I’VE never been that fond of pizza ... perhaps because so many are all bready base with little of interest on top. One slice and you feel like you’ve just waded your way through a doorstep sandwich.
Or it could be that what passes for a pizza here in the UK, with a few exceptions, would horrify purists.
Real Italian pizzas use the finest natural ingredients, such as buffalo mozzarella, locally produced olive oil and flavoursome San Marzano tomatoes.
Our own rendering of what is undoubtedly Italy’s most famous gastronomic export is, by contrast, usually a tasteless, synthetic parody.
In Italy, pizzas are made to order, usually cooked in a wood oven and come with a thin, non-oily crust.
They most certainly are not made on a production line, frozen and then re-heated in either the microwave or a conventional oven.
Neither do they come with the array of often bizarre toppings that we take for granted. Typical pizza garnishes usually extend to nothing more fancy (but none-the-less tasty) than fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, garlic, anchovies, mushrooms, olives, seafood, prosciutto and local cheeses, such as gorgonzola, ricotta and parmigiano-reggiano.
Here you can get everything from chocolate and marshmallow to egg, ham and chips, smoky barbecue, chicken tikka and other “curry” permutations; Thai; Tex-Mex and even turkey with cranberry sauce.
Pizzas give the appearance of being a healthy fast food. There’s normally a smattering of tomatoes, mushrooms or red and green peppers, perhaps some pineapple or even a few leaves of wilted spinach.
But that’s as far as it goes, especially when it comes to the mass-produced supermarket varieties.
A simple cheese and tomato pizza from a high-street chain can contain as much as three-quarters of the daily recommended limit of saturated fat. Some also contain more than half the recommended daily intake of salt.
And trying to choose a healthy one is almost impossible, as Which? disclosed in a recent report, “due to the enormous and often unrealistic range of portion sizes used, even by the same manufacturer, together with different front of pack nutrition labelling schemes”.
That doesn’t stop my children liking pizzas, or millions of others. It seems pizzas have never been as popular as people ‘trade down’ to save money in these tough economic times, with the industry worth more than £2bn a year in the UK alone.
It’s interesting that people should view a bought pizza and night at home watching a DVD as a cheap option. Pizzas – and healthier ones at that – are so easy to make at home at a fraction of the cost of a takeaway. And even better, they are something the whole family can actively be involved in putting together.
The Italians might baulk at some of the toppings we choose to use, but variety is said to be the spice of life and the British have, after all, always been good at taking other people’s ideas and making them their own.
Turning out a healthier pizza doesn’t require a great leap of imagination. It’s about cutting back on the high-fat ingredients and adding more low-calorie, vitamin and fibre-rich ones.
Chargrilled vegetables make a tasty and colourful topping that also happens to be rich in potassium, while tomatoes contain lycopene which has been shown to be instrumental in helping fight a range of serious illnesses and conditions from high blood pressure to cholesterol and even strokes.
Tomato paste and sauces – a staple of a good pizza – have particularly high concentrations of this wonder compound.
Pizzas topped with more than 3oz of vegetables and accompanied by a freshly made side salad also count towards your five-a-day.
Any vegetables will sit well on a pizza. Broccoli, spinach, courgette, rocket, fennel, leeks, peppers, mange tout, asparagus and legumes like mangetout work particularly well alongside tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and olives.
The base is one of the most high-calorie and stodgy parts of a pizza. But it is possible to make your own wholegrain crust or buy a pre-made one.
Just substitute part or all of the usual white flour with wholemeal. The fibre-rich base has a wonderful nutty flavour and will help fill you up more quickly so you eat less.
Cheese is an excellent source of calcium, but usually high in fat and calories. Cut back on the amount you use or choose a lower-fat alternative. Goats’ cheese is an excellent replacement and the tangy taste adds a whole new dimension.
Also watch which meat toppings you choose. Many of the processed meats popular as pizza toppings, such as the highly spiced pepperoni-style sausages, are exceptionally greasy and high in fat.
Instead choose leaner toppings, such as chicken, and seafood like shrimps, mussels, smoked salmon and tuna.
For a really easy and fast to prepare and cook pizza, skip the normal base altogether and use a wholemeal pitta bread or tortilla. Load with your favourite healthy toppings and cook on a baking tray at gas mark 5, 190C for around 10 minutes.
Done properly, pizzas are a great meal-in-one and a cunning way to get around the picky eating habits of vegetable-adverse diners.
Just tell them they’re having pizza for tea.
David Kennedy is chef-proprietor of David Kennedy’s Food Social @ The Biscuit Factory, 16 Stoddart Street, Shieldfield, Newcastle, NE2 1AN, 0191 260 5411, www.foodsocial.co.uk, open noon-2pm and 5.30pm-10pm Monday-Saturday and noon-3pm Sunday.