Pizza is a food we all know and love – it’s something that turns up on our doorstep when we can’t be bothered to cook for ourselves, or a sure-fire option when we’re having trouble deciding what to order at an Italian restaurant. It’s a dish that many nations have adopted and made their own – in the USA, for example, it’s thought that 350 slices of the stuff are consumed every second (not to mention the urban myth that it was invented there). Pizza’s prevalence today stems from its long history. The dish has been around for a while: in Sardinia, archaeologists found remnants of something resembling pizza, dating back 3,000 years; the ancient Athenians were known for eating plakous, a flatbread flavoured with herbs and garlic; and Roman poet Virgil even referred to something distinctly pizza-like in his epic poem ‘The Aeneid’.
Whether Virgil would have envisaged this simple dish – a staple of peasants in his time – evolving into a multi-million-dirham industry (worth around Dhs11 billion at last count) is doubtful. The same can be said of the new-found competitive showmanship that the dish has inspired: pizza acrobatics. The sport has found its way to Dubai’s shores this month via a young man by the name of Emiliano Stefano Tunno, who will be flinging pizza dough around Sicilia in Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel until Wednesday April 18.
Emiliano is good enough to give Time Out Dubai an impromptu lesson in the art of pizza acrobatics, and he’s well qualified to do so – he was named Pizzaiolo of the Year in 2007 at a tournament organised by the European Traditional Pizza Association, and came third in the 2008 Pizza World Cup in Lecce, Italy (yes, there’s a pizza-making world cup). His feats are all the more impressive considering he’s just 23 years old (making him a teenager when he competed in the acrobatics category of the World Cup).
Emiliano’s English is limited, which is why he chooses to open the lesson with a little demonstration. Via the translating skills of Sicilia chef de cuisine Stefano Ligori, Emiliano tells me that pizza acrobatics is much like a dance – a statement endorsed by the electro soundtrack he starts working to. As he flings and spins the disc of dough to and fro, Stefano explains that the dough he’s throwing is not the same as that used to make edible pizza – it’s effectively ‘double-ply’, which prevents it from coming apart. This, apparently, is standard practice for pizza acrobatics, but I’m reassured that Emiliano is equally proficient in preparing edible pizzas.
It’s now my turn, and I’m surprised when I’m handed a silicon, pizza-sized disc. This, I’m told, is what every good pizza acrobat learns with. A part of me is relieved: it means I’ll be spared the embarrassment of covering Sicilia’s decor with flour and pizza dough, though the texture and feel of the silicon is difficult to get used to. I watch Emiliano effortlessly whirl his pizza dough around his fingers as he implores me to do the same with the flick of the wrist. I try, only to have the silicon wrap itself around my hand. I fare even worse on my second attempt and the silicon flies off my hand, Frisbee-style, and lands on the tiled floor with a slap. I persevere and manage to spin the disc on my finger for what feels like a couple of seconds (more likely a split second). Emiliano humours me with an encouraging nod and hands me the ‘double-ply’ dough he’s been using. The consistency and weight of the real dough feels far different to the silicon and I’m all the more conscious of it coming to pieces in my hand. Indeed, attempting to whirl it around my fingers results in it sticking together in a dough ball. Yet Emiliano insists that I’m ready to learn another move, which involves me spinning the pizza dough around the back of my hand. At least that’s what is meant to happen – in reality I’m once again left with a hand wrapped in pizza dough.
Eating, rather than preparing or playing with my food, is my speciality, and I’m relieved when Stefano steps in and offers me the chance to sample a couple of Sicilia’s pizza creations. As I eat, Emiliano continues with his acrobatics – a happier arrangement altogether, I decide, as I easily finish off the best part of a fresh buffalo caprese and nascent Siciliana.
Watch Emiliano in action (and try your hand at some pizza acrobatics) Sat-Thu 12.30pm-2.30pm, 8pm-10pm; Fri brunch 1pm-3pm, until Wednesday April 18. Sicilia, Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel (04 444 0000).