For well over a decade now, the UK has been blessed with proper Neapolitan pizza. Neapolitans are now by far the dominant type to be found here, and the quality is generally sound. Even visitors from Naples are impressed. I know this because I’ve asked dozens of them through the excellent social media account Italians Mad at Food.
For much longer, Roman-style pies – ignited by Pizza Express – have been baked and served on British high streets. Sicilian pizzas can now be bought here, or at least a riff on them, and more recently, Detroit and Chicago pizzas have started cropping up, though both are still in their relative infancy. But the gaping hole in the UK pizza market is New York-style slices.
This might be because we don’t have the same water as they enjoy in the five boroughs. New York is supposedly, perhaps mythically, home to the “champagne of drinking water” thanks to a century-old, 6,800-mile series of streams, tunnels and pipes that carry water from the Catskill mountains, mostly collected from snow and rainfall.
New York water is treated at Hillview Reservoir, a 900 million-gallon reserve, and it is here that PH levels are raised. Apparently, about PH7 is best for pizza. Importantly, for pizza-making (and bagels), the water ends up being very soft and full of calcium and magnesium, allowing for a sticky, gluten-rich dough.
All of this doesn’t account for decades of craftsmanship, production knowledge and skill in the kitchen. And good ingredients. The finest pizzaiolo will do a better job with terrible water than a rookie with the finest, after all. The equation is complex.
One of the best British pizza makers around is Tom Vincent, who runs Vincenzo’s in Bushey, near Watford – it’s very Sopranos. He spent a long time learning in New York and calls the water debate nonsense: “You have good pizzerias next to bad ones and it’s the same with bagels. How, if it’s all down to the water? It’s more about fermentation, how you ferment the dough. Water plays a part, but there’s much more to it.”
He also advises using a proper oven. Gozney pizza ovens are everywhere today, as are those made by Ooni, and many versions are suitable for home cooks and sit happily in small gardens. And a good dough is crucial.
Thankfully, Vincent is willing to share a valuable recipe for a quality dough that you have to start a day in advance.
New York-style pizza
Makes 4 regular pizzas
600g strong bread flour or 00 pizza flour (12% protein or above)
380g water, at room temperature
15g olive oil
Your choice of toppings
The morning BEFORE you want to bake, mix water with yeast and add to the flour in a big bowl until a shaggy lump forms (no dry bits). Cover and leave for 30 minutes. This will hydrate the flour and start the gluten development.
Add salt and knead in on a work surface until fully incorporated. Then add oil and knead that in, too. Give it a 10-minute rest, then knead again for 10 minutes until smooth.
Place in a bowl and cover. Leave for 10 minutes, then take out and knead again for another 10 minutes and it should get really smooth.
Leave in the bowl covered tightly until the evening (approximately 10 hours). Divide into 4 balls (these will make 12-inch pizzas).
Leave the rough balls for 10 minutes, then pinch and pull under to form smooth balls with good tension.
Leave balls in a roasting tin or container covered in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, get the dough balls out of the fridge and leave at room temperature. Six hours later your dough will be ready to make pizza. Alternatively, you can leave the dough balls in the fridge for another two or three days and get out and use them as and when.
Top with whatever you choose. In a home oven, heat as high as it will go (it is worth investing in a pizza stone, which should be warmed for an hour before baking). Timings vary and it depends on how well done you like your pizza, but a general indicator is 10 minutes at 260-280C.
Or in a Gozney, Ooni or wood-fired oven, cook at 370C for 4 minutes (some trial and error will be required).