- this happens mainly when crushing with a tool; if you are just using your hands, it is unlikely to happen.
Once you have your sauce, just add a pinch of baking soda (to cut any acidity) and salt. Sugar will not be enough to cut the acidity, using baking soda will work much better. That is it! The sauce will NOT be cooked, but simply baked for 60-90 seconds with the pizza (of course home ovens will take longer, so get yourself a Roccbox or an Ooni). Once the pizza comes out of the oven, you will add some fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil- leaving these items uncooked will make the pizza so fresh tasting and fragrant!
For marinara sauce, on the other hand, you would add oregano, a generous dose of extra virgin olive oil, one minced garlic clove, and a pinch of black pepper to the sauce BEFORE putting it on the pizza and baking it. Let it sit for 30 minutes to marinate and you will see how this pizza does not need any cheese at all, as the flavors are simple yet strong. To die for.
Many countries just use the tomato sauce as a base, feeling that all the toppings will just cover it up anyway, and the flavor is more about the cheeses or meats. But if a tomato sauce is truly of great quality and skillfully done, it can be amazing standing alone- it will not even need any extra toppings.
SummaryTo elevate your sauce to another level, quickly boil San Marzano tomatoes, let them cool, peel them and remove the seeds. Do not boil canned tomatoes as they would lose their fresh taste. Then hand crush them till you have just very small bits and then add a pinch of baking soda and salt. The key is simplicity. No spices or herbs should be added other than fresh basil after cooking. Voila! You got the perfect sauce.
So far we have stuck with the traditional sauces, made the way fathers have passed on to their sons for generations. But sometimes it is fun to break the mold and create something innovative.
Italy has different climates and different specialties that grow throughout the peninsula. This lends itself to using local ingredients and creating new variations that may not be common in other areas.
One big trend lately has been the pistachio pesto. Near the Etna Volcano, in Sicily, the climate is just perfect for the best pistachios to all grow near a tiny town called Bronte. In this town, everything is pistachio flavored, from the coffee to the liquors, to the pizza! A typical pistachio pesto recipe includes 150 g pistachios, two tablespoons of parmesan cheese, one tablespoon of pecorino, a couple of basil leaves, and lots of extra virgin olive oil until you reach a creamy consistency. I don’t even know where to get started, but this is one of the best creamy sauces you will ever taste.
It is no surprise then, that this Sicilian sauce is now found on pizzas in restaurants all over Italy, usually topped with mortadella (a mouth-watering artisan cold-cut), provola or fiordilatte cheese, and crushed pistachios for some crunchy texture.
Other pestos are common as pizza bases; arugula pesto- slightly bitter and full of flavor; zucchini pesto- delicate and summery; sundried tomato pesto- savory and fragrant; and of course the classic basil pesto, which originates from Liguria.
In Lombardia (Milan’s region) the weather is colder, comfort food is needed and gorgonzola cheese is king. Many pizzas in that area have a white base made of gorgonzola cheese mixed with mozzarella and topped with some local ingredients like caramelized pears or white asparagus.
Rome has been celebrating its world-renown kinds of pasta such as carbonara, amatriciana and cacio and pepe by placing these sauces on pizza - respectively egg cream and guanciale (smoked Italian bacon); crushed tomatoes, black pepper, guanciale and pecorino; and pecorino cream with black pepper. Can these sauces really still work on pizza? Try them and let me know. This is a perfect example of breaking tradition and discovering something amazing.
If you are into spicy foods you would love pizza in Calabria. They use a local spread made of ‘Nduja - a spreadable pork sausage, bright red in color. They usually mix it with the tomato sauce, so you may not even know it is not a regular red sauce pizza until your mouth is on fire. Have a glass of milk ready just in case.
In every pizzeria in Campania, you will find a specialty that does not have any sauce at all: pizza with salsiccia and friarelli (very similar to broccoli rabe). The base is made of friarelli sauteed in garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and chili peppers, topped with sliced sausages and smoked provolone cheese. Another “green” veggie pizza from this area is topped with sauteed escaroles, olives, and sardines with no cheese. Look how healthy pizza can be!
We could go on forever about different pizza sauces in Italy and talk about Umbria with its truffle sauces, Tuscany and its porcini mushrooms, Liguria and its walnut creamy sauce, or the Sfincione in Sicily, with an onion, sardines, and caciocavallo cheese base. But this would be too much goodness for just one article.
SummaryGet creative with white, green, and red sauces- from spicy pork spreads to unique pestos, there is something for everyone’s taste buds.