A VENETIAN WONDERLAND

A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

We stepped off the platform at the Venice train station and strolled through the sliding glass doors. As the doors slid open, it was as if we were transported through the looking glass and into a wonderland teeming with life and infinite color. Venice greeted us with the San Simeone Piccolo with its pale green dome and white columns, cinnamon rose-hued palazzi, and jade-colored canals.

A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

As Michael and I strolled deeper into the heart of the city, I was shocked by the narrowness of the alleyways. Walking through the confined passageways, it was almost haunting how the city walls towered above me. All I could hear were the echoes of the voices beyond the walls and the sound of my luggage wheels skimming across the icy streets. Colorful Murano glass and carnival masks gleam like jewels against the dark facades in the alley.

A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

Spicy Salami Pan Pizza | for the love of the south

As soon as we made it to our hotel, we quickly dropped off our bags. First things first, I needed to eat, and I was desperately craving pizza. We spotted a small bakery/pizza shop a few steps away from our hotel. Strings of pizza and focaccia were displayed on pale wooden cutting boards. The dough was cloudlike and fluffy. My eyes fixed on the spicy salami pizza. I ordered a few slices along with a piece of tomato focaccia. Lastly, I ordered an Aperol spritz, which was jewel-toned, slightly bitter and simply adorned with an orange slice. The pizza was soft in the center yet crisp at the edges; each slice elegantly dressed with mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce, and spicy salami. We were in heaven.

With our stomachs full and pizza cravings slaked, we were able to focus on discovering the city. We followed arrows directing us to the Piazza San Marco. We rode the elevator to the top of the Campanile di San Marco for the best view of the city. We strolled past rows of deep blue gondolas bobbing side to side in the water and statues with such detail they looked as if they were about to come to life. As we made our way to the Basilica San Marco, snow began to fall. At that moment, I felt like we were in a kind of snow globe as we stood in the center of the piazza.

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A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

Perched in a stone building along a canal just off the Piazza San Marco is Harry’s Bar. As I opened the heavy, wooden door, I was immediately greeted by a kind waiter in a crisp white jacket. He pointed to the corner table and asked what we’d like to drink. Without skipping a beat, I said, “Bellini, please.” It was only natural as Harry’s is the birthplace of one of my favorite cocktails.

A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

In 1948, the bartender, Giuseppe Cipriani, created a cocktail by combining thick, white peach puree with prosecco. He named the drink after the 15th century Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini. As the summer sun set on his favorite Bellini painting, the colors reminded Cipriani of his beloved peach cocktail. My drink appeared seconds after we sat down at the lacquered wooden table. The Bellini was served in a small glass tumbler along with a little glass bowl filled with green, Ligurian olives. Specks of peach skin floated in the frothy, pale golden pink cocktail. Needless to say, this was the best peach Bellini I’ve ever had. It was a much needed little glass of summertime on a cold winter’s day.

A Venetian Wonderland | for the love of the south

Early the next morning, we walked from our hotel to the Rialto Bridge vaporetto. It was still dark, and a wintery mix of ice and rain drizzled in the air. We boarded the water ferry and said silent goodbyes to the city of Venice. I exhaled deeply as if waking up from the most wonderful dream as we walked through the sliding doors of the train station to the other side of the looking glass and back to reality.

Spicy Salami Pan Pizza | for the love of the south

Spicy Salami Pan Pizza

Makes 2, 13 x 9” pizzas

Note: The dough is inspired by Roberta’s fabulous pizza dough recipe. Of course, you can mix this dough by hand if you don’t have a stand mixer. Because this recipe calls for instant dry yeast, it does not need time to proof. If you are using regular dry yeast, allow it time to bloom in warm water for 5-10 minutes. The assembly portion of this recipe is for one pizza intentionally. Since the dough is split between two separate baking sheets, you can bake one off and save the other dough for the next day, or you can get creative with your own toppings for the second pizza. It’s a blank slate!

 

For the Pizza Dough:

612g (4 cups) all-purpose unbleached flour

16g (5 teaspoons) sea salt

2 cups warm water

4g (2 teaspoons) dry instant yeast

8g (2 teaspoons) olive oil

 

In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment, mix flour and salt together for a few seconds.

In a measuring cup, stir together water, yeast and oil. Pour the liquid in the center of the flour and salt. Mix on a medium low speed for 3 minutes, or until the dough wraps around the hook and the sides of the bowl are clean.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel and allow to rest for 25 minutes.

Cut the dough in half and form 2 equal balls. Place each ball of dough on a 13×9″ rimmed baking sheet fitted with lightly floured parchment paper. Top the dough with a little more flour. Tightly wrap with plastic wrap and stash away in the fridge for 8 hours or up to 48 hours. (If you don’t have space in your fridge for 2, 13×9″ baking sheets, place each ball of dough on a parchment-lined dinner plate instead. I always proof the dough on the baking sheet I will use to bake the pizza in so I am one step ahead of myself the next day, and I am saving myself from cleaning extra dishes. Win-win!)

 

For the Tomato Sauce:

2 cups whole peeled canned tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

Small handful basil leaves, hand torn

Sea salt

Toss all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and hand crush the tomatoes in with the oil, basil and garlic. Adjust the salt to your taste. (If you like a thinner sauce, you can purée the sauce or push it through a sieve, discarding the solids.) Set aside. If you want to make this sauce ahead of time, just stash it away in the fridge up to a week.

 

Assembly for 1, 13 x 9” Pizza:

1 portion of Pizza Dough, recipe above

Scant 2 tablespoons olive oil

6 tablespoons Tomato Sauce, recipe above

4 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into 1″ pieces

5 slices spicy salami, cut in half

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, for serving

 

Preheat the oven to 550oF.

Take the dough out of the fridge and lift the parchment with the dough still on top and place on the countertop. Rub the rimmed baking sheet with the olive oil, making sure to cover the bottom and sides of the pan with oil.

On a lightly floured surface, press and stretch the dough so it’s roughly the size of your sheet pan. Place the dough back in the oiled pan, loosely cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise next to the preheating oven for 30 minutes. (If you notice the dough is not completely covering the corners of the pan, take this time to gently lift the dough up, stretch the dough and firmly press into the corners of the pan. Any exposed space on the bottom of the baking sheet is a potential burn zone/oil-spattering station!)

Remove the plastic wrap and spoon the tomato sauce onto the dough, spreading the sauce close to the edges. Evenly scatter the mozzarella, salami and red pepper flakes over the sauce. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown, cheese has beautifully melted and salami is crisp. Shower with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve! (After I grate the Parmesan cheese over the pizza, I slide the whole pizza onto a large cutting board, slice it up and slide it back on the hot baking sheet to serve!)

Spicy Salami Pan Pizza | for the love of the south

 

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SLICE OF PIZZA PIE

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In the summer, spending stifling days in the South may seem like cruel and unusual punishment, but, for me, it had many great rewards. One of the greatest rewards occurred whenever my grandma decided to make homemade pizzas for lunch. It was my special treat for killing banana spiders, devouring honeysuckles, and kicking over crawfish holes. It was a rough job, but someone had to do it.

When my tummy started rumbling, I ran inside to find Grandma meticulously rolling out her bread dough and placing it on a piping hot pizza stone, topping the dough with spicy hamburger, creamy white cheese and fiery red tomato sauce. Grandma popped the pizza in the oven, and when it came out, the only sound was a tiny sigh of delight. The crust was crisp and sweet which complimented the cheesy, spicy toppings. I remember looking out the window at the summer’s day thinking of all the unlucky crawfish out there and kicking my little legs in pure contentment with a slice of my grandma’s pizza in hand. It was a good day.

 Recipe: Makes 8 Individual Pizzas

 Basic Pizza Dough Recipe

1 cup of red sauce, homemade or your brand of choice

¼ pound of country ham, thinly sliced

1 pound of mozzarella

1 tablespoon of freshly chopped parsley, leaves only, for garnish

Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place pizza stone in oven for 40 minutes.

On a piece of foil, sprinkle lightly with flour and lay dough on top. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin to desired thickness. Spoon 2 tablespoons of sauce on the dough. Hand tear pieces of ham, a few pieces of cheese and seasonings onto the pizza. Place the pizza in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Once the pizza is brown and crispy, take the pizza out of the oven, scatter with fresh parsley. Repeat with the remaining 7 pieces of pizza dough. Enjoy!

When Life Leaves You Without Grits

All this happened before, and it will all happen again.

Poised with a list in hand and as focused as a camera, I whipped through the automatic doors to my neighborhood grocery store. Starting with the produce, I found myself gapping like a guppy at the pears and hoarded all of the shallots I could fit into my basket. An angel that must have fallen from heaven generously offered me a cup full of freeze-dried strawberries. Who knew?? They were lovely, tangy and I felt like an astronaut eating them.  I strolled through the deli section, sampled a little Virginia ham, and bought a pound! Oh, my shopping was going like gangbusters. But you don’t want to hear about a perfect shopping trip, do you?

 

It was in my moment of pure enthusiasm when I realized I was missing an essential ingredient for my supper, grits for the grits soufflé. I circled around the cereal, floundered around the flour, and ended up ogling inanely at almond butter for no reason whatsoever. Grits rained on my parade, or the lack of grits really. My head began to spin. I stared hopelessly at the lucky people passing me by, racing to the checkout line. In a desperate panic, I looked down at my basket. Life handed me ham, shallots and pears. Roasted pears could be for dessert, check. And for dinner, PIZZA. When in doubt, pizza. If ever there was an answer to question that’s questionable, pizza. Sautéed shallots drowning in hot butter seemed a lovely choice for a topping and paired well with the ham. A sprinkling of thyme for good measure should do the trick.

The results were better than I ever imagined. Thyme, ham and shallots are best friends in my book. And I am confident to say that no one even missed the grits.

Recipe: Makes 4 Individual Pizzas

4 pieces of thawed Basic Pizza Dough 

1 cup of favorite homemade or jarred red sauce

Sautéed Shallots (recipe below)

¼ pound of thinly sliced ham

½ cup of shredded mozzarella

Olive oil and cracked black pepper (to dress)

Fresh thyme leaves (garnish)

Preheat oven to 500o with a baking sheet or pizza stone preheating in the oven as well.

Roll out rounds of dough thinly onto a piece of foil lightly dusted with flour. Pour a few tablespoons of red sauce onto the dough. Scatter ¼ of the shallot mixture onto the sauce. Hand-tear ham and scatter on top and finish with mozzarella. Place the prepared pizza in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Dress each baked pizza with a drizzle of olive oil, cracked black pepper and thyme leaves. Continue with the remaining pieces of dough. Enjoy!

For the sautéed shallots:

2 tablespoons of butter

2 shallots, sliced

2 sprigs of fresh thyme leaves (or a dash of dried thyme)

¼ teaspoon of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

In a small pan, melt the butter on medium heat. Add shallots, thyme and seasonings to the pan. Sauté shallots until softened but not browned. Set aside.