Making pizza in Italy: A love story

Toronto Star, July 15, 2015: “I have a little story to start!”

Maurizio Ortona, speaking Italian while smiling and gesturing behind the counter of his pizzeria, launches into a tale about being caught in a hailstorm as he was trying to pick fresh berries for us.

And so begins our pizza-making lesson Pizza & Co in the centre of Lecce. It’s Monday and his popular restaurant is closed so there’s room for us to stand at the counter in the back and pick up a few tips. Like use only top quality flour and add some sugar so the dough browns in the oven.

He grins and tells us to work our dough “gently, not violently” and not for too long or it will get “nervous.” Our guide translates and Ortona’s son, daughter, brother and mother watch as he moves up and down our row, tossing out a few of our lumps of dough that have apparently had nervous breakdowns. We start again. After we’ve made adequate balls of dough, he whisks them all away and brings in a batch that’s already risen.

Ortona introduces a man delivering buffalo mozzarella “made this morning.” We all cheer. We have a sample and get some more tips: Use the water the cheese comes in for the dough and put the cheese on after the pizza comes out of the oven. Otherwise, it’ll burn.

As his kids rest their chins in their hands, Ortona launches into a story about the 1800s Italian Queen who insisted on sampling the tomatoes on dough that she saw peasants eating. A pizza maker, ashamed of the humble ingredients, doctored it up with basil and mozzarella and presented the Queen with the dish he named for her, Margherita.

As my companions roll out perfect circles of dough, mine comes out triangular. With a quick nip and a tuck, Ortona turns it into a big doughy heart and we all cheer again. Someone asks about throwing the dough above our heads. “That’s just for tourists,” he says. “It abuses the dough.”

Next we put on surgical gloves and take turns squishing the tinned tomatoes he’s poured into a tub. He changes brands every year, following the best crop. And he tells us to never buy diced tomatoes because you don’t know what bits and pieces you might be getting — they’re the hotdogs of tomatoes.

“Another story!” he announces, telling us original pizza had only tomato sauce and oregano. Fishermen asked a pizza maker to add anchovies. But fish were too expensive so he added garlic instead. “It’s named for the fishermen who ate it,” Ortona says explaining why the sauce named for mariners, Marinara, has no seafood.

His wife Sylvia, a cake maker, arrives. Another cheer goes up. I keep trying to get a photo of Ortona but he moves too fast. “He’s like an earthquake, he never stops moving,” his wife says as I miss yet another shot. He’s busy assembling sweet onion, olives and mushrooms: “Never put too many things on a pizza,” he warns, and as he puts my heart-shaped creation in the oven he says: “Time to finish the love story.”

After he cuts the pizzas and places them on trays we move out to the little tables on the street so narrow a Mini Cooper looks like an Escalade. Young buskers — an enthusiastic singer and earnest kazoo-player — perform traditional Salento folk songs and Ortona’s mother coaxes her granddaughter into doing a traditional dance. More cheering. And quite a bit of eating.

The proprietor across the way brings beer to the singers, Ortona’s best friend drives by and stops for a chat and a few French tourists strike up a conversation. I have flour on my feet, a cold beer in my hand and a huge smile on my face.

It’s just another day at Pizza & Co. “My dream is to make a meeting point for people and their stories,” says Ortona, who has stopped for a second. “Life without story is worth nothing. The food is just an excuse.”

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