Pizza as we know it was created in Naples, Italy, in the early 1800s and since then has rocketed to popularity in kitchens and hearts around the world, with each locale adding its own special twist.
A popular variety in Russia combines sardines, tuna, mackerel and salmon, while Brazilians top their pizzas with peas and crusts around the world have been stuffed, coned and even turned into cheeseburgers. When it comes to making a traditional Italian pizza, however, all the bells and whistles of unique toppings and original presentation can’t stand up to one simple factor – quality ingredients.
“To make a good pizza and to make a bad pizza, it takes the same effort,” says Chef Dario Aloisio, a native Sicilian who helms Nairobi’s Mediterraneo restaurants. “Once you have the good ingredients, there is no way to make a bad pizza.”
Building from the bottom up, Chef Dario stresses the importance of using flour with a high enough protein content, which is what makes it nicely elastic. He also reveals one of the secrets behind the success of Mediterraneo’s pizza – using a poolish instead of yeast.
“It’s a mixture of water, flour and a little bit of yeast, and you let it ferment for eight hours, then you insert it in the final dough,” says Chef Dario, “so the dough has a little taste of acidity and is more digestible.” Authentic Italian pizza sauce can be quite different from those found around the world, which are often influenced by American pizza makers and tastes. In the US, dough is topped with a cooked tomato sauce that has been significantly seasoned. “Italian pizzas don’t have that – you use raw, crushed, peeled tomatoes seasoned with salt and basil and a little bit of oregano. That’s it,” Chef Dario explains.
Of course, one of the most important factors for any pizza is the cheese, which many Nairobi restaurants make themselves. While traditional mozzarella is made with milk from a specific breed of water buffalo native to Italy, here it’s made with cow milk, which is combined with rennet, salt and citric acid while being heated and cooled to a range of temperatures, according to Chef Dario, though he adds, “And then the rest is secret,” with a conspiratorial laugh.
The toppings must also be carefully considered, with some ingredients, like the Parma ham Mediterraneo imports directly from Italy, needing to be added as the pizza comes out of the oven instead of before it goes in. But for all the many topping combinations available around the world, and even at the restaurants he oversees, Chef Dario’s own preferences lie with a classic.
“A simple Margherita is best,” he says. “If you want to taste a nice pizza, you go for a Margherita – a very simple thing.”
Visit one of Mediterraneo’s three branches, at The Junction, 9 West and Gigiri, to sample traditionally made Italian pizzas and find your favourite combination of toppings.