Authentic Neapolitan montanara will shatter everything you think you know about fried dough. As an American, the mere mention of "deep-fried pizza" may conjure images of battered, oversized pepperoni-laced slices served on a stick and made famous at county fairs across the US. But as for a Napoletano, deep-fried pizza is the polar opposite.
At its very best, you might not be able to taste that the dough was fried at all. When executed well, it can even be lighter than a lot of its widely available baked counterparts. The process, as I learn after shadowing the 29-year-old chef fresh out of Caserta, Italy, who is the first to make montanara in Los Angeles, is the same as with traditional pizza: fermentation and hydration.
Chef Denis Dello Stritto doesn't understand why it took this long for montanara to make an appearance in Los Angeles, but he is ecstatic as hell about changing this anomaly at his laid-back wine bar at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Vinoteca. Even in New York montanara was a late bloomer, only coming into the pizzeria scene four years ago by way of Don Antonio by Starita. Stritto went to same culinary school in Italy as the chef from Starita.
When asked for the inspiration behind his decision to import the montanara from the land of pizza to the land of tacos, Stritto responds that he just wanted to add to LA's approach to cuisine: authentic, rustic comfort food from around the world. He's on a mission to re-educate his customers on the pleasures of simple Italian comfort foods like montanara and draw a line between Italian-American favorites like cannoli and lasagna.
"I'm a new-generation Italian chef. Italian-American food like fettuccine alfredo is not my culture. Montanara is my culture."
According to him, montanara became an official thing in Italy after World War II, when firewood for pizza was scarce but plenty of lard was laying around. The original montanara was fried and topped with whatever you had available, like leftover cheese and tomato sauce. However, it quickly became a cheap and popular food in the streets of downtown Naples. To clarify, this is different than pizza fritta, which is more like a deep-fried calzone, and the more established gnocco fritto.
There are currently five different versions of it on his menu: four savory ones with toppings such as burrata di Andria and prosciutto, and eggplant and melted smoked provola cheese; and a sweet one topped with sheep's milk ricotta and Italian sour cherries in syrup.
I joined him in the kitchen to witness the magic of deep-fried dough as it happens. He starts by tearing off a piece of his 72-hour-old dough and delicately shaping it like a square, to which then he pokes a hole not unlike a doughnut. He also uses a 60/40 ratio of canola oil to olive oil for the frying process. The trickiest part when making montanara is cooking it.
The hydration ratio for montanara dough is 60 percent—about a 30 percent difference from regular pizza dough. When fermented correctly, this amount of hydration should produce an airy, light interior with not much bread inside the crust. Stritto's dough requires a three-day proofing process. "This way, the dough ferments outside, not in your stomach," Stritto jokes. He uses stone-ground petra #1 flour from Molino Quaglia, which is a coveted variety of Italian wheat that is a bit coarser and makes for a nuttier crust.
To get the crust just right, the oil has to be heated to 350 degrees and the dough must be continually showered with oil as it floats. This ensures that the crust bubbles up properly and that the inside remains chewy, just as it does under the intense heat of a wood-burning oven. The final crust should be lightly browned and not very crispy.
This is the point where you can flex your imagination and add your toppings. Stritto's are heavily influenced by California's lush bounty, but I'm positive a piece of montanara would be just as heavenly if topped with any cheese you have laying around—or smeared with a generous dose of Nutella.
You can definitely do worse on a lazy afternoon than with a piece of his burrata-topped fried pie, accompanied with a glass of wine to ride out LA's rush hour.