Last March, the neat, well-spaced queue in front of Passi, our local bakery, seemed utterly strange. Now, more than a year on, the idea of Passi, or any shop, stuffed with people is a strange one. I have forgotten what it is to jostle or hustle in shops, or to push my way to a bar, or along a dark cinema row, to grab a friend and give them a hug. I have even had sentimental feelings about trains in rush hour and shoving into lifts. Anyway, back to the well-spaced queue outside Passi, and one possible reason for standing in it: pizza rossa. Which is ordinary and exceptional, thin and crisp (although still very much a pizza, not a cracker), with a thin layer of tomato sauce and glistening with olive oil.
It has been on my mind to write about pizza rossa Roman-style for years now. Of course, I knew that I would never be able to replicate the 3m lengths baked on well-seasoned trays in a professional oven, but I hoped I could get close. Only I didn’t, despite numerous attempts, until two weeks ago – and only because a friend pointed out that I was not looking at what I was doing. Because I wasn’t using my hand like a bread hook – that is, pinching my fingers together like an Italian gesture and stirring for two whole minutes. And of course I had a puff-edged pizza because I wasn’t pressing the dough thinly enough or smearing the tomatoes deeply enough. And I wasn’t baking it hot enough or in the right place, either – that turns out to be the floor of my oven – or being generous enough with the olive oil, both before and after baking.
There is another thing about pizza rossa Roman-style, as I was reminded by the couple before me in the queue outside Passi. They went in, but then almost immediately came out again. because they weren’t going to buy the last cold portion – better to wait for the next batch – so I didn’t go in, either. So we all waited, well-spaced on the pavement, until we were shouted in to get our rossa “appena sfornata” – just-baked – and therefore to be grabbed, jostled and eaten immediately.
Pizza rossa alla Romana
Prep and proof 2 hr 40 min
Cook 15 min
500g 0 flour
4g dried yeast or 12g fresh
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Hard wheat semolina flour, for rolling out
1 x 400g tin whole peeled plum tomatoes2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
Put the flour in a bowl and measure 360ml water into a jug. If you are using fresh yeast, dissolve it in 25ml of the measured water. Add the dissolved fresh yeast plus 300ml water – or 4g driad yeast plus 325ml water – to the flour. Using your fingers like a bread hook – that is, pointed and clenched together – stir for two minutes, then add 12g salt and the remaining water, and stir again for a minute.
Wash your hands. Add the olive oil to the dough and stir again, which will help create a soft, slightly sticky, putty-like dough that can be brought into a ball. Scoop out the dough, wash the bowl, rub the insides with oil and return the dough to the bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave to sit in warm spot for two hours, during which time it should almost double in size.
Oil your hands and scoop the dough on to a lightly oiled work surface. Cut it in half and, working delicately, lift up the edges of both halves so they look like neat little bags. Lift on to a board dusted with semolina floor, cover with cloth and set aside for another 30 minutes.
While the dough is rising, use your hands to crush the tomatoes, then add two tablespoons of olive oil and some salt, and stir. Taste and, if it seems too acidic, add a little sugar.
Heat the oven to its highest setting, 240C (220C fan)/475F/gas 9. Working on a board dusted with semolina flour, extend one piece of dough with your fingers until it is the size of a big plate. Lift it on to a 32 x32cm baking tray, then use your fingertips to extend it to fill the whole tray. Dimple the dough gently all over with a spoon, then, using your fingertips, smear half the tomato sauce right to the edges, dimple again and zig-zag with oil.
Bake on the floor of the oven or on a baking stone, or as low in the oven as possible, for 12-15 minutes, until the the base is firm, the edges golden and the top blistered and ever so slightly singed. Pull the pizza from the oven, zig-zag with more oil and serve in slices. Repeat with second piece of dough.