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Petrucci's at Eat 17: The hottest pizza in Stortford?

During July’s heatwave, I heard all sorts of hard luck stories about people having to work in terrible conditions. Whilst I sympathise, the people I really do get the violins out for in the heat are chefs.

So spare a thought for John Petrucci, the owner and head chef at Petrucci’s artisan stone-baked pizza concession at the Eat17 store on Potter Street in Bishop's Stortford.

Standing next to a stone pizza oven at a constant temperature of around 400C, John and his team can produce more than 200 pizzas a day.

John Petrucci with his pizza peel in Eat17 (14916189)
John Petrucci with his pizza peel in Eat17 (14916189)

Petrucci’s is a favourite of my son Tommy and me. Since it came in store around 18 months ago, it has become a bit of a haunt for us. We often arrange to be passing around lunchtime so that we have the perfect excuse to pop in for a quick bufala and a can of San Pellegrino to share. I dropped in to have a quick chat with John to find out a bit more about what makes the best pizza in Stortford.

They have been manning the big pizza oven at Eat17 for about 18 months, but John has been running Petrucci’s for years before that as a street food business on the food festival circuit.

They make what is known as ‘pizza verace napolitana’, in other words in the original and protected style of the Neapolitan pizza. This means they use only Italian ‘00’ grade flour, yeast, salt and water in their dough, which is proved for 72 hours for the perfect blend of airiness and chewiness. The dough is stretched by hand, never by a rolling pin.

The tomato sauce is made with San Marzano tomatoes (remember those from my last column, dear reader?) which are grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius on the fertile volcanic soils that overlook the bay of Naples. The real buffalo mozzarella comes from Sorrento, and all the other ingredients used are as authentic as they can be.

After all the slow preparation of the dough, the cooking of the pizza is very quick. Onto the pizza peel (the paddle with the long handle that transports the pizza in and out of the oven) then straight onto the floor of the oven, which runs between 350C and 400C, and the cook is over in around 90 seconds.

I asked John about his favourite toppings, and he said he was a fan of ham and mushroom, but also, on occasion, something salty and strong, such as anchovies and olives.

The most popular pizza with Stortfordians seems to be the Calabrese, which has the wonderfully fiery-red, spicy nduja sausage from Calabria.

Same pizza coming out of the scary oven (14916196)
Same pizza coming out of the scary oven (14916196)

John and I definitely agree on one thing though: the real test of any pizza place has to be the classic Margherita – always the first one to try.

What is a Margherita anyway? It is the classic (and best, in my view) pizza of them all: tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.

Pizzas originated in Naples. The original pizza started life as a flatbread which was popular with the many sailors who passed through the port. They would stock up on freshly cooked flatbreads and then top them with tomato sauce on board. So the original pizza was called the Marinara.

Classic Margherita at Petrucci's at Eat17 (14916200)
Classic Margherita at Petrucci's at Eat17 (14916200)

The story is that a visit by Queen Margherita to the city prompted the pizza sellers to create a patriotic dish to mirror the Italian flag, so alongside the bright red marinara sauce they added the white of mozzarella cheese and the bright green of basil. And – allora! – the Margherita pizza was created.

Though it is hard to match the joy of a freshly-made pizza at a restaurant, it is worth having a go at home.

Pizza night is definitely a Hamilton family favourite. I make a batch of dough and tomato sauce, and then a whole array of toppings is laid out and everyone builds their own pizza. That way, everyone gets what they want, and it is a great way to bring the family together before, during and even after dinner, because pizza night is usually movie night too!

There is rather too much controversy about pizza toppings in my view. Surely there are more important things to worry about in the world, and what divides us, than whether or not people like pineapple on pizza?

But apparently this is a serious issue for some people. Personally, I am a fan. My favourite combination is something like Italian salami, jalapenos and pineapple with buffalo mozzarella on top – slightly odd, I grant you, but I like it.

Jim always goes for fishy toppings; tuna, anchovies and capers usually feature. The children have their favourites, too, and it is one of those meals that I know everyone is going to like equally.

Chuck a big salad in the middle of the table and everyone gets their own pizza, so it is an argument-free family dinner.

Pizza dough recipe

  • 1kg ‘00’ flour (or strong white bread flour)
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 4 tbsp good Italian olive oil
  • 1x7g sachet dried active yeast
  • 2 tsp caster sugar
  • 650ml tepid (hand-hot) water
  1. Use half cold and half boiling water to get the perfect temperature. Whisk the sugar into the hot water until dissolved. Sprinkle the yeast onto the water, whisk together and allow to stand for 5 minutes. The mixture should start to bubble on top.
  2. While the yeast is activating, mix the flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl and then rub in the olive oil until it is well distributed.
  3. Make a well in the centre of the flour, and add the warm water and yeast mixture.Bring the flour into the centre gradually and keep mixing until it comes together into a ball.
  4. Turn out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead. And knead and knead. For at least 10 minutes. You can do this in a machine with a dough hook, it will only take 3-4 minutes in a machine.
  5. The dough should be springy and smooth when you have finished. Try not to add any more flour, but if you really have to you can sprinkle a little bit onto the dough to keep it going.
  6. Finally leave the dough to prove covered in lightly oiled cling film. In a warm place in the kitchen for 2-3 hours, or if you are in a rush for 30 minutes in an oven with a bread-proving setting. It can even be left in the fridge overnight for a very slow prove if you are organised enough.
  7. After proving, divide the dough into four balls and leave to prove again for 30 minutes. Finally, roll each ball out into a large circle and you are ready to construct your pizzas.

To construct and cook your pizzas, use a good quality passata simply seasoned with salt, pepper and dried oregano. Then add your toppings of choice and cook in a very hot oven, thoroughly pre-heated to 210-220C. Ideally you can use a special pizza tray or stone, which will give you a nice crispy base.

My advice on toppings: don’t load up with sauce too much, or use very wet ingredients, or they will overwhelm the pizza and it will be soggy. If you're using delicate ingredients such as rocket, Parma ham, spinach or fresh basil, don’t put them on before the pizza goes in the oven or they will burn. Put them on as soon as the pizza comes out and the residual heat will be enough to warm them through, or you can pop them back in the oven for an extra minute or two.

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