The first mistake was accepting an appointment for an ultrasound just before lunchtime. The second was bringing my five-year-old with me. (She wanted to know if it would be a boy a girl more desperately than we did.) The third was being naïve about Italian hospital waiting rooms—surely they wouldn't make a pregnant lady and her child wait for hours? We had an appointment, after all, and surely there'd be a bar where we could get snacks or coffee, so I wouldn't need to bring my own?
Two hours later, we are home, absolutely starved. I have barely taken off my coat before a whole clove of garlic gets a gentle sizzle in olive oil. What I have left of a bottle of tomato passata goes in, along with salt and pepper and a little splash of water. While that gets simmering, I grab something to appease the child, who is still trying to take off her shoes. I cut open a good loaf of crusty bread and toast a few slices. A ball of Scamorza is cut into thick slices—hey, where did that piece go?!—and added to the simmering tomato sauce, dotted over the top as if it were some kind of crustless pizza.
The table is cleared and a few minutes later, the cheese obligingly melts. I take a wooden spoon and gently swirl it through the sauce, and pour it over the toasted bread with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, black pepper, and basil (dried oregano does just as well here). Finally, our late lunch is ready to be devoured.
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It's a dish that my Tuscan husband's grandfather would make for himself when he came home late from work. In fact, it works just as well as a late night supper for one as it does for an emergency quick lunch for a clan, just adjust quantities and go with what you have. If you don't have Scamorza—a wonderful, pear-shaped cheese, which comes in both smoked or milder dolce varieties—you can use fresh mozzarella (be aware that it will release more liquid, so you may want to reduce the tomato to a thicker consistency) or provolone. But really, any good melting cheese could work well for this.
I did not think this dish had a name; I only knew it as a quick, homey meal that Nonno Mario used to whip up. But it turns out there is a name for this particular version of melty, cheesy goodness: alla pizzaiola (“in the manner of the pizza-maker”), because it has the same ingredients as a classic pizza margherita. This would be Scamorza alla pizzaiola, but I discovered many Italian families have a version of this—usually with mozzarella—in their repertoire, and it can also be called pizza pazza (crazy pizza), pizza alla povera (poor man's pizza) or mozzarella in padella (simply, mozzarella, or whatever cheese you're using, in a pan). Whatever it is, it's quick, it's satisfying, it's easy to customize, and it's a good one to keep up your sleeve for those harried moments when you really need the food equivalent of a big hug.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.
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