The Origin of the Neapolitan Margherita Pizza
Ever since I’ve been a child, I’ve always loved pizza. Yes, I know it is something that most children are fond of, but I think that my love for pizza went beyond it being my favorite junk food. I just loved everything about it! Crusts, whether thin and wafer-like, or thick and bursting with cheese, these flat, savory, oven-cooked melts were my favorite form of goodies.
So, it does not come as a surprise that when I began my training as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Mumbai, my goal was to be at the pizza mezze. And to make a good pizza, I needed to know where this delicious baked goodness stemmed from. Hence, it was the research and the endless questions I posed to my Italian head-chef and arduous months of rolling out doughs, with a crisp enough base, that sassy sauce and the right amount of cheese, that eventually started being worthy enough to send to diners’ table sand, that resulted in this story.
For starters, let’s talk about the most basic pizza; a Pizza Margherita. The history of this popular name, like most Italian food, boils down to history and taste. It’s a classic Neapolitan (Pizza Napoleatana) style of pizza. Pizza Napoleatana goes all the way back to Naples, Italy in the early 1700s, which also happens to coincide with the entry of tomatoes in Italy. The story goes that the Neapolitan Chef Raffaele Esposito created a pizza using the same colours as the flag of Italy (red, white and green), for Queen Margherita of Savoy, the wife of King Umberto I, who visited Naples in 1889. The ingredients featured red tomatoes, white cheese and green basil. The dish became iconic ever since and was named after the queen who savoured it.
For me, the perfect pizza is slightly burnt with a thin crust (no thicker than 3-4 mm.) The sauce is made with fresh tomatoes and topped with buffalo mozzarella and basil. The dough needs to be mixed by hand or in a slow mixer and the consistency needs to be crisp at the edges with elasticity, hence making it slightly chewy in the middle. When it comes to taste, Pizza Napoleatana is the essence of simplicity and high quality. The acidity of the tomato sauce, combined with the richness of Mozarella di Bufala cheese, fragranced with basil and a sprinkle of sea salt creates the beautiful bite of the classic Neapolitan Pizza.
Though there are various versions to this pizza, the Margherita remains a legacy and a true classic. As a child, I remember loving the feeling of biting into that melted cheese. Now, I truly appreciate where this piece of magic originated from helping to make any day seem as fresh and delicious as a slice of a good Neapolitan Margherita pizza. Sometimes, it is amazing how history helps to just accentuate flavours that you love, adding the word special to a dish that is already favoured.