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Everything fresh summer pizza with a cracker-thin crust, and Bicycle Thieves

Antonio Ricci is having a terrible day. His new bicycle was stolen early in the morning, just as he started a new job. Without this bike he loses the new job, the job he could only accept because his wife pawned her treasured dowry sheets to buy the bike; the job he needs to support his family. He and his son Bruno scour the city for the thief, or the bike, or both. He starts the search anxious and doubtful, and becomes increasingly desperate and hopeless as the day goes on and he encounters one crushing disappointment after the next.

For a moment they seem comforted, in the “with strength” sense of the word. The wine, the warm food, the rest for weary feet, each others’ company.

Just as all hope seems lost and their spirits are at their lowest, they stop at a restaurant for a carafe of wine and a brief rest. Bruno looks longingly at a wealthy boy who is making stretchy strings with his melted mozzarella. Antonio notices and orders them both a mozzarella. They drink wine, music is playing, Bruno makes stretchy strings with his mozzarella, though the wealthy boy doesn’t deign to notice. For a moment they seem comforted, in the “with strength” sense of the word. The wine, the warm food, the rest for weary feet, each others’ company. All of these are fortifying, and we feel that maybe a small amount of hope has been restored, or at the very least they have more energy to continue their search. It doesn’t last long. Even as they eat this rare and remarkable treat, the wealthy boy’s family is ordering champagne and cake, seemingly without a care in the world. And poor Antonio looks as though he’s figuring the cost of their small meal, and thinking of the trials the rest of the day will afford. It’s a costly gift, an act of love.

But it’s that sense of comfort that I always remember from the scene: The restorative power of just the right food eaten at just the right time with the right company. I recall the glowing realization of how special this rare splurge is, and how much it means to Bruno, and, in turn, to Antonio.

I wasn’t having the best day when I made this pizza. Not a substinance-providing-bicycle-stolen bad day, just a run of the mill doldrums-and-pervasive-sense-of-discourgement sort of day. But early in the morning I thought about making this pizza, and as the day went on I adjusted the recipe in my mind, until it seemed just simple and perfect. And I had the lovely task of making the dough, which, the way I make it, takes more time than effort, and is a wonderful meditative series of small breaks from all the other tasks of the day, and a series of moments to anticipate eating the pizza you’re making. It provided a different kind of comfort. Not a special occasion treat, but the glow of making something with your hands, the spark of creativity that comes from making a meal as surely as it does from painting a picture or writing a story. And the joy of sharing the fruits of our garden with my family in our wild and teeming summertime yard. Listening to music and talking, and feeling grateful for all of it.

This pizza is simplicity itself. Everything fresh: fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs, fresh mozzarella, and fresh ricotta, piled on a thin and very crispy crust. Nothing is cooked except the pizza itself, so though you do have to turn an oven on, but only for a short time. As with all pizzas, this is endlessly adaptable. The last time I made it I added a layer of thinly sliced eggplant that had been marinated in balsamic and crusted in pine nuts and pistachios. I’ve also added olives and tiny lightly boiled new potatoes. If you make or buy cashew ricotta or any vegan alternative, you can leave out the parmesan and mozzarella and it will be vegan and still be delicious.

THE RECIPE

THE CRUST

The Starter
1 T flour
2 t sugar
2 t yeast
1/4 cup warm water

Mix and leave for about 15 minutes to get bubbly.

1 t lemon juice
2T olive oil
1/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 1/2 cups flour (give or take)

Add the lemon juice and oil and stir to combine, then add the dry ingredients. Mix till you get a raggedy dough, then add enough warm water a small amount at a time till you get a soft, slightly sticky but kneadable dough. You can either knead for five to ten minutes till it’s no longer sticking to your hands and it’s soft and pliable, or knead a few minutes, let it rest for ten minutes or so, knead a few minutes, let it rest for ten minutes or so, and repeat for about an hour.

THE TOPPINGS

1 big ripe tomato, or a couple smaller ones
1 shallot
1 big clove garlic
2 t balsamic
a small handful of fresh herbs: Thyme, rosemary, oregano, finely chopped
about 1 cup grated parmesan
about 1 cup fresh ricotta
about 1 cup fresh mozzarella
drizzle of olive oil
big handful of fresh basil, torn or chopped
salt and pepper

Chop the tomato and put in a colander over a bowl to drain. Finely mince the shallot and garlic, and put in a small bowl with the vinegar and the herbs and a shake of salt. You can add a bit more vinegar to cover the shallot. Stir and set aside to marinate.

Preheat the oven to 450.

Lightly olive oil a half-sheet pan or large cookie sheet. (A half-sheet pan is roughly 17 X 13). Spread the dough on the pan using damp hands to press it and guide it to the edges. If it tears in parts just pull some dough over the hole and keep pressing and spreading till you have a thin even crust. Small holes are fine to leave. Press the very edges to form a slightly elevated edge. Take your time with this. If you try to rush it it can be frustrating, but if your hands are damp and you’re patient, it can be quite meditative. Leave to sit while you preheat the oven. When the oven is hot, put the dough in for about five minutes until it loses its shine and starts to very slightly brown. Meanwhile, mix the tomatoes and shallots together.

Take the crust out of the oven, scatter with a light layer of 1/2 the parmesan, then add dollops of tomatoes, dollops of ricotta, dollops of fresh mozzarella, and finally another light layer of the rest of the parmesan. Sprinkle the top with olive oil and add a shake of salt and a lot of black pepper.

Return to the oven and bake until the edges are brown and the cheese is bubbly and golden. If the edges darken quicker than the cheese melts, you can put it under the broiler for half a minute to finish up the cheese. Remove from the oven and scatter generously with the basil.

Slice and eat!

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