In the quest to make the perfect pizza, Natalie Paris signs up for a master class in Naples.
Giovanni raised his eyebrows. I had arrived at a pizza-making class in Naples wearing black. On reflection, it was probably not the best colour for flailing about in clouds of flour.
I was at a tiny pizzeria tucked down a narrow backstreet to learn how to make Neapolitan pizza, the practice of which has been listed by Unesco as being of special cultural importance. So prized is a Neapolitan, characterised by its puffed-up, tender crusts and thin, wet centres, that it has its own regulatory body — the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) — which recognises establishments that serve the real deal. To learn how to create pizza perfection, I signed up for a class with Giovanni Improta and Rosario Piscopo, both certified pizzaiolo masters with more than 50 years' experience between them.
Competition among restaurants is predictably fierce. "Some of the more famous places in Naples put oil from seeds on their pizzas rather than olive oil," Veronica, the class translator, whispered to me as I tied my apron in the pizzeria that Giovanni's grandfather opened in 1935. "It's outrageous," she added.
Not here, however. I watched as Giovanni started by mixing dough from a bowl of water, adding sea salt, yeast, and then, slowly, extra fine 00 flour. I copied his moves, heaping in flour with one hand, massaging with the other, until the dough was smooth and pale. "This is when we add air," said Giovanni as he started kneading the dough. "It is very important".
It was surprisingly strenuous work and I was embarrassed by the clumps of dough that clung to my hands while Giovanni's were almost completely clear. Five minutes in and I had worked up quite a sweat.
Giovanni took one look at my efforts and swept my pile aside, but happily it was to bring out a pillowy mound that he had prepared earlier, explaining that my freshly kneaded dough needed time to rest. I then learnt to separate and cup the dough into fist-sized balls that needed to be left to expand for between 12 and 24 hours. Handily, Rosario had already leavened a disc for me to stretch into a base.
Rosario demonstrated tugging at a corner of the dough before flipping it from one hand to the other, first slowly, then spinning it at a bewildering speed. I began gently to toss the base but my clumsy efforts merely resulted in floppiness. "Slowly," Rosario purred in my ear but, again, the base sagged dolefully about my wrists. I was tragically cack-handed but we managed to save it with some fiddling around the edges.
"I suppose we'll be topping it with buffalo mozzarella?" I asked in a bid to retrieve some dignity with my expert knowledge. "You can do," Rosario said, "but the best thing to do with buffalo mozzarella is enjoy it on its own, with olive oil. We generally use fior di latte, which is made from cow's milk."
Before cheese, though, came the tomatoes, and Neapolitans must feature the rich San Marzano variety. We swirled a spoonful around the base, leaving 1cm-2cm clear around the edges for the crust. Next we sprinkled on fior di latte, grated hard cheese, a few torn basil leaves and finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil in the shape of the number six to ensure good coverage. Done.
Rosario pulled a long-armed spade, known as a peel, from the wood-fired oven and we slid the pizza in. After about 20 seconds, as the crust started to rise, we turned my pizza 45 degrees. I counted to 15 and reached in again with the peel but caught the edge of my pizza on the charred logs. "No!" Rosario grabbed the handle, shook it off and turned the pizza for me.
I feared I would soon be serving up chargrilled pizza, but less than a minute later I was thrilled at my efforts: fruity red tomatoes muddled with bubbling cheese, ringed by a lightly spotted, fulsome crust. It drooped reassuringly as Rosario expertly folded and wrapped my pizza in paper — street-food style — before I hungrily tore off a chunk. A sweet tang of tomato and olive oil hit the roof of my mouth and, if I do say so myself, it tasted fresher than any pizza I have ever tasted. I rolled my tongue around a medley of tantalising textures, all at once delicate, soft, crisp and luscious. The fior di latte was a revelation, adding a mellow suppleness without stealing the show.
I was raring to make another but Rosario was already creating a special pizza of his own, using four different types of cheese, including buffalo mozzarella. Instead, I was handed a certificate of pizza-making excellence that I pocketed carefully, all other proof of my newfound skills having been swiftly polished off.
flies from Auckland to Rome, via Hong Kong, with return Economy Class fares from $1579.
A four-hour class costs from €100 and includes an apron, certificate, welcome coffee, souvenir photo, pizza tasting and a choice of drink. Book through Pizza Experience.