Pizza margherita: the queen

 

So you have finally landed in Italy for the dream holiday you’ve always desired. The flight was long, getting to the hotel was unexpectedly chaotic (oh, those Italians!) but now you are settled. The only problem is that you realize you are hungry. Very hungry. So what do you eat?
The question is of course a no brainer: pizza! Pizzerias (pizza restaurants) are pretty much everywhere in Italy, so it is just a matter of choosing one – and of course the right pizza. And here the troubles begin.

First of all, how do you choose a good pizzeria? The basic trick is to consider only those with a forno a legna (it means ‘wood-fire oven’, and it is usually specified in the restaurant sign): the alternative is an electric oven, but that would deprive you of the subtle aromas imparted by the burning wood – not to mention its higher temperature, making a better cooking.
Avoid American-style “flair” pizzaioli (pizza makers) throwing the dough in the air, spinning it and doing tricks with it. That’s a Hollywood invention, and seeing it only means that the restaurant is a tourist trap with probably inauthentic food. Ditto for the “traditional” red and white checkered tablecloths: those come from a scene in Lady and the Tramp, not from Italy.

Another thing you are advised to steer well clear of are exotic ingredients. The tell-tale evidence of a very bad pizzeria is pineapple: no real Italian would ever dream of putting it on his pizza! Other fashionable ingredients like shrimps, cream, egg and highbrow insaccati (charcuteries) might be acceptable, but they also are not very traditional. Oh, by the way: in Italy peperoni (with one P) are bell peppers, not what you are thinking of – that would be salame (yup, ending in E).
The most traditional pizza of them all is actually pizza margherita: just tomato, mozzarella cheese and basil. The high quality of the single ingredients make for a memorable food experience even without complicated toppings. Italians actually judge pizzerias from the merits of their margheritas, so you can do that too.

If you want to amaze your friends – even the Italian ones – with your knowledge of pizza culture there is an interesting anecdote you can drop about pizza margherita. The name (‘margherita’ means ‘daisy’) is clearly unrelated to the ingredients, so people have been looking for its meaning for centuries. The prevailing origin story is that this staple of Italian cuisine was invented by one Raffale Esposito to honor queen Margherita of Italy, who in June 1889 was visiting Napoli. Topping a basic bread with the extra ingredients, he created something “fit for royalty”, and with the colors of the Italian flag to boot!
The only problem with this story is that it is apocryphal, since this very pizza is described, among other places, in a 1830 writing. The concept of pizza itself can in fact be traced back to the Roman empire! As a matter of fact, turns out that the daisy in the name comes from the original decoration. The toppings were not casually sprinkled on the dough, but they were placed to form the shape of green petals around a central white spot – of course on a red background.