You may have heard this story before (and surely from me at one time or another, either at International Pizza Expo or in the pages of this magazine), but it bears retelling. When pizza Margherita came along, it was a seminal moment in the history of the very business we are in. And here, one more time, is the story.
As the 19th century was coming to a close, pizza –– pizza baked in coal-fired ovens that reached temperatures upward of 750 F –– became as important to Naples as Sophia Loren was some 60 years later. Pizza was being sold from stalls and eaten on the street with great relish from midday until the wee hours of the morning.
Pizza ascended to another plateau in 1889, when King Umberto I made a visit to Naples. At his side was Queen Margherita, who immediately wanted to try this food she had heard so much about. The story goes that, of course, the queen wasn’t going to a humble pizzeria, so the pizza was brought to the palazzo where the royal couple was staying (probably the first record of a pizza delivery).
The pizza was delivered by Raffaele Esposito, owner of the famous pizzeria Pietro il Pizzaiolo. Esposito went with his wife, Donna Rosa, who was, in fact, the pizza maker. They brought enough ingredients to make three kinds of pizza, and after sampling all three, Queen Margherita selected as her favorite the pizza made with tomatoes, fresh bufala mozzarella and fresh basil. To this day the Margherita remains one of the most popular pizzas sold in the United States as well as Italy.
At first glance, with but three basic ingredients, putting together a fabulous pizza Margherita is simple.
What we are going for here is the perfect pizza Margherita. After all, we have over a hundred years of tradition to honor and respect. Here’s the question: Can you use one type of dough for the perfect pizza Margherita, no matter what kind of oven you have? Yes. I am not here to change your whole dough-making procedures for the sake of one style of pizza.
It’s true, however, that a pizza dough made with a softer flour, such as bread flour or 00 flour, has a better chance for perfection in most ovens (wood burning, particularly) than say, a harder (higher protein) flour. However, that’s assuming that the pizza is going to be eaten on the premises (not taken out, not delivered), because a pizza made with softer flour is at its best when served within minutes of coming out of the oven.
So now we need to look for a happy medium that covers all the bases, and that leads me to an unbleached all-purpose flour. In some applications, however, I choose to use a blend of flours: combining 70 percent low protein flour (bread flour or 00 flour) with 30 percent high-protein flour. I know the idea of blending flour is getting a bit out there, but when striving for perfection we have to go the extra mile.
Now about the tomatoes. Here’s the scoop. The tomatoes that go on a classic Margherita pizza should be plum (canned, crushed and drained) or fresh (skinned and pureed) or an unseasoned light, ground, all-purpose tomato. Regardless of which type of tomato you go with, put it on lightly –– just a smear, half of what you might ordinarily use.
When it comes to the cheese, you have two choices: Fresh bufala mozzarella DOP, or fresh mozzarella (fior de latte). Dice it, slice it, whatever works best for you. Again, use a light hand. The key is balance.
Remember to use fresh basil, and it is to go on the pizza only after it comes out of the oven. In fact, a classic pizza Margherita comes to the table (in most places) with but one leaf of fresh basil stuck in the very center. However, use your good judgment as to how much basil you will add. One pizza place in Chicago serves a chiffonade of fresh basil on a separate plate with a pizza Margherita, which allows the customer to put on as much or as little as they please.
That’s it. Nothing else, I repeat, nothing else, goes on a classic pizza Margherita.
Test recipe for dough. Makes 2 13- to 14-inch pizza shells
1/4 ounce active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105-110 F)
3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour or 00 flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Blend the yeast with the water to combine. Add the flour, salt and olive oil. Mix to form a soft dough. Knead for 6-8 minutes. Divide the dough in half. Cover and let rise overnight in the cooler.
The next day take the dough out of the cooler and give it a minimum of 2 hours bench or proof time before making the pizza (do not punch it down). Stretch each piece of dough to about 13-inches in diameter.
Brush each shell with olive oil. Top each shell with about 6 ounces (3/4 cup) of tomato puree, followed by 5 ounces of fresh mozzarella, sliced thin or chopped coarse. Bake the pizza.
Shortly after the pizza comes out of the oven add the leaves of fresh basil. Serve.
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