Flour, oil, water and yeast. That’s what makes pizza dough. It sounds so simple but I know from experiences in my own kitchen that simplicity can be deceptive. We make pizza at home fairly regularly but we’ve had problems getting the base just right. The toppings are great (well, they would be, when we have complete control over them) but the base is either too thick or or too thin. I was excited to be invited to Civerino’s to make pizza and learn about pizza dough. Here was my chance to become a pizza maestro.
You will not be at all surprised to find out that it takes more than an hour in a professional kitchen to make you the master of all things pizza. It gave me a couple of good pointers together with a new respect for pizza chefs.
Pizza and pasta
Civerino’s is on Hunter Square, slap bang in the middle of the old town. The ethos is one of street food and sharing but they also do main courses that cater for a traditional three-course meal approach. Their starters – lovely tidbits like bruschtta, arancini and calamari – also make great snacks. The zucchini fritters, thin slices of courgette in beer batter, are lovely. Michele Civerino, the owner, and his team work hard to ensure that there’s something on the menu to appeal to most tastes. There are sharing plates – I can see the sliced rump steak being consumed by a single hungry diner – as well as inventive salads, pasta and pizza.
Civerino’s is a bar as well as a restaurant and are open late. If you want to pop in for a carafe of prosecco, somewhere a little busy but off the main festival drag, here’s where to go. In summer, they have seating outside, making it the perfect place to relax while being in the middle of it.
I was in Civerino’s for dinner a couple of weeks before my pizza adventure. That night I had pasta puttanesca, one of my favourite dishes in the whole wide world and Civerino’s version did not disappoint. It was intensely savoury, comforting in the way good pasta always is, and simply delicious. Perfect for lifting the spirits after placing badly in the book quiz. My companions enjoyed the perennial favourite peperoni pizza, and the anchovy & spinach pizza (turned veggie by the simple expedient of holding the anchovy) and the polenta and rosemary chips. The restaurant has wooden floors, shared seating in the centre of the room, sparkling white tiles running up to rought red tile on the walls, industrial lighting and ornate pewter ceilings. It also has a great atmosphere. Staff are friendly and efficient, the menu is to the point and frozen Aperol Spritz is on tap, for the slushy lovers among us.
Mastering pizza making
On my second visit, I wasn’t just there to enjoy the atmosphere but to make the food before I ate it.
My guide through this adventure was Arturo, Michele’s pizza chef. He’s a dab hand with pizza and a patient and encouraging teacher. He showed me the pizza dough which they knead (by machine) for a long time. The long handling ensures that the gluten is fully developed. This is the first mistake I make at home: I don’t work the dough nearly enough so it’s not strong enough to stretch as thin as as I want it to.
Once the dough is ready, it’s cut into portion sizes and worked into balls by quick but sure movements that stretches, but doesn’t break, the dough surface. This process reminded me of Danielle’s process for making loaves. There’s an art to it – one that a quick look at the balls showed I have yet to master. But, as very kind Arturo said, ‘it could have been a lot worse’.
Apparently, I’m a pizza whiz. Or rather, everything I did could have been a lot worse and some of the tasks I performed really well for a first go. Thinning the dough, for example. I didn’t break it. As we covered the work surface in semolina to get a good, non-stick surface to work on and started teasing the dough into a round, I managed to avoid sticking my nails through it. Arturo, being a proper pro, picked the base up and let gravity do its job by slapping the dough from hand to hand. He showed me how to get gravity to help by dropping part of the base off the side of the working surface. This, I can do at home! (As long as I’m fine with the mess on the floor.)
Once the bases were at the right size, we put toppings on. There’s an art to the quick and steady application of sugo, the equal distribution of toppings and finding the right balance. You don’t want to overload the pizza. I did OK. One of my problems was that I’m not used to the process so I was a little slow. You want to work quickly, always quickly, to ensure that the dough doesn’t shrink or dry.
The next step was a real challenge. Once it’s all done, the pizza has to go into the pizza oven. Here’s a step I can’t do at home: our oven doesn’t go as high as a proper pizza needs, and though a stone gives you the hot base, it’s not the same. It took me a little while to tease the edge of the pizza onto the bread spatula, but once that was done, I managed to pick it up and deposit it in the over without much trouble. Decisive movements is the key. Well, mimicking your teacher as closely as you possibly can, paying attention to both speed and force of movements, is the key.
Then we waited. Arturo showed me how to turn the pizza around in the oven using the spatula – very tricky – and how to lift up a part of the base to peek underneath – a little easier. When the pizza looks good top to bottom it’s time to get it out. Which I managed to do without dropping it on the floor. Hurrah! Arturo’s colleague came to have a look at my masterpiece, nodded and said, with a show of surprise, ‘it’s even almost round!’ I interpreted this as the highest level of approbation and flushed with pleasure.
I have never been as proud of a pizza as I was of this one (I refer you to the insane smile in the image at the top for proof), and none has ever tasted so good. Under normal circumstances sausage, n’duja, dried chillies and fresh chillies, might not have been my first choice, but on the day, it felt like the exact right ingredients. The combination was fabulous. It was hot, but not too hot, meaty but not heavy. It was beautiful. Although I might be biased.
When I left Civerino’s it was with a belly full of pizza and a head full of admiration for pizza chefs. I don’t know if I’ll make pizza at home again. When I know that I can’t achieve the perfection I used to think was just one technique away, why not leave the job to the experts? That way, I’ll never be disappointed.
Whether it’s for pizza, their pork cheek carbonara or a carafe of something, I know that it won’t be long until I return.
5 Hunter Square
Edinburgh, EH1 1QW
Telephone: 0131 220 0851