When you bite into the perfect Neapolitan slice, it is a textural experience like no other. There is a delicate, thin layer of crunch to the crust, while the interior is poufy, moist and airy. Instead of a browned crust, it should be spotted with char, often referred to as a leopard-spotting, and easy to tear. The interior shouldn’t be stiff, but inundated with sauce, allowing for the use of a knife and fork. Overall, the complex, mature taste of the dough should reflect careful fermentation, which releases flavorful gasses into the air pockets of the crust.
“I can’t make a sourdough as I would like, with a starter,” says Frankie Cecchinelli of Figidini. “I use a commercial yeast because there isn’t really a way to have a consistent, predictable product during our hours of operation” However, by working daily to perfect his methods, Frankie has been able to get just the right amount of fermentation to make an ideal Neapolitan crust.
Speaking to Frankie, it is clear that he is committed daily to the guided evolution and life cycle of his dough. As a living, breathing, and constantly changing system, a lot of consideration must be given to the 4 ingredients that make up the recipe–water, yeast, flour, and salt–to ensure the absolute perfect crust on a finished personal pie. Indowncity sat down with Frankie to learn exactly what goes into the process of making the neighborhood favorites.
First things first–what’s the forecast?
When getting started with a new batch, you gotta watch the weather. This is because the perfect dough is reliant on the amount of moisture it absorbs–both added manually, and from the environment. “You don’t want the dough to be too heavy and glutenous, you want it airy and light,” says Frankie. Too much moisture will accelerate fermentation, and the timing will be off. Too little moisture would make a drier, tougher crust. “The goal is to get thin strands of dough that stretch across big pockets of air.”
Speaking of Hydration…
The next consideration is the type of water you’ll be using.”Pizza legends in the industry say that high minerality is better for the dough.” Luckily Providence water is already hard, though not quite as minerally as New York City water. Many attribute the qualities of an authentic New York slice to how hard the water is. Essentially, softer water equals softer, sometimes even sticky, dough. Hard water gives dough a nice, chewy bite.
Yeast and Fermentation
“The yeast feeds off the natural sugars in the flour. As the days go by, this creates more of the leopard-spotting we want to see in the crust. The yeast eating up the sugar allows the dough to get lighter by releasing air into the crust. The fermentation should go for at least 36 hours, but the ideal time is 72 hours. ”
That being said, Figidini does serve a “baby” pizza for Tuesday lunch, with a 24 hour fermentation. “This dough cooks with a lot more caramelization. It’s a little sweeter, and hasn’t quite relaxed yet.” This means it is a little chewier than the rest of the week, but it’s young, bouncy flavor and texture is still a treat to those looking for a delicious pie.
By dinner time on Tuesday, the dough is less tough, and less sweet, and beginning to mature in flavor. From 48 hours to 72 hours, the signature leopard spotting becomes more pronounced, and the flavor much more structured. If you’re heading over for Thursday lunch or dinner, you’ll end up with one of these “adult” pies. When the conditions are just right, by Friday and Saturday, you’ll be treated to a 96 hour dough. It has wise and complex flavors, plus a super airy crust and wonderful characteristic charring that will transport you to Naples. This is a good time to take the plunge and try it out if you have a gluten sensitivity. Most of the gluten has been processed by the yeast, making the pizza incredibly digestible, light, and airy.
Flour and technique
Neapolitan pizza is made using very finely milled Italian flour. Figidini uses Caputo “00” (the blue bag) which has a super fine, powdery consistency. It doesn’t absorb as much water as American varieties, so it has a soupier consistency. It prevents as much gluten from being made, thus contributing to that nice, airy crust we keep talking about. The method of flouring is also important. “By slowing the process of adding flour to water, I’m developing less gluten, and it provides a better environment for fermentation.”
There is also a specific technique necessary to getting all those air bubbles into the crust, but not the interior parts of the dough.
“I had been trying to perfect the Neapolitan slap technique. After watching a bunch of videos on my Facebook feed, I was dreaming of the technique. In the dream, I had a specific feeling that I had gotten it down. The next day, I was working on it, and I got it – just for a second – but I got it! Now, I can’t even remember what it was like not to know the technique.”
“80% of the process is dependent on the oven. It’s what any new pizza chef struggles with the most, including myself when I first got started. It has to be hot enough, otherwise you’ll end up with a soup instead of a pizza.”
Figidini utilizes a wood-fired oven, but it is also common to use coal-fired for Neapolitan pizza. The wood presents an extra variable, because different types heat up at different rates.
“It takes at least 12 hours to get to full temperature. When I say full temperature, I mean that the volcanic ash floor, as well as the fire brick wall and dome absorb and radiate the heat evenly. On Monday, even though we’re closed, we’ll get the oven started just so it doesn’t lose too much heat by Tuesday.”