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Off the Eaten Path: Not all pizza is created equal

What makes for an authentic Italian wood-fired pizza? Let me explain

Growing up in Guelph in the '70s, I have many fond memories of my father, a downtown business owner, bringing a pizza home from the local, independent pizzeria to watch Hockey Night in Canada in our living room on Saturday nights.

Fast forward to today and Guelph, like any city in Canada, has too many pizzerias to count. The independently owned pizza restaurants were mostly replaced by franchises and the beloved pizza became just another fast food. They still have a place in the market, but authentic wood-fired pizza, like those you find in Italy, are another option entirely. 

To really delve into this topic, we must first look at the types of pizza available in Italy today. Rome, among other places, is known for its pizza al trancio, with an assortment of toppings and baked in a pan. It’s thick, bread like crust is light and airy. Makes a perfect snack or light lunch. This is what I call a “thick crust, pan pizza."

The famous, wood-fired pizza is sold in pizzerias and typically just for “cena” or the evening meal. They are thin, round, individual sized pizzas, baked right on the pizza stone with the signature char marks on the crust. Now this is what I am talking about.

They are popping up on menus more than ever and they will boast things like “00” flour, San Marzano DOP tomatoes and mozzarella di buffala. So, what exactly are these ingredients and does a good, thin crust, wood-fired pizza need to have them to be good? 

To answer this question, we need to break down the pizza into the three elements: crust, sauce and toppings, plus the cooking method. 


A thin crust, wood-fired pizza must have a thin crust. The best way to get a thin crust is using a majority of imported “00" Italian flour or “00” style flour milled in North America. (This is an extra finely milled flour with a specific protein range for pizza). 

And just as important as the flour is the dough. There are many recipes to make this type of dough, but the best has a long fermentation or "rise time” that gives it the right gluten development, stretch to achieve the thin crust and flavour development.  

The thick crust, pan pizza mentioned above would use a different flour and dough recipe entirely. 


A wood-fired pizza should have a simple tomato sauce. For this reason, the best quality tomatoes, such as San Marzano Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP tomatoes, are usually used. I like to drain away some of the extra liquid. Then simply hand crush with a little salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is all you need. The sauce will cook with the pizza in the oven. 

Mozzarella cheese and toppings

Typically, these pizzas are all about the perfect ratio of crust, sauce, cheese and not more than about three toppings total. Again, due to its simplicity, the best fresh mozzarella is used, either a mozzarella di bufala or a fior di latte. Either preforms well at elevated temperatures and although they have a high moisture content the dry heat takes care of that.  

Cooking method

To create a wood-fired pizza, you need a wood-fired oven with a stone floor.  Most are imported from Italy. A wood-fired oven can reach temperatures higher than 900 Farenheit and this dry heat creates the perfect environment for the thin, airy crust. The pizza stone ensures the heat is equally distributed and the crust does not burn. 

Although you can attempt a thin crust pizza in a regular oven, with all the right ingredients, but the results will never be the same. 

The specialized ingredients and a woodfired oven are most definitely required to create the optimal wood-fired pizza. There is even an association of real pizza Napoletana, AVPN, founded in Naples in 1984 which outlines all the strict requirements to create the true Napoletana wood-fired pizza. This is the specialty wood-fired pizza found in Naples with the distinctive “cornicione” or raised rim crust, with the characteristic char marks. 


Since about 2011 wood-fired pizza has been available in Guelph and at last count there are five establishments in town that have a wood-fired oven. They all serve up the classic wood-fired pizzas, and one has the AVPN distinction which means they are creating the true Napoletana wood-fired pizza. 

I recently spoke to Bernie Dyer, owner/operator of Buon Gusto Restaurant in the downtown, which was one of the first restaurants in Guelph to have a woodfired oven. 

Dyer describes their wood-fired oven, imported from Reggello, Tuscany, as “il cuore" of the restaurant, or the heart.

Dyer told me; “with such a large Italian community in Guelph and how close it is to Toronto; most guests already knew what to expect and many were thankful they no longer had to go out of town for these specialty pizzas." 

True to Italian woodfired pizza, their pizzaiolos make their dough fresh daily with imported “00’ flour and they use imported San Marzano DOP tomatoes along with fior di latte mozzarella cheese. The dough is hand-stretched and the pizzas are baked at 900 degrees Fahrenheit for just 90 seconds. 

So, it seems although we are not travelling much these days you can still get a taste of Italy here, in our own backyard. Now will you enjoy wine with that pizza or beer?