Antimo DiMeo’s passion for delicious food prepared with fresh, simple ingredients is in his DNA. His father, who hails from southern Naples, was always making pizza, a dish that became DiMeo’s own “first love in the kitchen” when he was a child.
Naples is home of the Neapolitan pie—with a crust so thin and doughy that it’s often eaten with a knife and fork in its native city. At downtown Wilmington’s Bardea Food & Drink, a James Beard semifinalist where DiMeo is co-owner and chef, he prepares “interpretive” Italian cuisine—a remastering of authentic dishes with a few modern twists.
On the pizza menu is the Margherita, the original Neapolitan variety made with a short list of quality ingredients: tomato, mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil—and a full, flavorful crust.
“With this type of pizza, the dough is everything,” DiMeo explains. “The ingredients are simple so that the crust can speak for itself.”
Most kids like their pizza without the crust; I was that kid who would rip away the toppings and eat only the crust. That all changed when I had my first slice of Margherita during a trip to Italy in high school. I’ve rarely tasted a pie as good since (despite writing about food in some of the hautest culinary hubs)—until Bardea opened two years ago. Needless to say, when DiMeo welcomed me into his kitchen to learn how to make his style of pizza, I was fired up.
The best dough, it turns out, isn’t milled in a day. Once it’s prepared, you’ll need to let it rise overnight.
For starters, you’ll need the following ingredients: finely milled “00” Caputo flour imported from Italy (“The finer the mill, the more beautiful and airy the crust,” DiMeo says), organic rye (for nuttiness), wheat germ (for aromatics), chilled water, Sicilian sea salt (or kosher salt), locally sourced light amber honey, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) and yeast for leavening (DiMeo prefers fresh yeast, but instant dry will do).
A bag of flour holds 900 grams, enough for about three large pizzas. (Adjust the following percentages for weight of flour.)
As I watch, DiMeo pours 650 grams of water in a large mixing bowl. Next, he mixes 2 grams of yeast (a pea-sized amount) in the water until it dissolves. Then he adds the flour, 100 grams of rye (adding too much, he notes, will make the dough too dense) and 30 grams of wheat germ, combining the ingredients together with his hands, scraping the sides of the bowl clean as he mixes.
“You can use an electric mixer with a dough hook, but for me, it’s all about feel and that aroma you get—when you’re not wearing a mask,” DiMeo chuckles.
Setting it aside for about 30 minutes, he combines 20 grams of EVOO, 20 grams of Chadds Ford honey and 30 grams of salt in a separate container.
When it’s time, DiMeo adds the mixture to the dough ball, first coating the surface, then kneading it vigorously.
“At first it will feel wet,” he explains, “but the more you mix, the more the dough absorbs the liquid. When the wetness goes away, then it’s time to cover the dough and put in a cool spot (no higher than 70 F) to ferment and rise overnight.”
If you don’t plan to prepare your pizza early the next day, putting it in the refrigerator will “put it to sleep.” Temperature is important, DiMeo points out. “If you put dough in 90 F, it’ll rise in four hours. In a cold place, like the fridge, the yeast won’t rise at all.”
When left out, dough should rise to double its size, maybe a little more. “As it sits, the starch in the flour gets broken down by yeast and turns into flavorful sugars,” DiMeo explains. “When you cook it, this adds a whole other flavor.”
The next day, we’re ready to break bread. DiMeo scoops the large dough ball from the mixing bowl, and with a dough scraper cuts about 250 grams for one small pizza (double that for a standard size). To help the dough stretch, he sprinkles some flour across the kitchen counter, adding another coat to the ball itself.
Setting the dough down, he presses it gently in the middle to let air escape. “You don’t want to do this too hard or too much,” he says. As he pushes from the center, the outside edge rises. He spins the pie on the counter, evenly stretching out the bottom as he turns it while touching the center. DiMeo makes the next part look effortless as he lightly tosses the crust in the air so it’s perfectly even.
“You don’t want to see holes,” he says. “And if you mess up, let it sit and grab another dough ball.”
I immediately note to double my measurements to account for all the dough I’ll scrap in practice.
DiMeo smiles: “It took a while to master this toss,” he admits.
I thought so.
With a perfectly circular crust ready for basting, he sweeps grapeseed oil around the edges with a brush. “This helps with oven browning,” he explains. “In an oven with a lower temperature, this will help give you that golden brown.”
A classic Neapolitan oven is a toasty 900 F. Most home ovens won’t heat past 500 F, so unless you have a brick oven, you’ll want to get a stone. The first step is to season the stone (directions may vary, so check your packaging), and heat your oven to its maximum temperature.
With a ladle, DiMeo pours in tomato sauce, swirling it around until the center is a ripe, juicy red.
He uses Cento tomatoes milled with sea salt, but you can pick any kind you like. If you’ve got a fancier variety from your garden or farmers market, he recommends using a white garlic and parsley base instead and slicing the tomatoes as a main feature.
He tosses fresh basil and sliced mozzarella, lastly drizzling a bit of EVOO before popping the pie in the oven.
Using a pizza peel, DiMeo moves the pizza around in the heat, then lets it set for three or so minutes.
“A trick at home, to avoid dryness while maintaining crispiness, is to first pop the crust in the oven for a few minutes, then take it out and let it cool before topping it,” he says. Then put it back in the oven and let it finish cooking.
When DiMeo’s pie crust has bubbled to a golden brown, the mozzarella finely melted and the basil burnt to the perfect level of crisp, he knows it’s done; he then serves it onto a plate with a cheerful “And voilà!”