If you’re going to learn to make pizza, there’s no-one better in Australia to give you tips than Johnny Di Francesco, owner of Melbourne’s 400 Gradi restaurant.
Back in 2014, Johnny won the prize for the World’s Best Pizza in the Campionato Mondiale Della Pizza (Pizza World Championship) in Parma, Italy so we were a bit excited when we got the chance to have a pizza making lesson with him at the 400 Gradi restaurant on the fabulous P&O cruise ship Pacific Explorer while it was docked in Sydney. Here are the top tips we learned.
Pizza dough is actually a pretty simple mix of water, salt, yeast, and flour all mixed together – however, the mixing is what makes it a success. If you want to make the best fluffy pizza dough then you need to knead it well to get lots of air in the dough.
You can tell if you’ve mixed it enough in two ways – use a food thermometer. If the middle of the dough is between 23-26 degrees C then you’re good to go – 24C being perfect – or, even easier, roll the dough into a round ball and poke it quickly with your finger. ‘If it springs back up really quickly, it’s ready,’ says Johnny.
Be ready though, we don’t mean ready to cook – instead, you need to let it rest (covered with a damp cloth) for about two hours. This resting is one reason why Neapolitan pizza (the traditional type of pizza from Naples Johnny makes) is less filling than other types. ‘People say ‘I can’t eat a lot of pizza as it makes me bloated’ but that happens because the dough hasn’t been allowed to mature,’ says Johnny. It then ferments in your stomach making you bloated. Neapolitan pizza also uses less yeast than other types of pizza.
After your dough has sat for two hours, make the dough into dough balls – slightly smaller than your fist. The easiest way to do this is simply roll them on the table. However, if you want to try it the super authentic way, get a piece of dough, about fist-sized and place it on the table. Now, grab the end of the dough closest to you and fold it over the ball to the back. Pick up the ball and you’ll notice a seam on the top. Place the ball so that faces the ceiling, then repeat that folding away move. Do this 6-7 times to make a ball. Leave your dough balls to rest for 24 hours
Once it’s rested, it’s time to make it in a pizza shape. ‘There’s a few ways to stretch a pizza and a lot of pizza makers stretch it by spinning it on the bench – I call these guys DJ pizza makers,’ says Johnny. ‘The problem with this approach is that you want to retain the gases in the dough that it creates during resting – and the DJ approach squashes those out.’ Instead, you want to keep the air in the crust and you do that by pushing the pizza, not rolling it out.
When it’s time to top your pizza, go easy on the toppings. Neapolitan pizzas have thinly spread toppings – Johnny’s award-winning Margherita pizza uses just 1 large spoonful of San Marzano Tomato, 100g buffalo mozzarella, 4 leaves of fresh basil and 20ml of extra virgin olive oil.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t get creative… and one thing to consider is adding hot chips! No, we haven’t gone completely mad. The latest offering at the Gradi restaurant on Pacific Explorer is the Viennese, a pizza topped with white sauce, mozzarella cheese, Italian sausage and a handful of two of hot chips. It might sound a bit strange, but it’s actually a traditional Italian pizza topping.
Lastly, don’t panic if it’s slightly soggy in the middle. Proper Neapolitan pizza is supposed to be soft in the middle (if it’s super soggy though you’ve used too many toppings).
You’ll find Johnny’s recipe for perfect pizza dough in his book “World’s Best Pizza” by Johnny Di Francesco
Here’s some more delicious pizza recipes: