Margherita Pizza

As American Today as It Is Italian

Susannah Chen
Pizzeria Delfina’s Cal-Ital take on Margherita Pizza

The concept of the Margherita pizza is simple: baked dough topped with tomatoes, basil, and cheese. Yet this Italian idea is the basis for every regional style of pizza that America has today, and without it, America’s $45 billion pizza market—and a large part of its food culture altogether—would never have existed at all.

Margherita pizza originally hails from Italy, where the combination of tomato, mozzarella, and basil dates back to the 1700s. How the pizza got its modern-day moniker remains a mystery. According to one legend, after Italian unification, the pizza was named for Queen Margherita of Savoy, because the red, white, and green toppings corresponded with colors of the Italian flag. Others believe it was named Margherita (“daisy”) after the way the toppings were arranged: like flower petals.

This dish didn’t remain unique to Italy for long. In the late 1800s, many from Naples migrated to New York City, bringing the concept of pizza with them and adjusting the dish to fit a new place. Their evolved product—a large, hand-tossed, thin-crust pizza topped simply with tomato sauce and part-skim mozzarella—became the New York-style pizza we know of today. The dish eventually spread to other cities across the country, where locals in Chicago, New Haven, Detroit, and other cities adjusted the recipe to suit local tastes.

Today one can find Margherita pizza, as well as styles that have evolved from Margherita pizza, just about anywhere Italians have settled. In Naples, the tradition of Neapolitan-style Margherita pizza is so heralded that it’s on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. Pizzaiolos follow strict rules for consistency: dough must be made with Caputo flour, be topped with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh cow or buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil, and be baked for 60-90 seconds in a wood fire oven between 806-896ºF. The result—a puffy, pale-looking pie that’s dotted with blackened air pockets—is soft and elastic.

The predominant, albeit wide-ranging, pizza style in America is New York-style pizza, which has a large, thin-crust; it’s baked so that the crust exterior is crisp yet the inside is soft enough to be folded in half, and it’s often served by the slice. (New York pizzas—and American styles in general—are topped with low-moisture rather than fresh mozzarella cheese to avoid a soggy crust.) In nearby Connecticut, New Haven-style pizza is sauced with tomatoes, oregano, and grated Romano (no mozzarella unless requested!), and baked in a coal-fired oven. And in Chicago, where a deep-dish pizza style was invented in the mid-1900s, pies are made in a deep, round pan, have a substantive crust, and are layered with cheese and chunky marinara sauce.

Next time you order a pie, take note of what oven the restaurant uses. A wood-fired oven could be the marker of a classic Neapolitan-style, while coal-fired pizza ovens often translate to East Coast styles like New York-style or New Haven-style pizza. On the West Coast, gas ovens and wood-burning ovens are popular. Look for other menu details, too: Chicago pizza variations are often labeled “deep dish,” “stuffed” or “stuffed crust,” and if buffalo mozzarella is an option, you’re almost certainly in for the Italian original.

A sampling of various Margherita-inspired pizza styles in SF:

Del Popolo (Caviar)

For the Naples classic, try the Margherita di Bufala.

Little Star Pizza

The cheese-only Deep Dish Pizza represents the Chicago style.

Gioia Pizzeria

Order the Formaggio for a consistent New York slice.

Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

For New Haven, get the Original Tomato Pie with Cheese.

Pizzeria Delfina

A sturdy, “Neapolitan-inspired” Cal-Ital version of Margherita.

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