Welcome to the pizza topping Americans love to hate. I know a guy who, in college, would always order his pizza with double anchovies.
That way, he was guaranteed nobody would want any of his pizza. But this much maligned little fish is so much more than just the punchline to a joke.
There’s a lot of general food hate for unfamiliar foods—and some of it is deserved. Anchovies especially have been given such shoddy treatment at the hands of cooks who don’t care.
This is a case where it’s a good idea to ask, “Why do so many people love this and what am I missing?” It opens doors you never expected, and there’s great eating on the other side.
The anchovy has been a staple food around the world for centuries. There are over 140 species of anchovy, and dozens of ways to prepare them as food.
You’ve probably eaten more anchovies than you realize. They’re famous for their umami flavor. They’re used in all kinds of foods, from Caesar salad, to Worcestershire sauce, to the fish sauce that’s a common ingredient in Thai food.
Chef Bobby Flay has called the anchovy “The bacon of the sea” for its ability to boost the flavor in so many different dishes. By itself, the anchovy is an acquired taste. But it’s also a taste worth acquiring if you enjoy expanding your food horizons. Anchovies are so much more than just a much-hated pizza topping.
As for anchovies on pizza, they’ve been around as long as there’s been pizza. It’s not like the anchovy is something that an American pizza maker thought he’d throw onto a pizza as a cruel joke. (Though many have wondered.)
The oldest pizza as we know the form is called “mastunicola.” It’s a pizza that’s topped with lard, olive oil, salt, freshly ground black pepper, Parmigiano Reggiano, basil and anchovies.
It’s hard to say what mastunicola looked like in the 15th century. But it’s safe to say that no tomato sauce was involved. Tomatoes didn’t appear as food until the mid-1700s. I made a mastunicola myself recently. It looked like this:
Yes, that’s a very small pizza—which is probably how it was made back in the day. Back in the 1600s, pizza was a food for the poor. Nobody was gorging on a 16-inch pepperoni with mushroom.
When I made this pizza, my wife really enjoyed it, as did a couple of friends who happened to be hanging around. They scarfed it down happily and wanted more—and none of them would have called themselves fans of anchovies. (As it happens, all three of them were women. There was one very large guy there, too. He looked at the pizza like it might attack him and refused to try it. He claimed having a rule about no fish on pizza.)
Today, marinara pizzas with anchovies are common in Italy. It’s normal to see them on pizzeria menus everywhere. Tomatoes and anchovies, no cheese—unless it’s a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano. Often, they’re also topped with olives. Can you say, “Salt bomb?” (Speaking as a salt hound, that’s a pizza that approaches even my threshold for sodium intake.)
One of the big challenges with anchovies on pizza in the US is they’re often very low-quality anchovies and they've been overcooked. If you look at the anchovies on the mastunicola, they probably don’t look like any anchovies you’ve ever seen.
Those are high-quality white anchovies. They have a milder taste than the cheap anchovies that come out of the cheap tin on the shelf in the cheap supermarket. (Are we detecting a theme here?) There are lots of more expensive anchovies than what you typically find in American pizzerias.
If you’re anchovy-pizza curious, I recommend getting some high-quality anchovies. Don’t buy the bottom-shelf brand from the supermarket. I’ve used Wild Planet anchovies. They’re big, so you probably want to break them up. I have some Agostino Recca anchovies in the pantry. (They’re quite expensive.) I’ve also used some modestly-priced, Season brand anchovies, which are a product of Morocco. I bought them because they were in a glass jar and they looked good.
There’s debate about how to cook anchovies on a pizza. Some pizzaioli prefer to add the anchovies near the end of the bake. (You don’t want to bake them too long or you get a nasty anchovy concentrate, which is where anchovy hate probably originates.) Other pizzaioli like to add them immediately after baking. The pizza is still hot, and the anchovies incorporate gently into the pizza.
I admit that I often shoot for a composed pizza, with a little bit of each topping in every bite. But with anchovies, sometimes I like to use them whole for the “Ta-dah!” of the presentation. The mastunicola is a rustic pizza, and it seems to demand a rustic presentation. That said…
I’m also with guys like Joe Beddia of Philly’s Pizzeria Beddia who recommends breaking even the little filets into smaller pieces. There’s definitely something to recommend that. It lends to the composed-pizza format, especially for a bigger pizza. And if you’re putting them on after the bake, the smaller pieces will incorporate more easily.
And let’s be perfectly realistic: anyone who’s anchovy apprehensive will do better without an entire, honkin’ fish challenging them to take a bite. So if you’re making a pizza for anchovy-apprehensive first-timers, smaller pieces are a good way to go.
And don’t use too many anchovies. A little goes a long way. On a 14-inch pizza, half a dozen anchovies broken into smaller pieces is plenty. Use more if you want. Some whack jobs live by a more-is-better policy. (And who am I to question it? I used to be one of those whack jobs.)
The photo of the mastunicola makes the anchovies look huge. And while they’re bigger than what you probably expect, they’re still a small fish on a small pizza. (That pizza was about 10 inches. The filets are about 3 inches. And the white anchovies are a mild fish. It’s a different experience.)
If you’re new to Free The Pizza, you might find it odd that we don’t really do codified recipes here. We teach the pizza process, which varies by the pizzamaker. But if you’d like to make the mastunicola yourself, it’s pretty simple. Here’s what you need:
This pizza might seem easy, but you also have to be vigilant. Without any sauce, it can bake very quickly. You have to monitor its progress.
1. Stretch your dough
2. Drizzle some olive oil around the stretched pizza
3. Take the lard and daub little bits of it around the pizza—figure about 1/4-teaspoon size daubs, spaced a few inches apart
4. Sprinkle the pizza with salt and pepper
If you’re following the Free The Pizza baking method, you’re using a 550-degree oven with a steel or stone preheated for an hour. You’re also using the broiler method, which is one reason you need to be vigilant. This pizza can crisp up in a hurry.
I’ve been able to bake this pizza in as little as 3 minutes. The time will vary with the size of the pizza and the style and thickness of the dough. I launch the pizza, switch on the broiler, and watch. When it’s clearly browning, I rotate it.
Once it looks uniformly brown, I retrieve it. Placing it on a cooling rack, I sprinkle it with the grated cheese and place the anchovies strategically. Slice and serve. Free the anchovies!
If you'd like to know more about making great pizza, check out the simple and silly manual for making pizza, Free The Pizza: A Simple system For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have. It will change your life. Or, at the very least, it will have you making pizza at home that's better than you ever imagined possible.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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