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Old-school pie: pizza the Italian way

Say goodbye to those strange local toppings – authentic artisanal Italian pizza has arrived, writes Janice Leung Hayes

 

PIZZA IS BELIEVED TO have originated in Naples in the late 18th century. But what we find in Hong Kong today – cheese-filled crusts and toppings of imitation crab, pineapple and Thousand Island dressing – are proof that we are a few centuries (and 9,000 kilometres) away from the original.

The tide is changing, however, as pizza makers are reintroducing the Italian pie to our city, focusing on quality and craftsmanship.

Fabio Donati and Dario Mulino are among the new traditionalists. They are graduates of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy, which was founded by the Slow Food Consortium that promotes the preservation of traditional and regional cuisines.

“We want to educate more people about pizza,” says Mulino. “There’s a lot of potential in Hong Kong.”

The duo met at university, and formed their brand, PizzaPala, when they arrived in Hong Kong two years ago. A chance meeting led to their first outlet in Great Food Hall, where they started by making Neapolitan pizzas in the cafe. Then, when the cafe closed for renovations, they switched to selling Roman pizzas “al taglio” – or by the slice – from the supermarket’s bakery.

“We want people in Hong Kong to experience real pizza,” says Mulino, and his definition of “real” doesn’t necessarily mean Neapolitan. “Roman pizza started in the 1940s, and it’s a very typical lunch,” says Donati of the pizza that’s sold by weight in Rome. In Hong Kong, rather than selling by weight, Donati and Mulino are cutting their pizza into small rectangles.

“People usually have pizza during the lunch rush, and they just want to see the final price, pay and go,” Donati says. “You won’t end up spending a huge amount on your lunch, but you can still try different toppings. The whole Roman concept is that you can have diversity.”

Their pizza is made with high hydration dough; they’re keeping the exact percentage of water to flour a secret, but Donati says it’s “close to 100 per cent”. High hydration dough is more difficult to work with than drier dough. But it creates lightness and bounce – what bakers call oven spring – with a good cornicione, the all-important puffy edge of the crust that pizza connoisseurs look for. “Our pizza is crispy at the bottom, and light, so you won’t feel weighed down by the end of lunch,” says Donati.

Another newcomer, Motorino, specialises in traditional Neapolitan pizza. Motorino Hong Kong is the first branch to open outside of the pizzeria’s home city of New York, where it has two outlets. It describes itself humbly as a “neighbourhood pizzeria”, but it has a reputation of being one of the best places in the Big Apple for Neapolitan pizza.

In 2009, Neapolitan-style pizza, or pizza Napoletana, gained legal protection from the European Union as a food product that is a “traditional speciality guaranteed” (TSG). The law stipulates strict specifications on the ingredients, product quality and production method.

 

For pizza Napoletana, some of the specifications include a diameter not exceeding 35cm, a manual shaping process, being cooked in a wood-fired oven and toppings of not much more than tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, basil and specific types of buffalo mozzarella that comply with European law.

Although the TSG regulations have no effect outside of Europe, Motorino’s pizzas are cooked in accordance with most of these rules. They even use San Marzano tomatoes, which aren’t part of the specifications but are the preferred variety for quality pizza.

The oven was built by Stefano Ferrara, “the god of pizza ovens” who also built the ovens for Motorino’s New York outlets, says Asim Hussain, director of business development at Motorino Hong Kong.

The oven reaches extremely high temperatures – around 500 degrees Celsius – producing a signature charred crust in minutes. The resulting slices are pliable and must be eaten folded, or with cutlery.

In Hong Kong, where golden brown and cracker-crisp bases are the norm, perhaps the blackened patches and flexible crust might deter some. But Christopher Mark, director of operations at Motorino Hong Kong, says a bit of charring shouldn’t be considered unusual: “In France, pastries are almost burned and that gives layers of flavour. Look at char siu, it’s burned on the outside.”

When the Hong Kong branch of Motorino opened in March, “The humidity was a challenge,” says Hussain. “To get the dough right was a two-week process for Mathieu [Palombino, executive chef and founder of Motorino New York].”

Nonetheless, the menu in Hong Kong is identical to the one in New York, with offerings such as a classic margherita pizza (tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil, pecorino and extra virgin olive oil); cherrystone clam with mozzarella, oreganata butter and lemon; and Brussels sprouts with mozzarella, garlic, pecorino and smoked pancetta. The artisanal style has received a fantastic reception, according to Hussain.

Donati and Mulino, whose PizzaPala counter at Great is scheduled to reopen next month, aren’t afraid to go beyond the classic repertoire of pizzas, but when they do, it won’t be about appeasing local tastes.

“We could decide to use pineapple,” says Mulino, “but if we’re going to do something like that, we’ve got to be doing something a little more interesting. Think about what a Michelin-star chef would do. That’s the way we think.”

In addition to classic toppings of buffalo mozzarella with rocket leaves and cherry tomatoes, the quattro formaggi (four cheese), and the margherita, they also plan to make pizza with Parma ham, fresh figs and rosemary, pumpkin cream and pancetta, and pesto and potatoes.

Despite their traditional perspective, Mulino says they’re not going for a restaurant approach where diners must order a full pizza each time. Eight to 10 varieties will be offered daily at their counter at Great Food Hall or the new cafe in Lai Chi Kok, which is due to open mid-June, with specials that change according to season.

During their time at university, the Slow Food disciples made all sorts of artisanal foods. But they settled on pizza.

“You can make food two ways, the traditional way, or the industrialised way,” says Mulino. “Companies here tend to be chains, so for two Italians with quality on their minds, Hong Kong is a fertile place.”

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