I will never forget the day I went to the grocery store searching for arragonna. It was the key ingredient of the pizza recipe that I had coaxed out of Mr. Porta, our next door neighbor and proprietor of “Portas”, a very popular eatery in our home town. Mr. and Mrs. Porta’s tiny cafe was part Italian, and part American. Their hickery smoked beef and sauce was to die for. So were their hamburgers, fries and salads. I loved their pizza burger best. My sister was fond of their spaghetti. At any time of the day one could find lines of eager customers outside of the restaurant. Mr. Porta put up a sign in his cafe that said, “Duncan Hines never ate here. He couldn’t find a seat.”
Part of the charm of Portas was the banter between Mr. Porta and the customers. He stood in front of his grill, quickly working the food while he made multiple conversations.
Our family always felt lucky to have the Portas as our neighbors. They had four children and the two youngest were close in age to us and became our best friends. Every cat in the neighborhood also benefitted from Mr. Porta’s largess. Every night when he came home from work, he had leftovers for them. He even fed our pet chicken, Crip.
So when I wanted to learn how to make pizza I went straight to the expert. Mr. Porta’s family were immigrants from Italy. He and his brothers had come to the United States with their parents when they were very young. Several of his brothers also had great restaurants.
I was eighteen years old the year I tried to make Mr. Porta’s pizza. I had made the Chef Boyardee from the box pizza mix ever since I was thirteen. It was never very good. The crust was either too hard or tasted like cardboard. My family always made me feel like an excellent cook even though I knew I was not. Mr. Porta set a high standard for me. So I was thrilled when he gave me his recipe. Actually he told me his recipe and I wrote it down.
So there I was in the grocery store trying to find the arragonna. I’d found the tomato sauce, the mozzarella and parmesan cheese but I couldn’t find the arragonna in the spice aisle. I asked one of the clerks if they had any arragonna but they looked at me like I was from the moon. “Never heard of that.” the clerk replied.
I went to another grocery store and couldn’t find the arragonna there either. Frustrated, I explained to the store manager that I couldn’t find a key ingredient in the pizza I was going to make. He thought a little and said, “Maybe you’re looking for oregano. It’s what my wife uses when she makes her pizza.” I checked the shelf and there it was.
When I wrote down the recipe verbatum I distinctly remembered Mr. Porta’s pronunciation of the word, oregano, and it sure wasn’t the way it was spelled on the container or the way the store clerk pronounced it. I was still doubtful that it was the ingredient that Mr. Porta called for but I bought it, took it home and made the pizza. It was okay. Better than the Chef Boyardee box pizza but nothing like Mr. Porta’s. He could have been holding out on me I suppose, but I think it was the crust that wasn’t as good as his.
I still pronounce oregano, arr-a-gonna in honor of my favorite Italian cook, Mr. Roger Porta. Although Mr. and Mrs. Porta died in the late eighties and their cafe is no longer around I still think of them everytime I add oregano to any dish. I miss them for more than their fine cooking, they were wonderful people.
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
2/3 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
5/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 lb mozzarella cheese
1/4 lb Romano and Parmesan cheese
oregano (Mr. Porta didn’t tell me the exact amount of seasoning to use.)
1 (8 oz.) tomato sauce
1 1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
Dash of pepper
1 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
Preheat the oven to 475°F
Mix the warm water and sugar in a small bowl until blended together.
Add the yeast and mix well. Then wait about five to ten minutes.
While you’re waiting, mix the flour, salt and olive oil in large bowl.
Once the yeast/water mixture is ready, add it to the flour mixture and stir. Continue to mix until you get a doughy mass that is smooth and elastic. If it is still sticky, add some extra flour to it (It’s okay if dough is slightly sticky).
Form the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Roll the ball in the bowl so that it is covered in oil. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and place in a warm place; let rise for at least an hour. While you’re waiting you can make the pizza sauce.
Place dough on a floured surface.
Punch it down and work into a circle. The dough should be smooth and elastic and easy to work with. If not, add a pinch full of flour and rub it on top of the dough.
Use your hands to spread out the dough. Place on pizza sheet. Brush the pizza crust with olive oil. Then top with pizza sauce and cheeses. Then, add the herbs and any other topping of your choice.
Bake for one hour at 475°F (or when it looks done)
Speaking of dishes, Sisu has been cooking up a storm.
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