Pizza has always been a source of considerable delight for me. I like bread, tomato, cheese, ham, pineapple and just about every other topping individually. Combine them, and my heart will melt as reliably as buffalo mozzarella.
Offer pizza on an all-you-can-eat basis at a low, low price, and we have ourselves an origin story for the somewhat overly generous dimensions of my belly.
When I was a kid, my favourite variety was the ‘supreme’, unless they happened to sell a ‘super supreme’. I wanted the pizza supplier – or pizzaiolo, if you will – to pile as many toppings onto that base as they possibly could, because I was such a gourmet that I would enjoy each and every one of them.
Back then, I was ordering mostly from the big national chains that serve thick crust pizza. I loved it, and when I got to uni and every campus social event seemed to involve a huge delivery, I often made sure I had a slice of Hawaiian, pepperoni, meat lover's with the barbecue sauce and vegetarian alongside the Supreme. It was there, I was greedy and happy to get a meal for free.
As uni progressed, we discovered the delights of pide, the Turkish variation that comes in long ovals and tastes incredible with a squeeze of fresh lemon. And gourmet pizza took off - before long we were eating tandoori chicken, pesto and pine nuts, barbecued octopus or even Peking Duck on our pizza.
I enthusiastically embraced every new variation. Wood-fired pizza came next, and I was all for it. The smoky, yeasty, chewy thinner crust seemed a distinct improvement. Gourmet pizza surely couldn’t get any better than this, could it?
But then I started eating proper margherita pizza. A new restaurant opened in Sydney called Pizza Mario. It had long queues, and my friends raved about it. It pitched itself as proper Neopolitan pizza, and there was no custom ordering – you picked one of the menu items, or you lumped it.
The first time I went, I ordered the prosciutto, rocket and parmesan pizza. It was excellent, I thought. Very simple, great ingredients – delicious. I had a new favourite order.
But then I tried a slice of the margherita on my friend’s recommendation. It was mindblowing. The tomato sauce was succulent and incredibly flavoursome, dotted with fresh basil, and the melted buffalo mozzarella was scrumptious. The chewy, thin base, bubbling with doughy goodness and slightly burnt on the edges to get that extra woodfired flavour, was so delicious I could practically have eaten it on its own.
I’d never tasted pizza like it. I’d always assumed that it was a question of toppings, that a smorgasbord of flavours crammed onto slice was the way to go. Previously, I hadn’t even paid attention to the tomato sauce, but now I realised that it was the key ingredient.
Some say that the margherita was inspired by the Italian tricolour flag, containing as it does the red of the source, the white of the cheese and the green of the basil. And it’s supposed to have been created for Princess Margherita of Savoy, the lucky thing.
Whatever the inspiration, the result is the most classic, iconic pizza there is. And if it’s done well enough, you won’t feel the slightest need for any more elaborate toppings.
Pizza Mario proudly displayed a logo on the wall signifying its membership of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, or AVPN, of which it was member number 153. It turned out the reason why pizzas could not be modified was linked to its membership of this association. Designed to keep the Neapolitan tradition alive, the AVPN produces a guide full of rules designed to ensure that a pizza is created in the authentic style.
Among the rules, the AVPN specifies that only San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and buffalo mozzarella can be used. The oven must be wood-fired too, and the pizza must be cooked on its stone surface, although recently they’ve developed a secondary logo for gas-fired ovens.
According to the Association’s official history, there is no definitive recipe because a skilled pizza maker will modify the formula for the dough depending on such complex variables as the weather conditions! Pizza Mario was the first Sydney restaurant to achieve this exacting standard. Now there are 19 across the country, and while the original Mario is closed, its cousin Da Mario in Rosebery recently inherited the coveted 153 accreditation.
So I became a passionate convert of proper Italian margherita pizza. But on a trip to Japan, which has embraced this idea is so thoroughly that there are dozens of certified restaurants across the country, I first tried an even more minimalist pizza.
The marinara is a staple of Australia’s suburban takeaway pizza joints, and usually comes topped with prawns, mussels, calamari and a bit of miscellaneous fish. But when I tell you that the ‘marinara’ is the only other pizza besides the margarita recognised as an official Neapolitan classic by the AVPN, you can probably guess that their version is very different.
An original marinara contains only five ingredients – flour, tomatoes, garlic, oil and salt. In other words, no cheese. We’re talking tomato sauce, drizzled with oil, on a pizza base. That’s it. Perfect for vegans.
The word marinara derives from the word for sailor rather than seafood, and it is believed that these pizzas are popular with fishermen, who could garnish them with their own catch, and which will taste delicious even if they hadn’t caught anything. Given the lack of cheese, it’s also obviously the cheapest option.
Here’s the thing – a really good marinara is probably even more delicious than a margherita. If the sauce is absolutely top notch, it arguably tastes even better with just a little garlic and olive oil. Very few pizzerias serve this style of marinara, but I strongly recommend you try it if you can track it down.
One restaurant in Melbourne serve such a terrific Margherita that its owner Johnny di Francesco won the Pizza World Championship in 2014, obviously an especially extraordinary achievement for someone who lives on the other side of the world from Italy, where competition was held. His AVPN-certified restaurant 400 Gradi in Brunswick has now spread to Essendon and Crown Casino.
Watch Johnny Di Francesco show how to make a Margherita:
Get his pizza Margherita recipe here
I recently tried the famous Margherita at the Crown branch, and while I’m in no position to judge whether it’s the best in the world, it was certainly as close to perfection as anything I’ve ever tasted.
Of course I still enjoy a topping-laden pizza on a regular basis, and I’ll gladly order one with chicken or lamb or some other variant that would appal the purists from Naples. But if I could only choose one pizza to eat for the rest of my life, there are only two I’d consider, and one of them doesn’t even have cheese on top.
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Pizza marinara image by Satoshi Nakagawa via flickr.
“Melbourne pizzaolo Johnny Di Francesco has been perfecting pizza his whole life in Australia and in Naples, and in 2014 he won the huge Best Pizza in the World competition in Parma, Italy against 600 competitors from 35 countries. The key is using the best ingredients, mastering the art of rolling the balls, stretching the dough, creating the cornichone or crust, using simple delicious toppings, having access to a wood-fired oven and getting the temperature just right – the optimum is 400°C (750°F).” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire
"There’s a world of difference between a good pizza dough and a perfect one."
This simple pizza works to showcase the humble potato, combined with creamy buffalo mozzarella and salty Parmesan. This recipe is great as a starter dish, or for a simple Sunday night meal.
During our trip to Italy, we visited one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples, Sorbillo, where people queue around the block to sample their classic pizza margherita. You get so many varieties of pizzas these days, and there are so many bad versions and recipes out there, that I know why some Italians want to make it DOC, like wine...