NEW YORK — Let Thanksgiving have the turkey. Let Christmas have fruitcake. Every other day, it’s got to be pizza.
So argue Thom and James Elliot, brothers and pizza makers from England who have written a book celebrating the worldwide phenomenon of roundish dough cooked with toppings.
In the 270-page “Pizza: History, recipes, stories, people, places, love” (Quadrille), the brothers offer over 30 recipes (see two below) for homemade pizzas — including a carbonara and one with asparagus and pancetta — as well as eating guides to delicious slices in cities like Rome, Paris, Chicago and New York. It turns out New Haven, Connecticut, has a very distinct and vibrant pizza scene, though its just 70 miles from New York.
The Elliots marvel that while the pizza we eat today was invented in Naples in the late 1800s, other cultures have their own versions, from one with spiced ground meat in Lebanon to a baguette topped with mushroom and cheese in Poland.
“All these countries came up with this on their own. And that is the definition of a good idea, right?” says James Elliot. “It’s a bit like the way so many cultures created beer independently. Just great ideas make it through.”
The brothers include sections on controversial ingredients — pineapple, that’s you — and which drinks to pair with a slice, as well as the various ways people can eat it, from rolling it into a cigar to a technique called the “snag and drag.”
They present the info without judgement, refusing to weigh in on whether coal ovens are better than wood or if buffalo milk is better than cow milk for making mozzarella.
“There’s that saying: There’s two kinds of people in the world — people that love ABBA and liars,” says James Elliot. “Not all music has to be high and mighty in the same way that not all pizza has to be high and mighty. You can love different songs and different pizzas for all kinds of different reasons.”
The origins of the book began when the brothers ditched their regular jobs in 2012 to go to Naples and learn all about pizza. They traveled the length of Italy and the world and, once educated in all things delicious, came back to the United Kingdom to open a chain of pizzerias, Pizza Pilgrims.
In Chicago, they encountered that city’s famous, dense variation. “We ate four deep dishes a day for five days,” says Thom Elliot. “I really surprised myself. I went to confirm my hatred of it, but actually left being like, ‘This has got a place for sure.’”
The book is a distillation of all they learned, from pizza records (“Cheesiest Pizza,” “Furthest Pizza Delivery”) to how to work with active dry yeast. The working title was “The Pizzapedia,” but the authors felt that didn’t convey their love of the food. “Encyclopedia just feels quite cold and quite factual,” says Thom Ellliot.
“We’ve been told by so many people in so many different ways that pizza is not enough to carry a book. ‘There are not enough interesting things to say about pizza.’ And so we have been on this mission for five years to write a longer and longer and longer and longer list of why these people are wrong.”
Despite the brothers’ obvious respect for the classic Neapolitan version, they acknowledge the impact of the huge pizza-making chains, like Pizza Hut and Domino’s. The book includes interviews with their executives, who oversee companies making millions of pizzas a year.
“You can’t ignore it. They’re doing something right. Whatever you think, they’re doing something right,” says Thom Ellliot. “They love pizza. These are not people who are just sitting there going, ‘Oh, we don’t care. It’s just all about the margin and how do we sell more for less.’”
Pizza, to the brothers, is clearly woven into the fabric of humanity, a cheap, delicious, satisfying meal that can be scaled up or down. It’s a food we eat when we are celebrating, gathering for entertainment, working hard collectively or when we’re just in need of a hug.
“Pizza is the place that people turn when they’re struggling, when they break up, when they lose their job, when they’re just having a tough day. Pizza is the food that they talk about — like their spouse — that thing that carries them over the line,” says Thom Ellliot.
“I really genuinely think that you don’t get that with any other kind of food, even the ones that people obsess about, like barbeque. People don’t turn to barbecue in their time of need. They geek out about it and they obsess about it and they see perfection. But they don’t have it like a crutch in their life.”
Make a pizza Margherita like an Italian. Here’s how.
The Margherita is the undisputed heavyweight champion of pizza. It’s the pizza that any pizza chef would order to get the measure of a new pizzeria because there is nothing to hide behind; no snazzy flavors to mask the quality of your ingredients, dough and skill with the oven. Here is Thom Elliot and James Elliot’s recipe from their new book, “Pizza.”
For the tomato sauce
Makes enough for 4 pizzas
— 1 x 14 ounce (400 grams) can of San Marzano (or any good-quality Italian) tomatoes
— a good pinch of sea salt
In a large bowl, crush the tomatoes by hand. (This is the old-school way they used to do it in Naples, and for good reason. If you put the tomatoes in a food processor you end up with a depressingly smooth sauce that lacks texture.) Once you’ve crushed the hell out of your tomatoes, add a pinch of salt to taste and that’s it! Pure, unadulterated tomato goodness.
For the pizza
Makes 1 pizza
— 1 ball of Neapolitan pizza dough (see below)
— 3 ounces (80 grams) tomato sauce
— 4–5 fresh basil leaves
— Parmesan, for grating
— 1 tablespoon olive oil
— 3 ounces (80 grams) fior di latte mozzarella, torn or sliced
1. Preheat the grill (broiler) to its absolute highest setting, and place a large, ovenproof frying pan (skillet) over a high heat and let it get screaming hot.
2. Meanwhile, flatten and stretch the dough ball to make a 10-inch pizza base.
3. Lay the pizza base flat in the hot, dry frying pan, then, using a small ladle (or a large spoon), spoon the tomato sauce onto the middle of the pizza. Using the back of the ladle, make concentric circles to spread the sauce, beginning in the middle and finishing 1ˆin from the edge.
4. Next, sprinkle over the basil (it will burn if put on last). Grate over a little Parmesan and drizzle with the olive oil.
5. Once the base of the pizza has browned, about 1–2 minutes, add your mozzarella, then place the frying pan under the grill on the highest shelf.
6. Once the crust has taken on some color, about 1–2 minutes, the pizza is ready!
Making Neapolitan pizza dough:
With the knowledge of each ingredient and the important roles they play, we can now make Neapolitan pizza dough.
Tip: Weigh out all your ingredients before you start.
— 35 ounces (1000 grams) ‘00’ flour (Caputo ‘blue’ is recommend)
— 2/3 tablespoon (2 grams) fresh yeast
— 21 fluid ounces (620 milliliters) tepid water
1. Make a mountain of flour in the middle of the table. Using your fist, make a deep well in the middle of the flour, exposing the surface of the table (turning your mountain into a moon crater).
2. Crumble the yeast into the tepid water. Use your good hand to mash up the yeast in the water until it has dissolved. (Keep the other hand dry for taking Instagram photos to show off to your friends.) Fill your crater of flour with a third of the yeast/water mix. Using your fingertips, start making very small circular motions to combine the flour and water.
3. Start dragging in some more flour to the mix, by ‘undercutting’ the walls of the crater with your fingertips. As you do this the mixture in the middle will become thicker. Once it reaches the consistency of porridge you need to add a bit more water. Don’t let it get too thick; if it starts to form a dough too soon it becomes difficult to incorporate the rest of the water. Keep dragging in a little flour to thicken the mix, then pouring a little bit more water in to loosen it, until you have all the water used up.
4. Sprinkle the sea salt over the mixture while it’s still very wet to ensure it dissolves and disperses evenly throughout the dough. Now use both hands to push the remaining flour from the outside into the middle. Fold and press the mix until all the flour is absorbed and a dough comes together. If you have a dough scraper it really helps get everything off the table, but you can improvise with a paint scraper, spatula or knife.
5. Work the gluten by kneading the dough. Use the heel of your hand to stretch out the dough and roll it back up, while the other hand acts like an anchor. You’ll be able to see the strands of gluten stretching, breaking, being put back together and becoming stronger. Continue this for about 8 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and glossy. It should also feel tighter and elastic.
6. Let the dough have a 10-minute rest to relax the gluten. Cover the dough with a damp cloth or some clingfilm (plastic wrap) to keep the air from drying it out. Then divide your bulk of dough into individual portions. We recommend 230g (8oz) dough balls for 10-inch pizzas. Ensure your dough balls are neatly shaped – pinched at the bottom and tight on the top – then place them in a tray or container 3cm (1in) apart. Cover with a tight lid or clingfilm (plastic wrap).
7. Now you can relax. The yeast will take over from here. Leave the dough at room temperature for approximately 6 hours until it expands to almost double its size, then store in the fridge overnight. The next day remove the dough from the fridge for 1–2 hours and bring it back to room temperature before making your pizzas.
Recipe excerpted with permission from “Pizza” by Thom Elliot and James Elliot, published by Quadrille in November 2020.