Pizza Margherita

Night #2 of our Five Nights of Pizza experiment: Pizza Margherita.

This pizza takes us to the next stop in pizza history. Well, almost the next stop. First, tomatoes were imported to Europe by the early explorers in the 16th century. As the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, many people thought it was poisonous. But by the late 1700’s, peasants in the area of Naples, Italy had begun to use tomatoes as a topping for their flatbread meals. Initially, pizzas were sold by street vendors, who carried them in a big tub on their heads. The shop that lays claim to being the first pizzeria ever, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, (which still operates in Naples a few blocks from where the original began in 1738!) started by producing pizzas for these street vendors, and later added a sit-down restaurant.

In 1889, a pizza maker by the name of Raffaele Esposito was asked to prepare several different types of pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy. He offered 3 types, and the queen’s favorite he named after her. Pizza Margherita has as toppings tomato, mozzarella, and basil,   reminiscent of the colors of the Italian flag–red, white and green.

There is a government-regulated association in Naples that has established the “rules” on what can be sold as Neapolitan pizza. The Pizza Margherita that we made tonight would NOT qualify, as authentic Neapolitan pizza must be no thicker than 1/3 of a centimeter at the center, and ours was substantially more. We also didn’t bake it in a wood-fired oven at 485ºC for 90 seconds or less, and we used a mechanical means to mix the dough. All of these factors disqualify us as true Neapolitans. Oh well. We liked the pizza, and it was quite different from last night’s Pizza Alexander.

Pizza Margherita

Start with a basic dough recipe, like this breadstick dough.

While the dough is rising, make the sauce:

Sautée diced onions and minced garlic (I used about 3 TBSP of onions, and 4 cloves of garlic) in 2 TBSP of olive oil. When they are translucent, add 1 large tomato, diced, and a 15-oz. can of diced tomatoes, along with 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil, and 1/3 c. water. I also added (because they happened to come with the marinated olives and garlic mixture from which I took the garlic) a couple of minced marinated red chili peppers. These added a very tiny amount of kick to the sauce–if you decide to use fresh peppers, use only about 1/2 of one.

Let the sauce cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the fresh tomatoes are broken down, and some of the liquid has boiled off. (About 15 minutes or so.) Remove from heat, and blend in a blender (optional. If you’d rather have chunky sauce, let it cook a little longer and skip the blender. In my house, we have people who make ghastly faces and threaten to hurl if there is even a hint of tomato solids….so we blend.)

To assemble: stretch the dough over a lightly oiled pizza stone or cookie sheet. Spread the sauce over the dough, to within 1/2″ or so of the edge. Over that, put thinly sliced pieces of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. We did not entirely cover the pizza with cheese and basil, as you can see. We used an 8-oz. ball of fresh mozz., and about 1/2 c. basil leaves. Bake in a 400ºF oven for 20 minutes or so, until the crust is golden brown.

As an added bonus, we had too much dough, so we made a tray of breadsticks by spreading the extra dough on an oiled cookie sheet, brushing with more olive oil, sprinkling with sea salt, and baking for 12-15 minutes.

Buon appetito!