Photo credit: Greg Rannells Photography/StockFood
Time magazine has been on a “most influential” kick lately. First, its editors explained to us how it is that White Castle cooks up the most influential burger of all time. Then, they expounded upon why the Kit Kat deserves its due. It was only a matter of time before Time turned its attention to the crucial matter of pizza.
In its most-influential-pizza rundown, Time name-checks Hawaiian pizza (precursor to all fusion slices), Totino’s Pizza Rolls (the proto-after-school-pizza-snack), and even Pizza Hut’s Stuffed Crust pie (what would we do without more cheese in the crust?).
But the number one prize goes to the most primary pizza of all: the margherita pizza, a pie of red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil.
Here’s why: The margherita has a freakin’ fantastic history.
In “Pizza: A Global History,” author Carol Helstosky tells the popular legend of Queen Margherita of Italy’s visit to Naples in 1889. The queen, bored with the French cuisine that was then a staple of European royalty, summoned Raffaele Esposito, the pizzaiolo of Neapolitan restaurant Pizzeria Brandi. Of the three pies Esposito prepared, the queen declared the “pizza alla mozzarella" her favorite, which was later renamed the margherita pizza in her honor. (The first two pies’ defining toppings were, respectively, lard and fish.)
But Queen Margherita’s pizza preference had implications beyond her lunch. "The choice of the tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza became an important detail in the narrative of Italian nationalism: the king and queen were tired of French cuisine and wanted something authentically Italian," wrote Helstosky. "Furthermore, the colors of the pizza margherita are the same as those of the Italian flag."
Without a doubt this lore played a role in the European Union’s 2009 decision to grant Neapolitan pizza a ”traditional speciality guaranteed” (TSG) label. According to official EU documents, there are only two sanctioned variations of Neapolitan pizza: the “marinara,” which is made without cheese, and the “margherita,” the mozzarella-laden version we know and love.
And man, are the restrictions strict. Among the many stipulations for a proper pie, “‘Pizza Napoletana’ TSG is round with a variable diameter not exceeding 35 centimeters and a raised rim and is garnished and baked in the oven,” according to the Official Journal of the European Union. “The central part is .4 centimeters thick, with a tolerance of plus or minus 10 percent, and the rim is one to two centimeters thick. The overall pizza must be tender, elastic and easily foldable into four.”
The documents also prescribe the very specific way in which a Neapolitan pizza must be garnished, right down to the “spiraling motion” used to spread tomato sauce.
But perhaps the margherita’s pizza greatest achievement is its lasting influence around the world. “Whether the origin myth is true or invented, the margherita pizza helped spawn almost every modern-day pie, and is now ‘the standard for what a good pizza is,’" Helstosky told Time.
We’re just happy we didn’t end up stuck with fish-lard pizza, so thanks, Queen Margherita.