In search of the margherita

As my wife will happily attest, I am a man with many failings - including my unrequited love for great pizza. We once interrupted a perfectly romantic holiday just so that I could taste the legendary offerings of Pizzeria Da Michele - the home of the world's greatest pizza according to experts such as Heston Blumenthal and Diego Maradonna (and I am guessing that he knows his pizza...).


We dragged our huge suitcases along Naples' Comorra-controlled side streets - dodging the piles of stinking rubbish created by the latest refuse collectors strike - to find a run down cafe with a queue of scruffy looking locals snaking out of the door. There are no reservations here, you just take a ticket and share a table as soon as a seat becomes available. The restaurant only has two things on the menu: margherita and marinara but they are as good as any pizza I have ever tasted - that Maradonna really knows his stuff.

So, what can you do to reach similar levels of perfection if you are not lucky enough to live in Naples and fancy making a pizza at home?

  1. Size
    • The pizzas in Naples are man-sized, but they have the benefit of cooking in an oven that reaches 500C (your domestic oven will get to about half that). For this reason I would recommend reducing the size of your pizzas to about 8" to lessen the chances of a soggy bottom. Tozi, one of my favourite restaurants, serves 4 inch "pizette" as part of its cicchetti (small plates) menu and they are as good as you'll find anywhere in London. Just remember, two great small ones always beats one soggy big one...
  2. The base
    • The main rule is that a pizza must be thin and it must be crispy. Pizza Hut may have made millions from deep pan, cheese filled crusts but when I become Prime Minister I am afraid they will be banned.
    • A pizza base is a simple thing - just water, flour, yeast and salt - so use finely ground "00" flour, maybe with some semolina flour to add colour and flavour, and the best Cornish sea salt. You will taste the difference.
    • Finally, give it time - use less yeast but allow it more time to work. This will create a much more flavoursome dough.
  3. The sauce
    • The pizza sauce at Da Michele is little more than cooked san marzano tomatoes, but I like the more complex flavours of a New York pizza with its herbs and long slow cooking. It's not difficult to make and freezes well, so you only need to make it a couple of times a year, even if you have a Maradonna-esque pizza appetite.
  4. The toppings
    • A recent survey showed that 37% of all pizzas bought are of the plain cheese and tomato variety. This means that your ingredients need to be good: a light dusting of parmigiano reggiano, some torn buffalo mozzarella and a few fresh basil leaves should do - just don't be tempted by that pre-grated supermarket nonsense.
    • If you do need meat on your pizza, and I can understand that, ask your delicatessen to slice some prosciutto until it is paper thin and then drape it over the pizza after cooking so that it melts in the roof of your mouth. Top with some fresh rocket leaves dressed in lemon and olive oil. Simple.
  5. The cooking
    • As I have said, getting a thin, crispy base is always going to be a struggle without a wood-burning oven. However, you can achieve the impossible with the help of the "frying pan method" espoused by the Pizza Pilgrims in their book "Recipes from the backstreets of Italy". This simply involves getting a dry frying pan screamingly hot, cooking the pizza for 2 minutes on the hob and then putting it under a hot grill for another 2-3 minutes until charred and blistered.

If travelling to Naples to try a cheese and tomato pizza seems a little excessive, which I suppose could be excused, try my ultimate homemade pizza recipe.