The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tossing Pizza Dough: Essential Technique or Elaborate Showmanship?

To Toss or Not to Toss, That Is the Question

If Hollywood is to be believed, every Italian pizza joint in the world has some guy in a white T-shirt tossing dough in the air. Anybody who watches TV or goes to the movies is familiar with the scene. Sometimes they play it for authenticity and sometimes for laughs. Lucille Ball's famous “Visitor from Italy” episode comes to mind. The ubiquity of this iconic image is such that most people believe it to be an essential part of the art of making pizza. But is it? Or is it mere showmanship?

To toss or not to toss, that is the question.

There is an entire culture built around throwing pizza dough. A World Pizza Championship is held annually, which, along with taste tests and speed trials, features freestyle pizza throwing competitions. The United States fields its very own pizza team and you can even purchase practice throwing dough should you decide you want to be a professional pizzaiolo. But as far as actual pizza making is concerned, is all that tossing and spinning and whirling and twirling really necessary? As is the case with every hotly debated global controversy, some say “yes,” some say “no,” and some say “maybe.”

Among the “yes” crowd, the assertion stands that spinning those flattened circles of dough in the air helps ensure the correct amount of moisture. They aver that airflow over the dough's surface dries it out just enough to make it less sticky and easier to handle. And the perfect amount of airflow makes for a perfectly crispy crust.

World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani is quick to tell you that there's more to tossing dough than just the “cool” factor. He says throwing the dough into the air is extremely important in ensuring that you get a good crust. First, he notes, it's the best way to get the perfect size you want. The second benefit, he says, involves achieving optimum consistency with thicker outside edges surrounding a thinner center. And most importantly, he agrees, is the airflow that dries the dough for a perfectly crispy crust.

Another guy who knows a bit about pizza, former “Stuff Yer Face” employee Mario Batali, also believes hand-tossed dough makes the best crust. Mario says tossing is the most efficient way to stretch out the dough without applying too much pressure or potentially tearing through it with your fingers. It’s a skill worth practicing at home, he says, even though he admits “it is a little guido…”

The “maybe” people sort of agree with some of these principles, but they debate the technique. The middle-of-the-roaders tend to think that tossing is “okay,” but you don't have to go through all those elaborate acrobatics to achieve the best result. Just a little lift is fine. You can spin up your dough without ever having it gain an altitude of more than a few inches off your hands. According to these folks, the rest is just theater.

Then there are the real naysayers, the pizza makers who believe the whole tossing and throwing and spinning routine is completely unnecessary. Among this group are some pretty heavy hitters, including Chef Gaetano Fazio, one of the masters of traditional Neapolitan pizza. As a renowned instructor in the art of pizza making and as the proprietor of Pizzeria Rosticceria Da Gaetano in Ischia, Fazio relegates tossing and spinning dough over one's head to something made famous in the movies and on TV and only done on “fantasy” pizzas. Like many traditionalists, he believes the stretching, pulling, pressing and kneading of the pizza dough should only be done with the hands and then only very carefully. Like women, Fazio says, the dough should be handled gently.

One of Naples’ greatest pizzaioli, Antonio Starita of Starita a Materdei, also disapproves of flying pizza. When asked about pizza tossing, Antonio just shakes his head, waggles his hand a little, and says “ mai” (never), explaining that rough handling ruins pizza dough.

Still another pizza expert, third-generation Neapolitan pizzaiolo Rosario Granieri, who runs New York's Rossopomodoro in Greenwich Village, weighs in with his opinion that pizza tossing is not even Italian in its origin. Granieri dismisses the practice as an “American show."

When you break it down, it looks like the “pro tossing” crowd consists primarily of Italian-Americans while those aligned against the practice are mostly Italians, generally Neapolitans, the folks who invented the modern version of pizza in the first place. So who are you gonna believe?

Personally, I'm a more of a “no.” But my Italian roots are northern rather than southern and they were transplanted to Canada rather than to the U.S., so what do I know? I only have experience to guide me. In that experience, I use a traditional dough recipe of flour, water, salt, and yeast. When I can get my hands on Caputo or some other quality “00” flour, I use that. Otherwise, I use King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose flour. Depending on my mood and the circumstances, I make the dough by hand, in a KitchenAid mixer, or in a food processor. When it's done, I portion the dough out, roll it into balls, flatten the balls slightly into disks, and let them rest until they're ready to use. If the dough doesn't rest and rise a little, you'll never get it to stretch.

When it comes time to make pizza, I plop the dough disk down onto a lightly-floured surface and flatten it out further using my fingertips and turning the dough quarter turns as I work. After I get it flattened and shaped a little, I'll pick it up and work it gently over the backs of my closed fists, tossing it maybe an inch in the air as I turn it. That's as much altitude as it gets – or needs. Then I return it to the work surface and finish shaping it into the desired size and thickness by pressing outward from the center of the circle until I get a nice thin center and a thicker perimeter with a defined cornicione. From there, I top it, bake it, and serve it. Out of the hundreds of pizze (that's the correct plural of “pizza”) I've made, nobody has ever complained or sent one back, so I must be doing something right.

One thing upon which nearly everybody agrees; don't ever use a rolling pin on your pizza dough. You see recipes in cookbooks and on TV all the time telling you to "roll out your dough" for "a perfectly thin crust." Uffa! I'm here to warn you that Dante has a special circle all warmed up for cooks who use a blunt instrument to crush the very life and vitality out of pizza dough. Those atrocious recipes are directed at rank amateurs and home cooks who can barely boil water. Use your hands! If God had wanted you to bludgeon pizza dough, he'd have attached rolling pins to your wrists. 

Toss or don't toss. It's up to you. The debate will continue regardless. Rosario Granieri doesn't necessarily think you should avoid places that toss their dough, he just thinks there are other more useful kitchen skills to learn. Like, maybe, making decent pizza in the first place. Oh, and by the way; be careful you don't accidentally try and bake up any of that rubber practice dough. It would make really nasty pizza. Hmmm.....perhaps that explains the pizza I got at that chain place the other night.

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