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White pizza

Where is it written that pizza must be topped with tomato sauce? Sure, a perfect circle of chewy crust topped with tangy tomatoes and molten cheese in exact proportions, sizzling from the oven with a little fresh basil on top, is probably the snack upon which the ancient Roman gods on Mount Olympus dined. Maybe with a few anchovies added on holidays. But one of the joys of pizza - much like wine - is that if you're in a mood to break away from your usual favorites, you'll find plenty of variations to tempt you.

One of my favorite offbeat pizza styles, when we lived in New York's Outer Boroughs, was the "white pie," a confection that I've rarely encountered either in the rest of the U.S. or, for that matter, in Italy.

As the name suggests, it's a simple thing, a pizza round topped with assorted cheeses but no tomato sauce, coming to the table pure white, flecked with golden spots caramelized by heat. Another variation, one that Popeye would have prized, brings fresh chopped spinach to the party, adding a healthy and delicious component to the cheese.

The other night, with a kilo of Italian Tipo Fino 00 pizza flour just arrived and begging for a trial, it occurred to me to create a NY-style spinach pie, on the theory that these more subtle flavors wouldn't upstage a crust made from the new flour. Web and cookbook searches didn't turn up much, so I created a procedure based on memory. I think it came pretty close to the Queens original.

As a base, I used the pizza crust recipe featured recently (in the April 7, 2005 FoodLetter) and will refer you to that article rather than repeating it here. Of course it will work fine with your favorite pizza-crust recipe, or even a Boboli or similar prepared pizza shell.

In visualizing the technique, it occurred to me that the spinach and soft cheeses would likely scorch if I baked them for as long as the pizza crust needs to puff and brown, so I came up with a two-stage process: I formed the pizza, then brushed it with olive oil and loads of garlic, baked this base for about three minutes, then took it out, topped it with a mix of cheeses and well-drained cooked spinach, and returned it to the oven for a few more minutes to finish up. It was a brilliant concept, if I do say so myself - the cheese and spinach came out bubbly but not overcooked; and the pizza crust, having had a head start to firm up and start to brown, was beautifully crisp even under a heavy load of toppings.

Here's the procedure. If you try it, as is or with variations, please let me know how it goes, by E-mail to or in a post to our Food Lovers' Discussion Group forum, linked under "DISCUSS COOKING IN OUR ONLINE FORUM" below.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

Pizza crust, your recipe or premade
1 bunch fresh spinach, enough to make about 1 cup when cooked
2-3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
1 cup (240g) whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 ounces (60g) shredded fresh whole-milk mozzarella
Black pepper


1. Make, defrost or buy your pizza crust, and preheat the oven as high as it will go - 550F or 300C. If you have a pizza stone - and I strongly recommend it if you're interested in making pizzeria-quality pizza at home - put it in the oven throughout the preheat. But you can certainly use a greased pizza pan or cookie sheet if you prefer.

2. Well in advance of cooking time, rinse the spinach and cook it until it's just wilted. (I usually put it in a large saucepan with a little salt and just the water that clings to it from washing, cover and crank up high heat and cook just until it wilts, just two or three minutes.) Drain, allow to cool, chop, and put it into a big strainer to drain some more. You want to get rid of as much water as possible to avoid a soggy pizza. (NOTE: In retrospect, I think I used more spinach than an authentic NYC spinach pizza, where the greens serve more as a supporting player than the star of the show. But I love fresh spinach and wanted enough veggies to make a light meal. So sue me ... but if you want a more exact rendition of the Gotham original, only use about half as much spinach.)

3. Mince the garlic - you should have a heaping tablespoon or more; if you're a garlic lover, you almost can't overdo the garlic in this pie. Put the garlic and the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet and cook over medium-high heat until the garlic is golden and aromatic. Remove from heat and leave the garlic to steep in the warm oil.

4. Mix the cheeses together in a large bowl. Stir in the drained spinach, and add salt and black pepper to taste. Be sure to taste before seasoning, as the cheeses are salty and you may not need more.

5. Form the pizza, using parchment paper as a base if you're following the procedure from the April 7 FoodLetter. Gently, using your hands, spread the (cooled) olive oil and garlic over all of the pie except the outer edge of the crust. Pop it in the thoroughly preheated oven and let it bake for exactly three minutes. Take it out (this is a good time to remove and discard the parchment) and put it on a breadboard or other heat-safe surface. Spread the cheese and spinach mix evenly on the pie and put it back in the oven for another four to six minutes or until the edges are dark golden brown and the cheese is melted and bubbly. Remove from the oven, slice and serve it while it's hot.

WHITE PIE VARIATION: To make the simpler "white pizza" form, simply follow the instructions above without the spinach. But what would Popeye think?

ABOUT THAT PIZZA FLOUR: Nobody but pizza geeks will care about this, but I know some of you are out there, so a quick word about the flour. On the advice of hyper-perfectionist pizza-making buddies, I placed an Internet order for a soft pizza flour made in Italy, Pelegrino Farina "00." It made a superb pie, tender and fine-grained, a soft and surprisingly flexible dough that I was able to stretch out literally paper-thin, yet sturdy enough that a slice held by the outer edge stood out horizontally under the weight of spinach and cheese.

I'll use it again, because I am a pizza geek. Really, though, only a perfectionist would notice much difference between the results with the Italian flour against a pizza made from King Arthur or other quality brand bread flour or all-purpose flour. But there's still something mighty nice about making pizza at home from genuine pizza flour milled in Puglia, Italy. I ordered it online from Isola Imports, which impressed me with its quick and competent service and surprisingly fair pricing (a full kilo of flour was $2.45). A large package of Italian goodies (a big order that I put together with a friend to help amortize shipping costs) arrived in just a few days, safely cradled in fine, sturdy packaging, and they even threw in a few candies just to be nice. To view the "00" flour, see
This is not an advertising message. Isola doesn't even know I'm writing this. I'm just an extremely satisfied customer. If you click and give them a try, I think you will be, too.

The white cheeses and fresh spinach call for a white, although I expect the cheese would stand up to a lighter-style, fruity red. I went with a modest Italian white, Falesco 2003 Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone; a fresh young Sauvignon Blanc should also be fine.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: White pizza,"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

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Thursday, April 28, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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