Discovering the Pizzetta

6 July, 2015

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Orso in Covent Garden, a London patron of the pizzetta

Quite possibly the most loved food in the world, pizza comes in an overwhelming myriad of incarnations.

From New York’s large, hand-tossed thin-crust pies, with little tomato sauce and lots of cheese, sold by the slice, to Middle America’s outrageously topped pizza (think cheeseburger or ziti pasta), to the original, Italy’s stunningly simple pizza, with few, very fresh ingredients – there is a pizza to suit almost every culture, style and taste.

And though the choice is more limited, London is certainly not excluded from this, and in recent years there has been an expansion of a particular type of pizza in our capital’s restaurants: the pizzetta.

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The tomato, mozzarella, basil and ‘Nduja pizzetta at Orso

Essentially a small pizza, pizzettas can range from the practically bite-size to around 10 inches wide, and are historically more imaginatively crafted than regular pizzas, with its roots firmly planted in Californian kitchens of the 1980s, at the hands of the godparents of the pizzetta: Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters and Ed LaDou.

A prime pioneer of the organic food movement, American chef Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 in Berkeley California, as a neighbourhood bistro working with only the finest sustainably sourced, organic and seasonal ingredients, from a large open kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven – the latter an anomaly at the time.

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One of Chez Panisse’s signature pizzettas. Photo credit: Aya Brackett

Inspired by her extensive travels to Italy and by the produce around her in California, Alice and her head chef Jeremiah Tower decided to make single-serving pizzas, prepared classically, but topped inventively.

Mostly without traditional tomato sauce and often without cheese, Chez Panisse’s pizzettas, made with sweet and hot peppers, capers and marjoram, nettles, artichoke or sheep’s milk ricotta, or leeks, pancetta and goats’ cheese, brought Alice and Chez Panisse a bustling trade and critical acclaim – and still do 40 years after opening.

Also considered “California pizza”, these creative pizzettas made their way into the mainstream thanks to pizza chef Ed LaDou and chef-restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, with Ed later developing the menus for international restaurant chain, California Pizza Kitchen.

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AKA the “Jewish Pizza”, Wolfgang Puck and Ed LaDou’s famous smoked salmon pizzetta. Photo credit: Wolfgang Puck

Known as the “Prince of Pizza” the now-deceased Ed LaDou learned the art of pizza-making as a teenager and worked at various pizza restaurants in Northern California before serving a fateful pie to Wolfgang Puck at Prego restaurant in San Francisco in 1980 – Ed was offered a job at Wolfgang’s new Spago restaurant right away. Their most famous creation? The smoked salmon pizzetta that is still served at the annual Oscars Governers Ball – pizza dough cooked with julienned red onion, and topped with dill cream, smoked salmon and caviar.

In London, Hartnett Holder & Co at the Lime Wood Hotel, Russell Norman’s Polpo, and Covent Garden legend Orso, among many more, have been creating their own interpretations of the pizzetta, and the same goes for restaurants and bars across the US.

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Blue Moose restaurant in Beaver Creek Colorado serve pizzettas with Colorado beer flights as bar snacks

With strong ties to the US, Orso has been serving pizzettas for years – I remember taking my niece and nephew there regularly some twenty years ago, with each of us revelling in our individual pies, topped as we liked.

Today Orso still serves a pizzetta as an aperitivi, with tomato, mozzarella, basil and ‘Nduja – a trendy, spicy, spreadable pork sausage from Calabria, Hartnett Holder & Co serve theirs often sauce-less, with mushroom or quail egg, taleggio, spinach, and the Polpo menu dedicates a whole section to their pizzettas – with white anchovy and smoked mozzarella or gorgonzola and prosciutto.

Though the pizza purist might scoff, as smaller canvases, pizzettas are, essentially, about the freedom to experiment and express, and the bases are easier to make too – a kitchen can make pizzettas without a pizza oven, making them popular bar snacks in America. So perhaps instead of some pork scratchings we’ll soon be served some seasonally charged pizzettas with our pint? I think London would welcome that.

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The Milan-inspired interior of Orso in Covent Garden, a restaurant celebrating 30 years

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