In the middle months of the pandemic, when we could go out, but not far, I kept meeting the same people in well-spaced queues, and saying the same things. “We’re fine, but climbing the walls,” “Zoom”, “sorry”, “mask”, “dog”. I also found myself talking about parties.
At first, it was queue-chat about having people over. But, as the months went on, I found myself having increasingly detailed chats and thoughts about parties. Remembered, made-up, nostalgic house parties; kitchens full of people and baths full of ice, vertical conversations on staircases, red wine on carpets, sofas pushed back to make space for dancing (thoughts all the more idealised because, if a party is made up, there is no chance of not being invited).
In September 2020, I spent an evening with a friend planning a party we couldn’t have. How we would make jugs of iced negroni, and serve Messina beer and five-litre boxes of wine. For the food, we imagined big bowls of a knobbly cheese snack called Fonzies, little milk buns filled with salami, olives the size of small plums, fried cheese and trays of pizza, which, for the sake of this column, would be pissadella with anchovy diamonds.
Also known as sardenaira, piscalandrea or pizza alla Ligure, pissadella is part of a family of anchovy-onion-tomato-olive-topped flatbreads typical of Liguria (and of Nice in France, which has a tomato-less version called pissaladière, and a reminder of shifting borders and common cooking). Some variations are unleavened, while others include yeast, though so far I’ve had more success with yeasted recipes. I also prefer those that suggest adding the anchovies after baking, as opposed to putting them in with the tomato sauce – I miss the forcefulness of a fillet.
It was the Roman cook and teacher Carla Tomasi who taught me to knead dough with oiled hands on a lightly oiled surface. Years later, I still say, “Hail, Carla”, every time. Not only does it help manage stickiness, it also means you are not incorporating more flour, which is what happens when you knead on a floured surface. Even though many people say that it’s an unnecessary step with modern yeasts, I still, stubbornly, activate (which sounds like a 1990s aerobics workout): that is, 25g fresh or 10g dried yeast mixed in a cup with 75ml warm milk and 20g flour and left for 10 minutes, so it starts to bubble. But feel free to leave that stage out.
While you can make pissadella in advance and serve it at room temperature, it is best served hot from the oven. It will seem a faff to spread the anchovy fillets out on a plate and cut them in half in preparation for the lattice, but trust me, trying to get them out of the jar is tricky after a negroni, and you could well be distracted by the doorbell or by someone moving the sofa.
Pissadella – tomato, anchovy, onion and olive tart
Prep 30 min
Rise 1 hr 30 min
Cook 60 min
20g fresh or 10g dried yeast
75ml milk, warmed
500g plain flour
10 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and sliced into half-moons
1 garlic clove, unpeeled and bashed, but left whole
800g ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (or 2 x 400g tins, drained)
12 anchovy fillets
Mix the yeast, warm milk and a spoonful of flour in a cup and leave for 10 minutes, so the yeast activates and starts to bubble.
In a large bowl, mix the yeast mixture with the rest of the flour, four tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt and enough warm water to make a soft, slightly sticky dough. Rub a worktop with oil and plop the dough on top, then use oiled hands to fold and knead gently – it should be soft and a bit tricky to handle, but the oil will help. Wash, dry and rub the bowl with oil, then return the dough to it for an hour to rise.
Meanwhile, warm the remaining oil in a frying pan, then gently fry the onion and garlic until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook until they are soft and their water has evaporated.
Oil a large baking tray, drop in the dough, use oiled fingers to spread and dimple it into place – it should be about 1cm thick all over – then leave to rise for another 30 minutes. Spread tomatoes over the top and bake at 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 for 40-60 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the anchovies in half lengthways. When the base comes out of the oven, make a diagonal lattice pattern with the anchovies and put an olive in the middle of each diamond.