Make anything taste like pizza

Nick Kindelsperger

Pizzaiola is Italian for a pizza-style tomato sauce. Sounds straightforward, right? Well, the recipe certainly is. It usually starts with chopped tomatoes cooked with olive oil, a little garlic, a pinch of salt and some dried oregano. That’s it.

So why hadn’t I heard of this dish until recently? After all, I’ve been obsessed with pizza for years and can name innumerable styles, regional variations and cooking techniques. Why hadn’t I crossed paths with pizzaiola before?

Right away, it’s important to note that, as Michele Scicolone explains in “1,000 Italian Recipes,” the sauce can’t actually be used on pizza, “since the extreme heat of wood-fired Neapolitan pizza ovens would overcook an already-cooked sauce.” Instead, it’s just supposed to be reminiscent of the sauce you put on pizza.

Which leads to another important question: How does pizzaiola differ from any other traditional tomato sauce, like a marinara? In the strictest definition, marinara is a tomato sauce flavored with garlic and basil. Pizzaiola, on the other hand, gets garlic and dried oregano. Sounds slight, and, well, it is.

From what I can tell, pizzaiola’s distinguishing feature is that it’s usually used as a sauce for meat. According to Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy,” pizzaiola is a “spe­cialty of Naples, but is quite common everywhere.” Expecting to find a trove of recipes, I visited the Harold Washington Library, which is easily the largest library in the city. There I flipped through 100-odd Italian cookbooks, setting aside each and every book that mentioned the term. In the end, my haul came to a paltry three books. Not exactly what I’d hoped for.

I think this has to do with the straightforward and humble nature of pizzaiola. It’s one of those dishes that’s so basic that it feels unnecessary to write a recipe for it. Yet, it’s a shame that more people don’t know about pizzaiola, because it has the ability to transform almost any cut of meat.

Here’s a basic blueprint: Pick up some thick-cut pork chops. Saute them in some olive oil in heavy skillet over high heat until browned, but still pink inside. Remove and set aside while you prepare the sauce. Cook some garlic, and then add tomatoes, salt and oregano, and simmer until the sauce reduces to a thick, spoonable consistency. Add the chops back in to finish the cooking. Serve the chops with the sauce spooned on top.

The sauce has a vibrancy from the tomatoes, which plays nicely off the pork. But it also picks up the juices from the pork, adding a savory depth to each bite. Serve this with some pasta, with more of the sauce drizzled on top of the noodles, and you have a filling weeknight dinner.

Of course, as with all incredibly simple recipes, quality is key. Pizzaiola is only as good as the tomatoes used. During the summer, this is slightly easier, but if it’s cooler, then you’ll need to track down some top-quality canned tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos from Italy.

Besides pork, beef and veal are the most popular meats served with the sauce. But if you’re willing to cast any worries of authenticity aside, you can repeat this process with almost any kind of protein. Chicken is an obvious choice, and I also saw one recipe for swordfish. Hoping to push the boundaries of the dish, I even tried the sauce with squid. With the addition of a sprinkle of crushed red pepper, the sauce makes a lively and satisfying companion. And if you make sure to only cook the cephalopod until just done, usually around 2 minutes, you’ll be rewarded with exceptionally tender squid. Once again, adding pasta turns this into a full meal, though polenta or even potatoes work, too.

While quick-cooking meats work with the sauce, I believe the sauce works best when it’s paired with an equally humble cut of meat that needs time to cook. In “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine,” Lidia Bastianich offers a recipe for short ribs pizzaiola that requires more than two hours to slowly simmer. Instead of fresh and vibrant, the sauce reduces to a robust and richly hearty base, with a luscious body from the fatty beef. This is the kind of stew that everyone, from a picky child to confident cook, will melt for. It’s equivalent to a hug from your grandmother.

Call pizzaiola humble or unduly spartan, but when done right, the result can be refreshingly uncomplicated and soul-satisfying.

Pork Chops, Pizza-maker’s Style

Known in Italian as braciole alla pizzaiola, this recipe is from Michele Scicolone’s “1,000 Italian Recipes.”

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 thick-cut pork chops, about 1-inch thick

Salt and black pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained, chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season chops with salt and pepper. Add chops, and brown on both sides, about 2 minutes a side. Remove chops to a plate and set aside.

Add garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Pour in tomatoes, oregano and crushed red pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until thick, about 20 minutes.

Add the chops to the tomato sauce, and cook until internal temperature is 140 degrees, about 5 minutes. Taste sauce, and add more salt if needed, probably 1/2 teaspoon.

Transfer chops to a platter. Spoon on some of the tomato sauce, and sprinkle with parsley.

Nutrition information per serving: 269 calories, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 67 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 23 g protein, 489 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Short Ribs Pizzaiola

From “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali, this recipe is called costolette di manzo alla pizzaiola in Italian.

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 2 hours

Makes: 6 servings

4 pounds beef short ribs

11/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 cups dry red wine

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand

2 cups chicken stock

3 medium onions, chopped

3 bell peppers (red, yellow, or orange), stemmed, seeded, slice into 2-inch strips

Sprinkle short ribs all over with 1 teaspoon of salt. Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add short ribs and garlic; cook until meat is browned on all sides, about 8 minutes. Remove short ribs; set aside. Discard the garlic. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.

Add the wine. Reduce heat to a simmer; cook until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, oregano, red pepper flakes, tomatoes and 2 cups chicken stock. Bring to a boil over high heat; return short ribs to pot. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, 1 hour.

Add onions; simmer, 15 minutes. Add bell peppers; simmer, 15 minutes, or until the meat is tender.

Nutrition information per serving: 347 calories, 19 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 73 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 27 g protein, 835 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Squid Pizzaiola

Developed by Tribune reporter Nick Kindelsperger.

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 18 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes, chopped

1 pound squid, cleaned

Heat extra-virgin olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add garlic; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add oregano, red pepper, salt and tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes reduce into a thick sauce, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice the squid bodies into 1/4-inch rings. When sauce is thick, add the squid pieces; cook, stirring often, until squid is just cooked, about 2 minutes. Don’t overcook the squid, or it will turn rubbery. Serve over cooked spaghetti or another pasta, if you like.

Nutrition information per serving: 188 calories, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 264 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 19 g protein, 553 mg sodium, 1 g fiber