The explosion took chef and restaurateur Giuseppe de Vito, who goes by the moniker Beppe, by surprise. The kitchen floor, worktop and ceiling were soiled with pungent, viscous gunk – the result of an overactive sourdough starter that had built up too much pressure while fermenting in a tightly wrapped parcel.
This mother dough – which began as a simple mixture of organic flour and green apples – is, as de Vito describes it, a capricious entity. One that bubbles and blooms in response to humidity and temperature, as well as the flour and water it is given daily. “A living ingredient, it requires even more attention than meat, vegetable or pasta,” says the 48-year-old, a Bitonto native from Italy’s Puglia region. Keeping this yeasty mass alive – a feat that demands the sensitivity of a scientist and the dedication of a constant gardener – might seem like a lot of work, but the five- year-old starter is a crucial ingredient in the pizzas served at Italian restaurant Amo, one of six F&B concepts run by de Vito.
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Patience, it seems, pays off in a pizza base that rises in the oven to form a thin, crisp exterior with a chewy bite. “On the crust, we want to see leopard skin or charred spots forming. Because there’s still room in the dough for leavening, rising air bubbles thin out sections that cook more quickly than the surrounding areas, resulting in burnt patches that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also give the crust a nice texture throughout.”
Unlike the traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas of Naples that incorporate beer yeast in the dough, de Vito believes that adding the sourdough starter makes the carb-heavy dish easily digestible since the fermentation process helps break down sugars and starches in the dough. While proofing a batch of dough takes up to 32 hours, training his staff to handle and fire it up is a process that stretches into years. “The more time you spend with it, the better you’ll get at it. The best pizza makers simply have more experience handling the dough, fire and oven.” With a wood-fired oven blazing at temperatures of up to 380 deg C, de Vito slides an uncooked pizza topped with ingredients into the oven and removes the paddle in one swift pull before the dough sticks to it.
“In Italy, good pizzerias only open for dinner because they need time to start a fire and allow it to reach the right temperature.”
Then, while watching the fire, he gives the pizza a few turns to ensure the crust cooks evenly before whisking out the finished product. All this happens in under 55 seconds, during which anything can go wrong – and it does. To illustrate, our photographer had de Vito hold a pizza at the mouth of the oven past the requisite time. It might have made for a picture-perfect moment, but the pizza subsequently failed to brown properly and was deemed unfit for consumption.
While de Vito does not take shortcuts when making a good pizza, he does leave some room for technology to help improve the process. “In Italy, good pizzerias only open for dinner because they need time to start a fire and allow it to reach the right temperature. In Singapore, where we are open six days a week for lunch and dinner, we don’t have that time to spare. So we use gas to heat up the oven and burn almond or cherry wood to give a smoky flavour to the pizzas,” shares de Vito.