How pizza works, or time to make the donuts

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

In Napoli pizza is a tradition, an art, a practice closely observed and regulated, designated as an “intangible heritage” by Unesco. Unesco is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “It seeks to build peace and its duty remains to reaffirm the humanist missions through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture.” The skill of the pizzaiuolo (pizza-maker) is one of the protected Italian cultural arts together with violin craft, falconry,Mediterranean diet, dry stone walling, big shoulder-borne processionals, "head-trained” grape vines, Sardinian pastoral songs, opera and Sicilian puppet theatre, recognized by the Unesco mission. In Napoli pizza is never merely bread and cheese.

And so it follows our first day in class we three of four students were coma-tized by earnest lectures in Italian simultaneously translated into English and Japanese, on the history of pizza; my eyes rolled backwards into my big head thick with jet lag fatigue. Our Irish-chef classmate did not arrive the first day and by the second when he showed up all apologetic two hours into the catacomb of “intangible heritage”, I reckoned he’d met with brown bottle fever day one and was under its affects again day two. Frankly I was a bit jealous I hadn’t thought of it. Ultimately he gaffed it off. We suspect he was under the influence of flour of another kind. He did end up finishing the week-long “amateur” course and left with a bloody dagger-dripping-pizza-skull tattoo memento. Near week three of our month long study, I thought the Irish man had it right, drink lots, sleep little, let nature take its pizza course.

Week One

With the lectures over, a week is devoted to making “pasta” by hand. The word “pasta” In Italian translates as paste or dough and whether you bake it or boil it, respectively its transformed into pastry, pizza or …pasta. Semantics.

We measure our flour, yeast and salt by weight. Water is measured in liters. We mix in a large plastic bowls, the first ten minutes you have added most of the flour necessary to create a soft but pliable dough, the last ten minutes is the final addition of flour, the dough being neither sticky not hard. Then twenty minutes of kneading on the tabletop using our fists, shaping something akin to a braid. I confess, I sucked at this form of kneading having been taught a simple fold over method by my mother and Italian Grandmother. I sweat under the eyes of the instructor, the English and Japanese translators all pitching in, offering tips. I can’t decide if I’m going to snap, preferably, or cry, humiliation.

Week two

we learn to make the dough using two types of machines.

The hands-free process is similar, measuring, observing the dough coming together, voting how much flour to add, as it’s explained to us every dough is different, the quality of ingredients and amount of humidity in the air changing the amount of flour needed. While true, the pitfall for novice pizza makers is having no perimeters besides feel or touch. We get it wrong two out of three times, realized when shaping the dough balls, they are either too tough or too sticky, each representing a challenge to manage. Challenge seems to be the point, our instructor Davide gloomily painting our future failure, we are doomed to getting the dough wrong on the imaginary eve of our imaginary opening night.

The difference between being American and an amateur cook and being, say southern Italian and a professional cook is the amount of soul-crushing yelling one endures. Good natured Americans, especially those who enjoy signing up for cooking class of a girlfriend weekend, or a couples night out, could not foresee being bullied by a short, shaved-head Neapolitan pizza maker. Registering for the course I envisaged a small class of four adept, curious and proficient bakers taught by a cool, meticulous and encouraging teacher. Meticulous he was, with the remaining two thirds of his personality given to hot exasperation, dramatic sighing and future shaming.


the working phase of shaping balls, lamination and stretching.

Part one: a mound of dough is cut and shaped into dough balls called ‘panetti weighing between 120-150 grams, they then rest to rise.

Part two: the risen dough ball is placed in a mound of flour and pressed with one hand, finger tips only, twice, once both sides, a quick shake to remove excess flour and then further worked on a flourless surface using both hands and again, a fingertips only process called “ammaccatura.” During this process the “cornicione”, the famous raised crust is formed.

Part three: using a skillful motion called 'schiaffo', using both hands and a sort of draping-catching motion of the pizza disk from the left hand over the right creates the final extension.

Week three

is about building and maintaining the fire.

We learn how to use the tools, the heavy duty peel that is only used in starting the fire, cleaning ash and moving the logs, a dried mahogany peel is used to move the pizza into the oven, and a long-handled metal peel to turn and remove a pizza. During this week we also bake naked pizzas, approximately fifteen pizza each, daily. These sessions teach how to move the fragile dough from the counter-top onto the wood peel, slipping the pizza into the correct position in the oven, rotating the pizza to insure a uniform bake, and carefully removing it, placing it gently, “PIANO! PIANO!”, onto a plate or in a box to-go.

Part four: finally topping the dough with marinara from the center with a spiraling and clockwise motion- the uneven spread of marinara results in a spotty, lopsided pizza.

Using a peel, carefully place the pizza into a 450ºc/842ºf wood fired oven, then skillfully rotate the pizza to bake evenly.

Pizzeria staff photo

“Do you think your customers will eat a pizza shaped like Mick Jaggers lips!” and “Turn the pizza, turn it! What’s wrong with your hands? Ana, Ana, can you hear me?” In an aside to my horrified classmates he’d say, “She’s ignoring me," followed by head shaking and hand wringing. Once nervous, the more nervous I became when it came time to place an unround pizza into the oven. “Don’t touch the oven sides! Don’t lift it up! From the bottom! Ughhhhhhhhh! Where were you when we talked about building a fire? Is that a fire? Ana, where is your wood?” Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Without wonder my fellow American classmate walked straight from class at end of day into the wine bar across the street.

This was the most difficult part for me, rotating the pizza, props to Davide, my hands did not work properly.Cry? I did cry.

The weekend before our final examination I spent many hours determined to quit. Now I wonder why, but then, the nerve-racking harassment and my perceived inability to master combined skills felt insurmountable.

My American comrade did not show up for class on Monday, I knew he too was at a breaking point and was probably holed up with a bottle in his Airbnb rental across the street. I sent text messages encouraging him to come back to class. He ignored me. He ignored us all. Not a good sign, and downright crap for morale, seeds of panic were sown. Davide and I argued, often. He called me stubborn; I let it be known, gracefully, that I hated him. When our American teammate returned Tuesday, I was never so happy to see another coward.

Week four

we combine our newly acquired skills making dough, dough balls, starting the fire, lamination, dressing and baking pizzas.

For our final examination we set the restaurant tables at lunch time for a small group of invited guests. Davide takes their orders, we make the pizzas. I’m sure I will fail, or at least not get the certificate. Instead of graduating with a certificate one might receive a diploma of attendance, meaning you where there but did not succeed as a pizzaiuolo.

“Complimenti! Complimenti!” was the praise we received as the guests departed.

Tangible heritage

It's a tradition for all graduating pizza-makers to sign the bottom of the wooden platform the Pizzaiuoli stand on-a sort of shock absorber-where the pizza is created. I already had left Naples when I received a photo of my signature on the platform put there by the instructor in my absence.

Despite the drama and histrionics, we ended on a good note. I do stop in to see him when in Naples where I can expect a joyful reunion, and a great pizza.