On a recent sunny Doha afternoon I attended a pizza class at La Veranda in the recently refurbished Sheraton Doha. Invited by the lovely folks at La Veranda I was going to learn the centuries-old art of making pizza under the expert tutelage of Executive Chef Federico Carsili, along with his colleagues Chef Marco and Chef Shaam. [UPDATE: Check out our review of the Friday Brunch]
Chef Federico joins the Sheraton from the rolling hills and verdant green pastures of the province of Terni in Umbria, Italy. The area is well-known for the quality of its olive oils and black truffles, and many of its regional recipes are handed down from one generation to the next. Chef Federico fondly remembered his own mother’s cooking and the traditional wooden board she used to make her dough for fresh homemade pasta and polenta dishes. The chef’s warm personality shines through, influenced as he is by home-cooked Italian food, fresh quality ingredients and his love for feeding people – it was a real pleasure to attend his cooking class.
La Veranda’s location is not obvious, but the staff members at the Sheraton are very helpful and will guide you to your destination. Access does involve some stairs, and you have to go into the fitness centre in order to enter through the restaurant’s main entrance. Or you could do what I did which was to make my own entrance through its beautiful veranda which overlooks the Arabian Gulf – it is a much more scenic view although you do walk straight into the pizza cooking station (which was a pleasant surprise).
There is a comfortable air about La Veranda reminiscent of Italian eateries with its wooden dining chairs, its use of gingham and net fabrics, and faux brick walls. The beautiful stained glass skylight is stunning and I can imagine it adds to the ambience in the evening. I liked that there was seating on a slightly elevated floor, which could conceivably be used to provide a more intimate section for couples or for larger parties. There was also excellent outside seating both on the veranda and the terrace, with handy burners for chilly evenings.
It is important to book in advance for the pizza class as the Chef prefers to teach in small groups, with his fellow colleagues Chef Marco (from Sardinia) and Chef Shaam (from India) assisting. I was able to learn directly from Chef Federico and later from Chef Marco with two other fellow attendees – so you are getting real hands-on teaching here.
To begin with Chef Federico introduced himself and his team, and the ingredients were discussed. The range of toppings included fresh mozzarella, prepared artichokes, Kalamata olives and turkey ham. If you have any allergies or dietary restrictions please let the reservations staff know at the time of booking your class, and Manager Francisco and his Chef team will do their best to accommodate.
You are then invited to don your chef hats and aprons, which have snazzy slogans such as ‘Keep calm, the pizza is in the oven’, ‘Pizzaologist in training’, or my favourite ‘Have no fear, the pizza chef is here!’
Then it is onto the hard work as you learn how to make the delicate dough and discover the intricacies of mixing and kneading. Six basic ingredients are mixed together by hand on the work surface reflecting traditional Italian methods of preparation which cannot be rushed.
Once the dough has come together it must be rested for at least 3-6 hours for the yeast to do its magic. In a Blue Peter moment of ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ Chef Federico brought out risen dough for our pizza bases – this is another reason why places must be booked in advance as the dough has to be pre-prepared.
The dough made at the pizza class was made in one large batch and yielded at least 8 pizzas. The dough is divided into 220g balls, which are shaped by gentle hand movements so as to keep as much as the air bubbles as possible – it looked easy to do but several misshapen balls were produced by us learners.
Once shaped those small balls of dough looked full of possibilities and we could not wait to get our aprons messy as we moved onto the next step.
The work surface was floured and the dough could then be formed into circles for our pizza bases. We all split off into teams and the race was on to get our pizzas in the oven first! Preparing the circular pizza bases can be done by using a rolling pin, but we foolhardily opted to use our hands as it was the more traditional method – which the Chefs proclaimed would help to show our love in the food.
Shaping the dough was an art in itself and the Chefs made it look easy. The difficulty for novices is to try and get the base as thin as possible without destroying the light airy dough. Chef Marco showed his fantastic techniques which included some freestyle pizza-throwing – he was so quick it was hard to catch him on camera. If you are feeling adventurous maybe you could try throwing your own pizza too, just make sure you catch it!
When our pizza bases were ready we got the thumbs-up from the chef and it was time to place our chosen toppings on top – it is completely our own choice as to what ingredients we wanted to use and how much we wanted on our pizzas; just be careful not to over-load it as you still have to get it into the oven. The special tomato sauce is exported straight from Italy and provides a beautiful herby sauce for the pizza base. Then you can either fling on or artistically place your toppings and get that pizza ready for the oven. The oven is based on a traditional wood-oven but it is a gas-fired modern oven which spews out heat allowing your pizza to be cooked within 5 minutes!
The chef helped us to place our pizzas in the oven using the special pizza peel (which looks like a flat spade) – when I successfully managed to get my authentic Italian pizza onto the pizza spade there was a warm sense of joy and relief that it did not end up on the floor.
Chef Marco placed my pizza into the oven, and also made sure to keep turning the other pizzas (using the round pizza peel) so that they were cooked evenly. I then watched as the hot oven crisped up the dough base of my pizza and helped to bake all the ingredients together into one delicious circle of crispy pizza.
Once our pizzas were ready we moved onto the eating!
You can also take your pizza away with you in La Veranda’s takeaway pizza boxes. An authentic Italian pizza is a satisfying and delicious thing; an authentic Italian pizza made by myself is a delight to be treasured – now I just need to replicate the same dish in my kitchen, and thanks to the Chefs at La Veranda I may even have a chance!
If you want to learn the art of pizza-making from Italian Chefs, using traditional methods, then join in at La Veranda’s weekly pizza classes every Saturday from 3-5pm. The first class starts on Saturday 21st February and there are limited places available. It costs QR 150 per person and bookings can be made by calling +974 4485 3000 or emailing F&[email protected].