A NEWPORT chef is aiming to make our pizza toppings a healthier experience, as JEN MILLS discovers.

MARIO and Luigi love it, so did the Ninja turtles and so do Newport residents.

Yes, it’s pizza: rivalling sliced bread for the best culinary invention enjoyed in day to day life and definitely more delicious.

The popular Italian dish has been enthusiastically adopted in the UK, with many people considering their weekly pizza takeaway an integral part of the week.

But with that deliciously cheesy and tomatoey comfort food comes a price.

Specifically, £6.3 billion: that’s the cost our obesity epidemic is forecast to cost the National Health Service in 2015, according to government statistics (FROM NICE).

The blame can’t be put squarely at pizza’s tasty door but there’s no denying that too much pizza could make you start to resemble its signature round shape.

Now one Newport chef is on a mission to make pizza part of the solution.

Sergio Cinotti, 41, believes simple tweaks can make pizza far less culpable in our battle with the bulge, without any need to sacrifice flavour.

He’s one of the chefs at popular Italian restaurant Gemelli’s, which last year opened a new branch at Newport Retail Park in Spytty.

Originally from the outskirts of Rome in Italy, and passionate enough about good pizza to have his own log-burning oven at home, Sergio knows something about the art of pizza-making.

He gave us some pointers on crafting delicious meals at home, while avoiding the pitfalls that can make pizza a danger zone for diets.

For people making their own pizzas, or designing their own topping combinations, Sergio recommends garlic first of all. We love it on garlic bread, but he believes it can be just as delicious on a pizza base. Good for your heart as well as being touted as a ‘superfood’, the humble garlic clove can add vitamins as well as flavour to your pizza. Why not try chopping it finely and mixing with a small amount of olive oil to make a paste which can be spread over a pizza base before putting on tomato and cheese?

Sergio recommends then that instead of a shop-bought tomato paste, cooks should make their own from fresh tomatoes. Not all Italian pizzas use tomato, but Sergio believes it to be a crucial component of a good pizza. “It contains the enzyme lycopene which helps fight heart disease and cancer,” he said. “I make a paste with five different tomatoes: sun blush, sundried, beef, yellow gold and cherry tomatoes.” With so many species, the delicious paste should ensure you get maximum benefit from the fruit (not a vegetable, as the brainteaster goes). But if you don’t have five varieties in your greenhouse, however, ordinary tomatoes should do, or you could try making a base from a can of chopped tomatoes.

As for the toppings themselves, mushroom comes high on Sergio’s list of priorities. “I would put some mushrooms first”, he said. “They’re not fruit and not vegetable; they’re fungus. They’re very high in nutritional value. I would slice the mushrooms and put them on the pizza, then add spinach, which is full of antioxidants and, of course, iron.

“I would use black olives, not green, as they can help lower your cholesterol. Then, as not many people are vegetarian, maybe add a few slices of chicken, maybe barbecued, as it is full of protein and Vitamin B. Alternatively people could use sliced ham, which is lower in fat and much better than pepperoni, which is also very high in sodium so not good. I wouldn’t advise bacon or minced beef.”

As a chef at Gemelli’s, Sergio is often asked for extra pepperoni or extra meat, unsurprisingly as pepperoni is one of the most popular pizza toppings in the country.

He fulfils the order, but says he wishes people would ask him instead for the healthier alternatives, such as extra vegetables.

And from working on the culinary front line, he believes we are becoming hungrier for pizza as a nation: “The demand is growing. If people want more you have to give it to them but I wish people came in and said “I want something healthy”. Then I would feel happy to prepare it. I want to try to educate people.”

Other foods which don’t sacrifice flavour but may be better for the waistline are anchovies and black pepper, he said.

“Anchovies are beautiful on pizza”, he said, “and black pepper makes you feel full. It stimulates your stomach and gives it that sense of fullness.”

Other Italian favourites which won’t lay on the calories too heavily are seafood toppings. Clams, mussels, prawns and lobsters can all successful be used as pizza toppings and are far lower in fat than red meat such as pork and beef. Basil also makes a delicious addition to pizza.

In terms of cheese, mozzarella is king according to the chefs at Gemelli’s, although Sergio recommends substituting low fat mozzarella for the full fat variety for a calorie discount without compromising on taste.

Red peppers are also full of Vitamin C, he says, and are “fantastic” to give pizza toppings colour and texture while also making up one of your five a day.

If you fancy yourself a creative cook, there are plenty of more unusual toppings you could try out. Why not investigate how almonds, leek, pine-nuts, oysters, duck, peas or carrot taste on a pizza? More obscure pizza cheeses such as Monterey Jack, Blue Cheese or Gorgonzola could spice up a pizza, as really that round expanse is a blank canvas for chefs.

Then again, you could always literally spice up a pizza with chilli or jalapeno peppers. If you like hot food it will be a delicious flavour boost, and chilli is also said to boost the metabolism so will keep your pizza on the healthy side of the scale.