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June 15, 2006

Forza Italia! Homemade pizza margherita

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For North American sports fans, the first taste of live Italian soccer can seem a little daunting.  We had spent only a few days in Rome when I dragged Rachel to the Stadio Olimpico for a match between AS Roma and Brescia.  Despite arriving an hour and a half before game time and being more than a block away from the stadium, we could already hear the unmistakable rumble of tens of thousands of Roma fans belting out the songs and chants any ultra can recite in their sleep.  The broad walkways leading to the stadium were lined with vendors selling posters, cards, banners, flares, and the ubiquitous scarves, or sciarpe, that are universal to soccer fans.

At the stadium gate, we were confronted by a line of Carabinieri with sub-machine guns.  This did not ease Rachel's already worried mind, nor did the helicopters hovering overhead.  Despite the fact that Roma was enjoying one of the best years in its history, a year that would culminate in winning lo scudetto, the tiny shield that signifies a Serie A championship, Roma's games had been marred by violence.  We're not talking drunken brawls either; no, 2001 included several spasms of violence the would eventually culminate in the stabbing of four opposing fans during Champions' League play near the end of the year.  The police were patting down fans before allowing them entry, but once they learned we were Canadian, we were allowed in immediately with approving nods at the scarves around our necks.

Once in the stands, we soaked up the environment around us.  This was calcio, "the kick," the beautiful game that drives untold millions of people to distraction.  Directly in front of us at the opposite end of the stadium lay the curva sud, home of the ultras that had created the cacophony of noise audible far beyond the stadium walls.  Though gametime was more than an hour away, this area was already a buzzing hive of banners, chants, and countless flares and other recreational incendiary devices.  To introduce Roma's starting lineup, the stadium announcer would first provide the player's number and first name, the huge crowd would then complete the introduction by roaring the player's last name with a single deafening voice.  The final show of devotion was the singing of the AS Roma anthem -- 80,000 people on their feet, scarves held high in a sea of maroon and orange, in a display of naked devotion (pardon my translation):

Roma Roma Roma,
core de stà città,
unico grande amore,
de tanta e tanta gente,
che fai sospirà.

Roma, Roma, Roma,
heart of this city,
single great love,
of so many, many people,
that you make breath.

To our right, behind a wall topped with large sheets of plexiglass, were the bresciani.  If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I would've never believed it, but these people were not only segregated from the rest of the stadium by a wall, they were also surrounded by a cordon of police in riot gear.  In broken Italian, I asked one of the Romans in front of me what would happen to those fans if there were no protection.  He responded by running his finger along his throat in a gesture that is as ominous as it is obvious.

From the Colosseum to the Stadio Olimpico, Romans have always enjoyed an unquenchable thirst for spectacle.  The type of spectacle may have changed over the past two thousand years, but Rome's thirst for it has not.  On that day, AS Roma delivered, handily beating Brescia by a score of 3-1. 

The most important outcome of that game, for me at least, is an abiding love of the game of soccer, AS Roma (Lazio merda!), and gli Azzurri, the Italian national soccer team.

Thus was born my love of soccer.  Canada is not an ideal place for a fan of the beautiful game, but the situation is slowly improving.  Toronto will soon have its own professional team, and the city is currently in the grip of World Cup fever.  Ours is a city of immigrants, so the flags of virtually every country competing in the tournament festoon along storefronts, or wave out car windows, or hang on front porches.

Amongst the larger immigrant communities -- I'm looking at you Italians and Portuguese -- a positive result leads to mayhem.  I can still remember when Italy won the World Cup in 1982.  The celebration was large enough to bring parts of Toronto to a halt.

I'm not Italian myself -- I just play one on my blog -- but I feel compelled to show my support for the Azzurri through food.  In this I'm not alone.  Ivonne, from Cream Puffs in Venice, has demonstrated her allegiance by preparing red, white, and green risotti.

Our dish, pizza margherita, seems particularly appropriate as a show of support given its history.  It was invented by Raffaele Esposito, a Neapolitan pizzaiolo, to commemorate a visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy.  The pizza was designed as an edible symbol, with the white of the mozzarella, the red of the tomato sauce, and the green of the basil representing the white, red, and green of the Italian flag.  The pizza was given its name after the queen expressed her love for it.

This pizza isn't just a symbol of Italy, it's also a microcosm of all that we love about its many cuisines: basic, fresh ingredients prepared simply.  Preparing simple dishes can be dangerous, however, if the ingredients aren't of the highest quality, and this pizza is no exception.  I made the pizza dough myself, proofing it the fridge for more than a day to ensure flavour.  For the tomato sauce I used salt, pepper, and a can of San Marzano tomatoes -- considered by Italians to be the finest tomatoes money can buy -- and reduced it to a loose sauce.

That leaves mozzarella.  Finding quality mozzarella is nearly impossible outside of southern Italy.  It is a cheese that must be eaten fresh, does not travel well, and ages not at all.  Unlike many of the world's most famous cheeses, mozzarella is best eaten the day it's made.  The finest mozzarella we've ever eaten was in a small hill town outside of Rome; it was moist, sweet, and delicate, and it is the standard against which I've judged every piece of mozzarella I've eaten since.  None have measured up.

It just so happened that one of our friends, Carlo, returned from his family's hometown in the Abruzzo last week.  Before catching his return flight, he visited Caseificio de Santis di Angelucci Marcello, a latteria in Sant'Eufemia, near Pescara, where he purchased many balls of fresh cow's milk mozzarella.  He very kindly shared a few of them with us, and do they ever make a difference.  Where North American grocery store mozzarella is plastic in both taste and texture, this mozzarella has a little sweetness and a delicate texture.  It also melts magnificently.

As a combination, the light, yeasty dough, sweet, melted cheese, anise-like basil, and acidic tomato sauce are a team with remarkable balance.  Here's hoping that the stingy defense of Fabio Cannavaro, the creativity of Francesco Totti, and the finishing touch of Luca Toni are the ingredients in yet another winning Italian combination.

Forza Italia!

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Comments

vanessa

Betwee you and Ivonne, I think Garibali would've been proud. I still can't over my first match when I was surrounded by screaming Italian men screaming "Dai! Dai! Dai! Dai!"
Of course, my English speaking mind thought of a completely different word. Tough bastards, I thought :)

nigel

Great, Rob, rub it in. Not only does England have yobs and holligans, but this year, the team's play is equivalent to their historically mediocre food. Bangers and mash, toad in the hole or spotted dick, anyone? At least the english ale can hold its own...

gagatka

I hope "pizzas" will beat "burger boys" today:))) - I'm Polish and feel really ashamed of our "sausages"...

Ivonne

Eviva, Rob! Eviva, Rachel!

Vai Italia ... vai vai!!!

Rob,

My home PC has been acting up of late and so I've been without since last Wednesday. I'm so sorry I couldn't read this post sooner.

Your account of the soccer game in Rome sounds incredible! It is my dream (and my brother's) to see a game in Italy. It's on the "To Do" list so to speak.

I admire your courage in going to a Roma match. They're fans are among the rowdiest in Italy. But the entire experience sound thrilling.

I'm sure you've seen both of Italy's matches and I don't know about you but I haven't been terribly impressed. Here's hoping our Azzurri pull it together for the Czech Republic.

Forza Italia!

(And beautiful pizza ...)

risingsunofnihon

Pizza could very well be my all time favorite meal. When it is good, and fresh, it is so simple but so delicious. I can't bear to think what the mass market chains have done to this flavorful dish!

ehr software

Looks do yummy! This is my favorite.

Kevin Stanley

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