So the story goes, Queen Margherita of Italy was journeying with her husband Umberto around her kingdom’s countryside around 1889 and observed the peasants enjoying tasty flatbreads that they called pizzas. She tried and loved this rustic food (much to the disdain of her peers in the nobility), and she commissioned a pizza chef named Rafaelle Esposito to make the humble delicacy for her. Chef Rafaelle not only made Queen Margherita the pizza she asked for, but he specially created a pie that incorporated the red, white, and green of the Italian flag using tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. Thus, the traditional “pizza margherita” was born.
I first tried pizza margherita on a trip to Sicily my senior year of college. I’d grown up eating the Americanized pies peddled by chains like Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Papa Johns, and Dominoes, plus the fancy pizza offerings at the college-kid favorite around here, the Georgia-based Mellow Mushroom. But pizza in Italy was different. The crust was warm and doughy, like good bread. The sauce was minimal or nonexistent, and cheese was included, but not a greasy blanket of it. The toppings were simple–no pizzas with names like “super supreme” or “kitchen sink.” And my favorite was the simplest of all, the pizza margherita.
So Thursday night, when we needed a quick dinner, and we just happened to have fresh tomatoes, some beautiful basil, and a little deli tub of mozzarella floating in salty brine, it was pretty easy to figure out our course of action.
- Make your pizza crust. Micah liked the crust recipe we used last time, but this time he asked if we could make it thinner and crispier. So we did. We only mixed up half as much dough, but we spread the dough extra thin over the same big pizza pan. Then, we pre-baked it for about 8 minutes at 450°F to get it good and crispy before we added the toppings.
- Once your crust is ready, spread on a very thin layer of pizza or pasta sauce (we just happened to get a jar of Cugino’s Classic Marinara in our wine club bag from Shiraz last week, which was perfect!). Top the sauce with thin slices of mozzarella and fresh tomato.
- Bake at 450°F directly on the oven rack for about 10 minutes, or until your crust is extra crispy and your cheese is nice and melty.
- While the pizza bakes, chop some fresh basil. (To make a pretty chiffonade/ribbon cut, take a stack of basil leaves, roll them up like a sleeping bag, and then slice the roll of leaves like a jellyroll. When you let go, you’ll have a big, pretty pile of basil streamers!)
- Top the finished pizza with the basil, then sprinkle with a little salt and fresh ground black pepper.
- Slice and enjoy! You’ll probably want to eat the whole thing, and that’s totally okay.
Thanks, Chef Rafaelle, for inventing this pizza! It is truly fit for a queen. Or a couple of hungry peasants like Micah and me. 🙂