Rachel Roddy’s Roman white pizza
It is a good thing if, when you walk into the Passi bakery, there is no pizza bianca sitting on the wooden board. It means it is still in the oven. Let it be known you are waiting, then step aside (but not too far – there will be others). Be suspicious of the older lady wearing a purple jacket who is refusing to catch your eye. Nearly three feet long, golden and glistening like a model in an 80s Pirelli calendar, the hot pizza bianca makes an entrance, often lifted above someone’s head. The pizza is upended and cut in a way that reminds me of fabric in that, once the knife has started, its weight tears the pizza in two strips, crispy fragments pinging away like tiny bullets.
You don’t need any words – use your hands to show them how long a piece you want. Unless you want the crispy end, that is – in which case, practise the word scrocchiarella. For eating straight away, your piece is wrapped in brown paper. If you are taking it home, the baker will leave the bag open, so the steam can puff gently away.
For eight years I lived three floors above Passi, which is one of Rome’s traditional forni (bakeries), its windows opening into the same internal courtyard as my kitchen door. In the morning, my door open, while coffee erupted into the top of the angular pot, I would often catch the smell of pizza bianca. My partner Vincenzo, still half sleeping but possessed, would be down and back with hot pizza before I could really speak. It is a fine breakfast, coffee and a slice of hot white pizza with a firm bottom but a cushiony top – a proper mouth-arresting chew, leaving lips glistening and salty.
Like fancy tarts, or fish and chips when you live next to a decent chippy, I had never thought to make pizza bianca at home. It was something best left to the floury-handed pros. But then I did make it, following a recipe by the masterful Gabriele Bonci. I will admit any recipe that needs 24 hours makes my heart sink, briefly. I have been converted, though, by the atavistic alchemy of flour, yeast and water, the puffing rise of the dough ... and my chest – I made that! You mix the ingredients until you have a really sticky mixture. Then with floured hands and a dough scraper (good investment) you do the piegature di rinforzo – reinforcing folds – which develop the gluten and incorporate air. Then the dough rests – not a nap but a serious sleep – in the cool of the fridge, which inhibits a fast inflate, allowing the dough to work and stretch.
The key to making pizza bianca for a crowd – a Christmas gathering maybe – is to enlist an enthusiastic co-pilot in stretching, lifting, brushing. Make the dough the day before, get the oven hot and set up your work station with olive oil, paint brush and salt. You can serve PB in squares or split them and fill with prosciutto or thin slices of parmesan and watercress or rocket. There is a reason Romans queue. Wise guests will cotton on quick, fill up their glasses and wait by the oven. Just watch the one in the purple jacket.
You will need a pizza tray, baking stone or flat baking tray. My friend Jenny Chandler suggests using a lipped tray upside down and pre-heating it first. If you have a sourdough starter, use that; if you have any other good advice please leave it in the comments online.
Makes 5 pizzas
1kg strong white flour, or Italian 0
20g salt, plus more for sprinkling
10g fast-action dried yeast, or 20g fresh yeast
40ml extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
To serve (optional)
Prosciutto, parmesan and rocket/watercress
1 If you are using fresh yeast, dissolve it in 100ml water (subtract this from the amount of water added later). Mix the flour, salt and dried yeast (if using) in a large bowl, then add the water/yeasty water, and stir firmly until you have a soft, sticky, putty-like mixture. Cover the bowl with a clean tea towel and leave in a draught-free spot for an hour.
2 Dust your work surface with flour, then scrape out the dough. With lightly floured hands or a dough scraper, pull the sides of the dough up and out, then fold them back over. Do this several times. Wait 10 minutes and repeat. Scrape the dough back into a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 12-24 hours.
3 Dust the work surface again. Cut the dough into five equal pieces. Now, as before, fold each piece several times. Leave to rest for 30 minutes.
4 Preheat the oven to 260C/500F/gas as high as it will go. Heat a baking tray/ stone in the lower half of the oven. Working on a floured surface, gently stretch the dough using your floured fingertips to pummel and spread it out into rough circles or squares. Paint with olive oil and then lift/flop it on to the baking tray. Bake for 12–15 minutes or until the surface is pale golden and puffed with bubbles, the underneath slightly darker and firm. Pull from the oven, brush with more olive oil, sprinkle with salt, cut and eat. You can split the dough at this point and fill it with prosciutto, parmesan and rocket.