The cantankerous cook looks at recipe books that focus on one dish with skepticism. There exists a polarity for which these single-item books fall within the first being of little substance, 'pretty', 'lite', opinionated and trivial, the other being a work rich in history, abounding with useful facts, recipes and procedure. My latest read falls into the category of the later. Pizza Napoletana (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley) is 100+ pages of good (real good) food. Pamela Johns goes through great lengths to insure that her take on real pizza and its origins is the most convincing you will read. She backs her history lesson with 30+ recipes of that flat bread that we call Pizza, "the national dish" of Italy.
Johns starts off with the requisite history lesson and the profound impact pizza has had on cultures around the world. She invokes her trip to and around Italy as a fable-like method for getting her hard work of finding the best pizza to us. The pleasant journey is rich with the history of the arrival of the tomato, around 1700, from Spain, Johns tells us. She goes on to explain, in essence, the first pizza delivery in the 1780s as vendors would pedal their pies from metal boxes, tavolinos. Alas, there is no mention that these primeval pies were laden with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms or pineapple. These pies were tomato, cheese (from a water buffalo, an still remains to this day) and fresh basil leaves. On rare occasion the pizzas were draped in cecinelli, or larval-stage white fish. Early anchovies? Anyhow, she goes on through the development of the rigid standards of the Ente Nazionale Italiano di Unificazione that was developed in the mid-1990s to insure that pizzerias claiming to produce true Neapolitan pizza were doing just that. She explains the essence of the 70+ page document that spells out every aspect of real Pizza the San Marzano tomatoes, the six hour rise time of the near yeast-free dough, the water Buffalo cheese, the fresh basil leaves, the Olive oil in its agliara and even the madia, the wooden chest where the dough waits and rises. Most notably, and, honestly, reassuring, is her extensive explanation of the two acceptable preparations of real pizza Napoletana, the Margherita and the Marinara, neither of which is topped with anything more than the indigenous ingredients of the Neapolitan vendors' booth. The informal interviews Johns conducts of her cab drivers in Naples adds honesty and practicality (and a bit of humor) to her already extensive research.
Johns' recipes reference the same basic dough preparation with several variations. However, be forewarned, her details of pizza research are neither cutesy nor dated. It appears the she presents honest recipes based on travel, good note taking and perhaps a bit of banter. The overwhelming majority of Johns' recipes are 10 ingredients or less a feat well received in the age of Charlie Trotter-style cook book authoring that some times borders on ingredients for ingredients' sake. In the style of Ann Amernick's Soufflés, Pamela Johns' Pizza Napoletana is not a coffee table cookbook and is worthy of experimentation, if not just for the good read on how to heat a wood-fired oven. Or what brush to use to clean it. Or the type of wood for which it should burn.