How to make the best homemade, Italian-style pizza (recipes)

May 5, 2014 

For a few hours recently, Italian-cooking expert Gisella Isidori transformed the spacious backyard of Jo Ann Sorrenti's northeast Fresno home into a slice of Italy.

Sorrenti, owner of Sierra Nut House, invited Isidori to teach a class on making Italian-style pizza at home. Except at this party, there was no cheese-stuffed pizza crust, double toppings or pineapple chunks to be found.

Isidori is a purist, having developed a career in the food industry with her knowledge of regional Italian cuisine and marketing of artisanal Italian foods.

It's not that the 80-year-old Isidori dislikes all American-style pizza, she does like some, it's just that the emphasis seems to be on the amount of the ingredients, not the type of ingredients.

"I don't like pizzas that have everything on top," she says. "It's too heavy, and you can't taste the flavors."

Isidori says homemade pizza can be simple, delicious and good for you. And you don't need a lot of fancy ingredients or equipment.

At Sorrenti's home, she used an outdoor brick oven to cook the pizzas quickly, but an indoor oven works just as well. And if you don't have a pizza stone, no worries, she says, use a baking sheet.

During the class, Isidori showed her students how to make pizzas using fresh ingredients such as arugula, squash blossoms, basil, tomatoes and mushrooms. She also used Italian cheeses, including the soft, mild tasting crescenza, mozzarella, scamorza (similar to mozzarella) and parmigiano-reggiano. Also used as a pizza topping were salty and flavorful meats like prosciutto and pancetta.

One pizza combined edible flowers with the soft, mild-tasting crescenza cheese. Isidori's version used pansies and squash blossoms along with arugula, and tomato sauce.

She makes a thin pizza crust and applies a light amount of tomato sauce, followed by a cup of crescenza cheese. The flowers are arranged on top along with long leaves of arugula. She drizzles olive oil over the top and salt and pepper to taste.

"This has a delicate and distinct flavor," she says. "And the thinner crust lets you taste the ingredients."

The pansies provide a slight wintergreen flavor and the squash blossoms have a light squashlike taste.

Cooking class student Louie Calles was putting together a pizza known in Italy as frutti di mare, or seafood pizza. The pizza is topped with a cup of assorted seafood of your choice. Calles was using scallops, calamari and shrimp. He also included fresh tomatoes, garlic and mozzarella.

"I never would have thought of putting fish on top of a pizza but it tastes so good," Calles says. "And you can taste everything on this pizza."

Calles, who is a big fan of pizza, took Isidori's class to learn more about making pizza in a healthier way. What he learned about Italian-style pizza is that cheese is used in proportion to the other ingredients. It does not dominate, but rather helps balance the other flavors.

"And I really like that the pizzas use so many natural ingredients," Calles says. "I am trying to eat less processed foods, to stay healthy, and these recipes are good for that."

Kate Wolf, who has worked as a chef and manages the Sierra Nut House Bistro, noticed right away the heightened flavors of the pizzas the class made.

"It matters when you use the freshest herbs, seasonal vegetables and a good sauce," Wolf says. "You can taste everything you put on your pizza."

Sorrenti cooked the pizzas in her outdoor oven that uses a high heat — between 850 to 900 degrees. The pizza is turned often using a paddle and is ready in about two minutes.

In a conventional oven, place pizza on a stone or a heavy baking tray coated with extra virgin olive oil and bake in pre-heated oven at 400 degrees. Place rack or stone about 8 inches from the bottom of the oven. Cooking time will vary depending on the amount of dough in the pizza. Set timer for 10 minutes. Add more time, if necessary, until the cheese is melted and the crust is brown.

Pizza marinara

10 to 12 tablespoons of marinara sauce

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 cup of thinly sliced mozzarella

12 black olives

2 tablespoons capers

4 anchovy fillets

4 to 6 stems of fresh oregano

Olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

Over the pizza dough, spread marinara sauce minced garlic. Add mozzarella, black olives, anchovies, capers and oregano. Drizzle olive oil over the ingredients and salt and pepper to taste.

Pizza fresca

10 to 12 slices of uncooked prosciutto

12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 cup sliced buffalo mozzarella

1 cup fresh arugula

Olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

Over a thin crust, add prosciutto, tomatoes, and drizzle olive oil over the top. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add arugula last.

Pizza carbonara

1 small sliced onion

5 to 6 slices of pancetta or bacon

1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese

6 to 8 slices of asiago or manchego cheese

4 tablespoons of minced Italian parsley

Olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

Spread sliced onion over the dough, add sliced cheese, pancetta or bacon. Sprinkle grated pecorino romano cheese, drizzle olive oil over the top and salt and pepper to taste. After taking pizza out of the oven, add chopped parsley.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6327, brodriguez@fresnobee.com or @FresnoBeeBob on Twitter.

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