Discovering the Perfect Pizza ... in JapanFebruary 19, 2019
I like to think I make a pretty great pizza. At least that’s what my friends tell me. My specialty is thin-crust pizza done in a wood-fired oven that a friend imported as a gift from Naples. I’ve been lucky enough to have a private lesson from an award-winning Napolitano pizza maker, and I use the freshest ingredients I can find for toppings – the favourite being Parmesan and Fontina cheeses, prosciutto and arugula. And I always give the pizzas a finishing drizzle of my Domenica Fiore extra virgin olive oil.
The truth, however, is that making pizza dough is a struggle for me. I am generally not fond of anything that falls into the baking category. It requires too much science for my liking. I prefer the less precise art of cooking. Accordingly, I just buy fresh pizza dough at a local deli. No one seems to notice, or care. The pizzas always taste great, regardless.
Or so I thought. Until a recent trip to Japan. Yes, Japan. Not New York or Italy. While I was on vacation recently in Tokyo, I visited The Pizza Bar on 38th, which resides in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I ordered their Pizza Diavola, took one bite, and was immediately transported to some heavenly dimension. The dough was like nothing I have ever tasted before. It had the crispiness you would expect from a Naples style pizza, but it was light and flaky in a way that reminded me of a croissant.
I immediately started asking questions. When our server realized I was going to dig deep, he excused himself and quickly returned with executive chef, Daniele Cason, who was raised and trained in Rome. Daniele moved to Tokyo six years ago and it was his idea to open a pizza bar in the hotel’s Italian restaurant. We spoke for a few moments and I asked if I could come back the next day for lunch to learn some of his tricks. He politely agreed, but I could almost see that “who-is-this-guy” look on his face.
The next day I arrived 15 minutes early for my reservation and ordered three pizzas: Daniele’s favourite, the “Marinara” (tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and marjoram – instead of oregano), the “Pizzino” (Mascarpone, truffle essence, and black olives) and the “Bufala” (Bufala Mozzarella, tomato, and basil). As he worked in the kitchen and issued instructions to his sous chef, I began my interrogation. Mostly, I wanted to know about the crust.
It all starts with the quality of the flour, he said. He uses only a particular brand from the Piedmont area of Italy. It’s a family-owned business that still uses a stone mill. According to Daniele, modern steel mills use heat that kills the nutrient-rich embryo or germ of the grain – something he claims you can actually smell.
Quality flour aside, it’s his method of making dough I found most interesting. His water-to-flour ratio is 80/20, which seems surprisingly wet. The preparation is done in two 24-hour cycles. He lets the dough mixture “ferment” during the first 24 hours, and then he kneads the dough to reactivate the yeast and lets it sit for another 24 hours. His other secret is using a small amount of yeast: 1 gram per kilogram of flour. This makes the crust light and easy to digest. When I pressed the dough with my finger, it was like pressing on a cotton ball. Daniele pointed out that his crust is not only crispy around the edges, but all the way through.
For the toppings, he seems to favour the Puglia region of Italy, where both his San Marzano tomatoes and Burrata cheese come from. (The Burrata is flown in twice a week). The olive oil is from Sicily. He knows my Domenica Fiore olive oil and said they once used it, but claimed they do rotations periodically. He later admitted it was also a pricing issue. I forgave him. He said the fresh cherry tomato varietals from Japan are the best. And, impressively, he prepares his own anchovies, which is a month-long process.
Once everything is assembled, he slides the pizzas into a perfectly heated oven – 190 C on the bottom and 290 C on the dome – and lets them cook for 10 to 15 minutes. By contrast, I like to cook my pizzas for about two minutes in a much hotter oven.
I participated in devouring all three pizzas despite a sushi-making lesson earlier in the day that involved plenty of eating. I had assumed the marinara would be my favourite, but I loved all three.
For dessert, Daniele offered us his homemade Limoncello. Normally, I don’t touch the stuff, but this lacked the heavy sweetness of the run-of-the-mill stuff. It was made from a Japanese citrus fruit called Yuzu and it was delicious.
When I think of Japan, delicious food is often the first thing that comes to mind. But I never would have guessed I would discover my favourite pizza there. Now, I need to buy that special flour, get over my dough-making phobia and attempt to make it myself.