The last great pizza I had was at Brooklyn Central, a new Neapolitan-style joint in my old neighborhood. We're talking thin crust wood-fired pizza here. With just the right amount of char and, equally important to me, lots of beautiful bubbles.
"You like these?" I said pointing to one of the three pies on the table, the Margherita I believe. "The bubbles I mean. You think they're a good thing?"
I was speaking to my friends Tom and Beth, fine pizzaioli in their own right and regular customers of the place where we were eating. Tom, the verbose member of the pair, spent the rest of the pie-eating session advocating the bubbles-on-pizza theory.
Not only that, but he actually knew what he was yammering about. Clearly my friend had studied this crucial topic, so much so that I asked him to share his knowledge with all of us here.
Take it away, genius.
The bubble theory
by Tom Strenk
Bubbles are a sign of great pizza, but they're more than that. Bubbles give baked goods their tender character, from the delicate sponge of a chocolate layer cake to the flaky layers of a croissant. Depending upon the baked good, the bubbles come from carbon dioxide created by leavening such as baking powder used in cakes or butter folded into puff pastry dough. Pizza gets some of its bubbles from yeast, a beneficial microorganism that converts fermentable sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide.
But the bubbles our friend Meatball was so fixated on at Brooklyn Central derived from a different source: steam. When vaporized, water expands over 1,600 times in volume, according to Paula Figoni, writing in her book, How Baking Works. For this phenomenon to work, though, the dough has to be wet, soft and loose, and the oven must be super hot.
That's exactly the conditions called for by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a group dedicated to preserving the Neopolitan pizza tradition. AVPN sets forth the exacting principles governing the one true pizza, and its regulations are many and persnickety. Dough can only be made from ultra-soft double-zero flour, with 1 liter of water to 1.8 kg. of flour ration, with the flour absorbing 50-55% of its weight in water. That translates into a wet, almost sticky dough, with a soft and elastic texture, says the AVPN. Ovens must be hotter than Dante's Inferno, with a minimum floor temperature of 905 degrees, and a cavity temp of 800 or more degrees; the pizza cooks fast, in 60-90 seconds.
When the pizzaiolo slides that pie (14 inches in diameter, 0.8-inch thick crust, 0.1-inch thick in the center) into the oven, water in the mix vaporizes, the wet glutinous dough is flexible enough to stretch and contain the vapor, then the extreme heat dries and chars the bubbles. The end result: a delicate, light and airy crust.
I got to experience this magic hands-on at Forcella, a New York restaurant devoted to Neapolitan pizza. Under the tutelage of certified pizza master Giulio Adrian, I learned to properly handle the demanding dough, shaping a certifiable crust, topping the classic Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di Bufala, fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, and baking it in Forcella's imported Italian oven. I'm sure the AVPN would approve.
Even better, when that blistered, bubbled pie was whisked out on a peel, I got to eat it.