Pizza bianca – the quintessential Roman street food

Pizza bianca, sliced

Pizza bianca is ubiquitous in Rome. Although Romans don’t by and large like eating on the move, chances are you will see people wandering along clutching bready packages and chances are, they’ll be folded pieces of pizza bianca, either plain or filled (farcita).

Pizza bianca – “white pizza” – is effectively plain pizza, simply sprinkled with coarse salt. It can be fairly thin, or it can be fairly puffy – more akin to what we’d called focaccia in the UK. There are fine lines between different types of flat bread, but what we call focaccia (literally “hearth bread”, from the word focus – Latin for hearth) is probably more akin specifically to the focaccia Genovese. Usage of the words “pizza” and “focaccia” vary a lot around Italy; for example, in our local Sardinian restaurant here in Rome, they serve discs of crisp flatbread that they call… focaccia.

This is my second attempt at pizza bianca. I made some in February 2012, but my oven has such fierce bottom heat, I struggled to get the top golden without over-baking the bottom.

Pizza bianca

Plus, well, as pizza bianca can be found in every bakery and pizza takeaway place in Rome, it seemed almost silly to persist in trying to master it. Except recently, when we’d decided to leave, it seemed I really ought to. Then last week I stopped by Rachel’s place while she was making it, and it galvanised me to revisit the document that’s been sitting on the my desktop the past few month called “Pizza bianca recipes”.

The most important factors
Pizza bianca is made with a fairly basic white bread dough, but there are several important things to consider:
You want a a nice moist dough.
You want to give it some folds.
You have to give it time to ferment.
You need to be gentle with it.
And ideally you want decent extensibility, as with any pizza dough.

Mine fell down slightly on the final factor: perhaps an autolyse process at the start would help, but this didn’t seem to be traditional. Or I could have tried to increase the hydration.

Rachel used the recipe from Gabriele Bonci’s book (so far only available in Italian), which was 70% hydration (ie 700g water to 1kg flour), but last December we saw this recipe in the window of Bonci’s bakery in Prati. Ninety flippin’ percent hydration and two days of leavening. I was just discussing the challenge of high,70%+ hydration ciabatta dough yesterday with Jeremy; that’s tricky enough. I’d love to see Bonci handling his 90% dough.

Recipe in the window of Bonci bakery, Dec 2012

Otherwise my first effort was okay; I would have liked to get a nicer golden colour on top, but couldn’t manage that with my pesky oven…. which will only be my pesky oven for another 10 days, before we leave our home of the last two years and head back to Blighty, then on to a bit of a trip to see friends and family in the US and NZ. So all very bittersweet. Yay to visiting friends and family in the US and NZ, boo to leaving Roma friends and infuriating, wonderful Roma.

Variation and experimentation
As usual with my recipes, I’m experimenting as I go along. You can just make this with commercial yeast, but I did a mixture of fresh yeast and my leaven/sourdough. If you don’t use leaven, increase the yeast to 12g.

A note on the flour too. All the Italian recipes that I’ve seen specify using a grano tenero flour – that is “soft grain”, not a high protein wheat flour. I used Mulino Marino’s organic 0 grano tenero. (00, 0 etc refer to the fineness of the milling; see here for more discussion of Italian flour terminology). This is now available in the UK, but frankly, it’s always better to use local produce as food transportation is a massive contributor to climate change. So see if you can find a medium protein (12-13%) fairly fine flour from your most local mill.

Some recipes also use other ingredients like milk, sugar and even “strutto di maiale” (lard), but at its purest pizza bianca is just flour, water, yeast, salt. And olive oil. But then, what’s any Italian food without some olive oil?* Though the oil here is a classic qb element.

Pizza bianca recipe

The recipe
So here’s my recipe. It makes quite a lot – two fairly large, squarish pizzas – so you’ll need some room in your fridge. Or do half quantities.

The process seems quite convoluted, but mostly it’s about time and gentleness.

1000g flour
700g water
5g fresh yeast (or 3g active dried yeast)
50g white leaven (100% hydration)
20g fine sea salt
30g extra virgin olive oil… or qb.

1. Combine the water, yeast and leaven.
2. Put the flour and salt in a bowl and mix together quickly.
3. Pour the liquid into the flour and mix, along with a sloosh of olive oil. Use your hands or a rubber spatula.

Pizza bianca
4. Turn the rough dough out onto a work surface and knead. Try to stretch the dough and fold it over, to incorporate air.

Pizza bianca recipe, kneading sticky dough
5. It will be sticky. Don’t keep adding more flour. When you’ve got it nicely combined, clean off your hands with some flour, rubbing it between your fingers like soap.

Pizza bianca recipe
6. Put the ball of dough in a bowl, cover with film or a cloth or a shower cap and leave to rest at room temperature.
7. Put a drop of olive oil on the work surface and rub. This won’t stop it sticking, but it can help a little…

Pizza bianca recipe
8. Turn out the dough, and stretch it to form a rough rectangle. Be gentle.

Pizza bianca, folding

9. This next bit is important. It’s called stretching and folding, and it’s a gentle way of redistributing the gases building up in the dough and helping develop the structure, while avoiding any of that old-school British violent mistreatment of the dough.

Pizz bianca, folding
10. Once you have a rough rectangle, fold one third inwards, then fold over the opposite end, to form a kind of envelope. A dough scraper, or tarocco (“tarot card”), is essential here.
Pizza bianca recipe

11. Fold this envelope in half again in the centre of the long rectangle, to make a more cube-type shape (sorry, no photo, but in the photo direclty above, fold the top edge up so it meets the top edge). Put it back in the bowl and cover again.
12. Repeat this process two or three more times at 20 minute intervals.
13. Clean your bowl, or use a fresh container, oil it, then put the dough back. Cover with film or a lid, and put it in the fridge.
14. Leave the dough to quietly, slowly ferment for about 20-24 hours.
15. Remove the dough from the fridge.
16. Depending on how big you want your pizzas to be, divide up the dough. I’ve got an oven sheet that’s 40x40cm (about 16”), so I did divided the dough in two.

Pizza bianca recipe
17. Give the dough another gentle fold, form a loose ball, then leave to rest again, bringing it back to room temperature.
18. Preheat your oven – ideally about 250C, or as hot as it’ll go. Baking any pizza, the hotter the oven, the better. (A good wood-fired oven can top 500C.)

Pizza bianca recipe
19. Take your ball of dough and gently extend it into a square or rectangle to fill your baking sheet or pan. Do this gently, as you want to retain the nice gassy structure. You can either do this on a flour or oiled work surface and transfer it, or it directly on your baking sheet/pan. The more you push your fingers into the dough, the thinner your pizza will be.
20. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. You can also sprinkle it with coarse sea salt before baking.
21. Then bake for about 12-18 minutes. You want a nice golden finish, something that eludes me…

Pizza bianca
22. Once it’s baked you, drizzle with a bit more oil, so it’ll be absorbed while the pizza is still warm. If you didn’t sprinkle it with salt beforehand, you can do it now instead.

Pizza bianca, and porchetta

The results
The result should be a delicious salty, slightly crunchy bread with an open, irregular structure.

You can vary it by adding olives or rosemary beforehand, but this really is entering focaccia territory, and a true Roman pizza bianca is plain.

We split ours open and filled it with porchetta, a speciality from the Rome area that’s a rolled pork roast with layers of stuffing made with garlic, rosemary and other herbs and has, ideally, some serious crackling to boot.

I’m not a meataholic like Fran,  but this made for a cracking sarnie. We served finger-food sized pieces last night at our farewell-please-take-our-stuff-while-drinking-Italian-craft-beer party. Boy oh boy, what a great selection of beers we had.

Pizza bianca with porchetta

* Of course, this was a flippant comment. Reading about Marcella Hazan, who died 29 Sept 2013, I feel quite dumb to have even made this off-hand comment, as, of course, some things are better fried in butter or types of vegetable oil, even in Italian cuisine. Frying fritti, for example, in extra virgin olive oil would be a total waste, plus, inversely, EV olive oil can be just too strong a taste for more delicate dishes.

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14 Comments

Filed under Breads, Pizza

14 responses to “Pizza bianca – the quintessential Roman street food

  1. frangipan

    Lovely sandwich, really all down to the great pizza bianca. Now you can make it for me every weekend back in the UK so we can remember Roma. Will you post a pic of the beers, here?

    • Thanks wifey. The porchetta wasn’t bad too – thanks to the nice folks at the Punta Vendita Aziendale (direct-from-farm-shop) in Portuense. If I make pizza bianca back home, you need to learn to make porchetta.

  2. Great pics of stretch-and-fold. Harder to explain than to do …

  3. rachel

    I can vouch for the super stupendous bianca/pork affair – perfect food really. Great pictures – particularly the gentle prod one. Oh gawd don’t leave.

  4. 90% hydration! I’d also like to see that.

  5. Ma

    Dan, that pork made my mouth water. Gosh. Bit like a Roman hog roast but much much better.

  6. What a comprehensive recipe – I have discovered pizza bianca and your recipe seems a very good place to start to learn more about it.

  7. Pingback: Italy: Porchetta – flavours to savour

  8. Pingback: New sneakers, by Ilana – The Stangeroo Family Adventure in Rome

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