Food stuff: Lessons learned from a world champion pizzaiolo
A veteran of a quarter of a century of pizza cooking, Stefano Cireste’s considerable credentials include leading his team to 1st place in the Overall category at the WorldPizza Championships of 2016. Cireste describes the championships as a rigorous examination of every aspect of the pizza. “Not just the taste, but the technique, the theory, the tomatoes, it goes on and on and on”.
Cireste’s Verace Pizzeria, improbably located in an industrial site at Macquarie Park, also hold certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napolitana, an organisation which certifies outlets which meet a number of strict requirements for serving authentic Napolitan pizza. They cook pizza in a giant woodfired oven built by third generation Italian oven makers. The menu also runs to pasta, aperitifs, Italian wines and a classic Tiramisu, but pizza remains their true passion and calling card.
Crafting pizza this divine takes years of practice, the freshest produce and an oven capable of immense heat. But there are a few things all budding pizzaiolo can incorporate into their own cooking, and here are a few pointers we picked up from this world champ:
Hand-knead your dough
Verace Pizzera hand kneads all their dough, a part of the cooking process mandated by the Napolitana Associazione rules. “The main purpose of (hand-kneading) is to keep and reallocate air that’s been produced through the fermentation process” Cireste says, explaining that using mechanical implements or rolling pins may speed up the process, but they get rid of the bubbles of air. The trick is to maintain as many of these pockets of air as possible and collect them in the crust, where they puff up, giving Napolitana pizza its airy, lighter feel.
Every part of the process matters
“The biggest misconception (about cooking pizza) people have is not realising that every single element matters – the timing, the tomatoes you use, how long you knead the dough for…they all affect another part of the product”. Cireste says customers sometimes take home some dough from Verace to cook with, only to return and ask if that’s really the same dough the Verace pizzaiolos use. This shows how different two pizzas can be, even when using the same base ingredient.
Freshness is king
Unusually for a pizza restaurant, Verace doesn’t offer any delivery service. “Napolitana pizza should be enjoyed straight from the oven to give justice to the fresh ingredients” Cireste says. It’s cooked in minutes and served immediately; think of it as the original fast food.
Only the best tomatoes will do
Cireste’s pizzeria only uses San Marzano tomatoes, which are produced in the volcanic soil of Vesuvius. These plum tomatoes are infinitely more flavoursome and sweet than other varieties and with much less juice and seeds.
Pair your pizza with a good wine for maximum effect
Creating top shelf pizza at home is no mean feat, especially without the extreme heat of a woodfire oven, but Cireste suggests great results are possible with patience and care. One simple thing you can do to up your home pizza game however is to match it with a complementary wine. Cireste is a fan of a sangiovese with his prize-winning Margherita STG “It’s a simple, light wine, it doesn’t take too much away from the acidity of the pizza” he says.