Real Italian Pizza - Cristian Testai
"The good thing about English food now is that you try to get everything from all over the world, whilst in Italy it's very traditional and we have traditions that vary from city to city."
OX’s food fanatic Jack Rayner went into the heat of the kitchen at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to find out from head chef Cristian Testai exactly what makes genuine wood-fired pizzas so special.
Where are you from and how did you get to working at The Crown & Thistle?
I grew up between Pisa and Florence, in the Tuscan countryside. I moved to England in 1996 and I spent my 20s and early 30s in London, where I started to work in kitchens and learned the business. I'm self-taught – I never went to any cooking school, I just had passion. After London, I went to work in South Africa, then when my partner became pregnant we moved to Spain for 5 years, living next to Barcelona. In 2014 we decided to come back to England and I began to work here at The Crown & Thistle.
How did you go from traditional chef work to becoming a pizza chef?
I'm in charge of the kitchen, so I need to understand how every aspect works. I trained in Naples, and as an Italian chef it's difficult to not know about pizza! When I was 8 years old I was cooking pollo pasta by myself.
Do you think food is more family-oriented in Italy?
The first thing my mama used to say to me in the morning was "what do you want to eat today?" I never went out to eat, we used to go to farms and then cook at home.
What makes a good pizza, and what makes a bad pizza?
The ingredients have to be Italian, and the flour has to be "00".
What is "00" flour?
It's a very thin Italian flour. It's particularly good for bread. In Italy nowadays they use a lot of artisanal flour with different qualities, and the pizza flour often depends on the region it comes from.
What do you think of American pizza?
It's not pizza [laughs]. Our pizza ovens not only cook the dough, but the smoke brings a different flavour into the finished product.
Do you have a particular kind of wood?
We use oak. You can use cherrywood, which is also fantastic, but the type of wood makes more of a different when cooking meat.
What's your favourite pizza toppings?
For me, pizza is traditional: tomato sauce and mozzarella. But I also love anchovies, capers and olives. I do a special here which is based on carbonara. It's very hard to get guanciale in England so we use smoked pancetta, which is very tasty. So, I use some mozzarella, a little bit of double cream just to stop the base from becoming too dry, then slices of pancetta, lots and lots of pepper, crack an egg into the middle then it goes straight in the oven. When you cut the pizza, all the yolk runs out of the egg and it's absolutely amazing.
What do you think of modern English cooking?
The good thing about English food now is that you try to get everything from all over the world, whilst in Italy it's very traditional and we have traditions that vary from city to city. Like Bolognese ragu – in each town it's different. In my town, we put a bit of chicken liver to add bitterness, and in Pistoia they cook veal skin for long in a pan so it becomes crispy, then add it to the ragu. In the North they often use mushrooms. The restaurant culture in England is one of the best in the world, but now, British food isn't traditional, it's a mix of all sorts of other cultures. You often find meals using British produce with French techniques and Italian flavour ideas. It's fantastic, and it's very interesting, but it's not rooted in tradition in the same way.