World's Best Neapolitan Pizza Contest Winner Shares Pie-Making Secrets

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If you had the chance to eat Neapolitan-style pizza from the definitive world's best maker, you'd take it, right? Too bad that guy's in Australia, dashing all your immediate pie-eating dreams. Johnny Di Francesco, chef-owner of 400 Gradi in Melbourne, recently took home first place in the margherita pizza category at the Campionato Mondiale della Pizza, or Pizza World Championships, in Parma, Italy, Friday.

"I've been making pizza since I was 12, but about five years ago I went to Naples and did a course there with the DOP, an association in Naples that preserves the Neapolitan tradition," Di Francesco said.

What sets this style of pizza apart from others are the specifications by which it must be made to be able to call itself Neapolitan. The dough can only use water, salt, yeast and flour, the stretching of the dough can only be done by hand, the products must be of a high quality and the pizza must be cooked in a 400- to 450-degrees Celsius oven for less than 90 seconds, Di Francesco said.

Not very realistic for an at-home cook, but luckily we snagged some pizza-making secrets from Di Francesco himself so that you can try to replicate his Neapolitan masterpieces in your own kitchen.

  • Start with high-quality dough. Di Francesco recommends his personal recipe: 1/3 liter of water, 1 gram of fresh yeast, 16.6 grams fine sea salt and .56 kilos of pizza flour. "I use pizza Napoletana flour called Le 5 Stagioni," he said. To make, first dissolve the salt in the water. Then, add 10 to 15 percent of the flour you're going to use. "If you put the yeast with the salt, the yeast dies or you lessen the life on the yeast, so after you've added 10 to 15 percent of the flour, you then add the amount of yeast you're going to use," Di Francesco explained. Dissolve it in the liquidy dough and then gradually add the rest of your flour until you're ready to knead the dough for at least 10 minutes. Cover with a damp cloth and let it rest for about two hours on the counter. Then, divide the rested dough into smaller balls and let it rest another six hours without refrigeration. Finally, stretch the dough out by hand only. No rolling pins, he said.
  • Add high-quality ingredients. Go for San Marzano tomatoes and either a fior di latte or a buffalo mozzarella. "I would recommend a mozzarella that is DOP-approved so you know it's coming from right region. It doesn't really matter if it's packed in plastic or there's water, as long as it's DOP, it's guaranteed to be a good mozzarella," Di Francesco said.
  • Use a pizza stone. "I'll get a stone that goes into the oven, and I preheat that as hot as possible. And then I will use the same process of sliding the pizza into a normal wood fired oven. That way the stone is already hot and you're not putting a cold pizza on a cold stone and then in the oven. Then I normally cook that pizza in about four minutes in a conventional oven," Di Francesco said.
  • Or finish on the stovetop. Not everyone has a pizza stone on the ready. In that case, you can cook your pizza on a steel or aluminum tray. "You can stretch your pizza onto the tray top it with all your ingredients and put it into a conventional oven. What you'll normally find is the top will cook really well, but the bottom may not cook too well because you're putting a cold tray in a hot oven," Di Francesco said. "So to finish it off, I would take the pizza out of the oven and turn my cooktop on and put the tray directly on the cooktop to brown the bottom.
  • Finish with basil and extra-virgin olive oil. Di Fransceso warns against putting the basil and extra-virgin olive oil on before you cook the pizza. "It will brown up too quickly," he explained.
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