There's a right way to make pizza, and that's the Italian way. It takes dough, a few toppings and an oven, but this simplest of dishes isn't as simple as it seems if it is to achieve perfection.
The dough should contain only flour, yeast, salt and water. It needs to be worked quickly and efficiently, otherwise the dough loses the air bubbles that make it rise in the oven and keep it soft during cooking. Proper Italian pizza makers slap the dough into a disc with their palms and fingers. They don't use a rolling pin, and certainly don't flip the dough in the air like the mad chef in The Muppet Show.
A real Italian pizza is parsimonious with toppings, not piled with gut-busting quantities of cheese and exotic extras. The margherita – tomato, mozzarella, basil – is the basic form of Italian pizza and still its greatest triumph. Remove the tomato and you have pizza bianca, which the Neapolitans call alla romana and everyone else calls alla napoletana.
In Rome, pizza is traditionally made with oil and onion. In Apulia, the onion is finely chopped and joined by oregano and pecorino. In Sicily, anchovy, olives and capers provide explosions of flavour.
There are as many variations as regions, but the pizza must be cooked in a proper pizza oven, which resembles something Hansel and Gretel might have been shoved into. The oven is lined with bricks – the best come from Santa Maria near Salerno, south of Naples – set in clay and insulated with sand. The floor of the oven supports large tiles on a bed of river sand and sea salt that prevents the tiles shifting in the heat.
The oven is fuelled with wood and never extinguished. The overnight ashes are re-animated next day. When the brick lining turns paler in colour the oven is ready. The heat is intense, at least 400 degrees, since a pizza must be cooked through in a couple of minutes.
A proper pizza maker will slightly char the crust by throwing a handful of wood shavings into the oven, causing the flames to momentarily flare. The crust must be blackened and puffed up, both chewy and yet deliciously crunchy. The topping should be bubbling and too hot to eat when it arrives at the table. The beauty of pizza might be its speed and simplicity, but cooking it to perfection is an art.