In February of 2011, my husband Andrew and I got on a plane headed across the ocean to begin a three-month culinary and farming adventure. The goal: Learn how to make cheese and salami by working on organic farms through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Along the way, on a small organic farm in Italy, we learned how to make traditional pizza in a wood oven.
It’s Friday morning at Casa Lanzarotti, an organic farm in Roncole Di Gotra (near Parma), Italy. It’s bread day. But more importantly, it’s pizza day! I’m in the kitchen weighing the custom locally-grown and milled organic flour that will be made into Iris’s famous wood-oven bread. The sweet subtle smell of fresh yeast reacting with the flour as it begins to rise mixes with wood smoke wafting through the open door. Andrew is working the fire; his job is to build a huge fire inside the beautiful stone oven in the front courtyard of the house. The oven will be about 800 degrees when we all gather to cook our pizzas.
This farm is a little bit of heaven for an organic “foodie” like me. The entire process from growing the ingredients, cooking the meal to the final act of eating is celebrated and savored. The owners Gianluca and Iris are warm and inviting to all their visitors. They are passionate about their organic farm and fastidious about supporting the local food chain.
Homemade is taken to a higher level at Casa Lanzarotti. The basement is filled with preserved food treasures. Shelves of home-grown and canned tomatoes, pesto, nuts, sauces, jams and vegetables are all neatly labeled, organized and displayed. A stone-lined room under the back of the house beckons curious visitors like myself. With every step I take, the woodsy, warm, welcoming smells of soon-to-be pancetta and salumi lead me to the curing room. Inside my stomach jumps a little at the magnificent sight of meat hanging inside this 15th century building, just as it has for hundreds of years.
At Casa Lanzarotti pizza is unassuming and blessedly simple. Making pizza on bread days is a natural occurrence. Immediately after firing the oven, it is too hot to bake the bread but it is perfect for pizza. The pizza dough is basically Iris’s bread dough. Making pizza is a communal activity. Everyone working on the farm makes his or her own pizza on a large marble prep table sitting in front of the oven, and everyone’s crust is uniquely theirs. Andrew wows everyone with his pizza-tossing skills honed in high school working at a pizza joint in Oakdale, CA. Apparently pizza tossing is an American invention.
The toppings are whatever can be found in the refrigerator: homemade salumi, homemade pesto, tomatoes, sardines, fresh mozzarella, olives from a friend’s farm, the best Parmigiano Reggiano cheese I’ve ever had and, of course, olive oil. The olive oil comes from Iris’s friend whom I had the pleasure of meeting. His family has been growing olives for 300 years. I could drink it straight from the bottle but try to contain myself from doing so for obvious reasons! I make my pizza with pesto, sardines, sun dried tomatoes, olives, and a little Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When five or six pizzas are topped, they are loaded into the oven.
We all stand patiently around the oven chatting and waiting. The smell of fresh crust caramelizing instantly on the hot stones mixes with the aroma of acidic-yet-sweet tomatoes, garlic, basil and cheese bubbling away on the different pizzas momentarily hidden in the oven. My mouth yearns for the first bite. Suddenly, the pizzas are whisked out of the oven and mine is placed on my plate. I find a seat at the large table in the stone courtyard; the chickens drink from the fountain and the wine is poured. Soon the chatter and laughter are replaced with silence as we all dig into our steaming plates of fresh pizza.
The spellbinding process of cooking pizza with homegrown ingredients in a wood oven sparked an idea that is now Switchback Pizza Company. Originally we expected to own and operate a farm but have completely fallen in love with making pizza and working with our local farm friends in our quest to make amazing pizza. But we love farming so much that we decided the one thing that we could grow to supple most of our needs is garlic. Last year we grew over 150lbs of garlic for our pizzas! Although we don't yet have the kitchen space to cure our meats, we are lucky enough to know a local butcher who custom makes our pepperoni for us, using local meats. Someday, we hope to have our own restaurant that will allow us to make more of our cheeses and cured meats to highlight on our pizza. It is the atmosphere of joy, family and community created by the magical combination of a wood fire and simple ingredients we discovered in Italy that we strive to recreate with every pizza we make.