“I wanted to show you something you don’t ordinarily see,” Giovanni told a recent visitor as he prepared his Pizza con Zucca Fiore, which features sautéed zucchini, mozzarella, squash blossoms and freshly torn mint leaves. The dish exudes a remarkable blend of flavor and aroma unlike anything you’ve experienced. This isn’t what you grew up thinking pizza was.
Giovanni, 48, has been distributing pizza ingredients, tools and advice for 26 years. The Antioch resident is also probably one of the few people in the area with a wood-fired oven in his backyard, an encyclopedic knowledge of pizza and pizzaiolo (Italian for “pizza maker”) and a powerful desire to share his passion with guests.
“It’s all about community,” said Giovanni, 47. “You could put some cheese on bread and call it pizza. The main thing is to do it with family and friends and have fun.”
The most important rule about making a pizza, said Giovanni, is that there are no rules. As homemade pizza grows in popularity, an increasing number of “experts” offer advice on how it should be done.
“There are lots of people who will tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Giovanni said. “Well, the first thing that’s wrong is listening to those people.”
While some pizza fans prefer mountains of toppings, Giovanni’s preference is for three or less. Too many ingredients – too many flavors and textures – prevent each from playing its own starring role. Giovanni even keep the basics as simple as possible, preferring to use plain, crushed tomatoes rather than a tomato sauce laden with spices.
That’s not to say his pizzas are always simple. At the most recent gathering at the Giovanni home last weekend, guests were offered more than two dozen toppings from which to choose, from sautéed zucchini and new potatoes to fresh meats and cheese made from sheep’s milk. Some are prepared according to old family recipes – Giovanni is just as proud of his Italian heritage as he is knowledgeable about Italian cooking (and yes, he insists: pizza is an authentic Italian meal) – while others are simply plucked fresh from the gardens tucked into every nook and cranny of his backyard.
And while Giovanni’s pizzas cook quickly, his pizza-making is not a quick task. He requires a minimum of 24 hours to prepare a quick dough, and prefers to use three days. The result is worth it: his “quick” dough requires at least 24 hours to rise, and others require three days.
Toppings and dough aside, the greatest contributor to Giovanni’s pizza is probably the oven it’s cooked in. His wood-fired, brick oven can take as long as three hours to reach its optimal 800 F temperature, but the fiery blast cooks pizza in between two and four minutes. The bricks cook the crust, fire fuses the ingredients, and the natural convection of the open-hearth oven blends the flavors perfectly. Although not the same as a brick oven, Giovanni said an attachment now available for Weber Kettle barbecues offers an alternative to fire-cooked pizza without the need to hire a masonry contractor.
Giovanni’s love of cooking and sharing led him to open his own online store at www.fgpizza.com. Tools, advice and ingredients for making pizza and bread are abundant, as are videos teaching visitors how they can be used to best effect. In addition to making sure pizza lovers have what they need, proceeds from the site are putting his daughter through school.
Even if you’re not ready to start your next pizza dinner three days in advance, there are some things you can do to make the most of your pizza-making experience. Giovanni said the fresh dough available at Trader Joe’s is good, and more grocers are offering it every day. Keep your ingredients fresh, too, and invite a friend or two to join you.
“Just have fun,” he said. “Be willing to experiment – and eat your mistakes.”
Pizza con Zucca Fiore
For video instructions on how to prepare this and other dishes, visit www.fgpizza.com.
• From a fresh vegetable garden, select the longer squash blossoms. Pick them in the morning, when the flowers are open, then refrigerate until ready to use.
• Prepare dough according to instructions, and stretch into a 12-to-14-inch circle.
• Top the skin with extra virgin olive oil
• Add fresh mozzarella, or any cheese you prefer.
• Add sautéed slices of squash.
• Dot with more fresh mozzarella.
• Add whole flower blossoms.
• Top with grated parmesan cheese.
• Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
• Bake in a wood-fired oven at 800 degrees for three or four minutes, turning frequently.
• Remove from the oven, add freshly torn mint leaves and serve.
Frankie G’s wood-fired oven pizza dough
Time to make: 1½-2½ days
Biga: 12 hours
Final dough: 24-48 hours
Rise time: 2-3 hours
Bake time: 1½-2 minutes
Makes: Two 350-gram dough balls
High-gluten flour: ⅔ cup
Yeast: ⅛ teaspoon
Filtered water: ¼ cup
High-gluten flour: 3½ cups
Biga: 2½ ounces of biga
Yeast instant: ½ teaspoon
Sea salt: 1 teaspoon
Filtered water: 1 cup + 3 teaspoons
MORNING OF DAY 1 – MAKE BIGA
Start with a clean bowl. Add water, high-gluten flour and yeast. Mix with Danish dough whisk or spoon until incorporated well. Place in a non-reactive food container, seal and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours, when the Biga should be doubled and very spongy.
DAY 2 (12 HOURS LATER) – MAKE FINAL DOUGH
Start with a clean bowl of stand mixer. Add water, resin biga, and high-gluten flour and yeast. Mix with dough-hook attachment until dough forms and let it sit for 20 minutes, covered, before salt is added. Add salt and continue to mix for 13 minutes on medium speed.
Place in a non-reactive food container, seal and store chilled in refrigerator for 24-48 hours. Dough should rise 100 percent.
DAY 3 (24-48 HOURS LATER) – FORM DOUGH BALLS AND LET RISE
Divide dough in two equal pieces. Form each piece into dough balls. Place in rising pan or on counter and cover with an oiled towel. Let rise till doubled (45 minutes to one hour).
DAY 3 – MAKE PIZZA
Dredge dough ball in flour and flatten ball on counter with hands. Hand-stretch or roll pizza to 12 to 14 inches. Now you’re ready to make the pizza of your dreams.