The margherita is not just a pizza. It's a litmus test. Limited to dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, salt, basil and olive oil, a margherita instantly reveals a pizzeria's commitment to the art of the pie.
A margherita forgives no shortcut. Is your dough dry and devoid of flavor? Are you too cheap to buy San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius? Do you try to skate by with squeaky, tasteless mozzarella? A margherita will rat you out at every turn.
"Whenever I go to a pizza shop, that's what I order," says Frank Linn, the owner and pizzaiolo of Frankly . . . Pizza! in Kensington, Md. "That's the best way to know what the chef is all about."
A great margherita is simple, and it is complex: It is dependent on a few ingredients and techniques, any one of which, if imperfect or imperfectly followed, can dull the quality of a pie. A dough that's not developed or handled properly can devolve into a coarse, crackerlike base, unfit for any topping. A margherita can be deprived of its silky, milky component should, say, a creamery try to foist off an inferior batch of mozzarella on an unsuspecting pizzeria. A pie can even be thrown out of balance by a prep cook who absent-mindedly ladles too much sauce on a round.
The ingredients are few, the pitfalls many.
The margherita is an Italian invention, ostensibly named after a 19th-century queen, although some have raised serious doubts about that origin story. Regardless, Italy owns the margherita. The country's rules for producing the red-white-and-green pizza — colors that, not coincidentally, mirror the Italian flag's — have been granted official protection within the European Union. If a pizzeria wants to sell a genuine Neapolitan margherita pizza, it first must get certified.
Dozens of pizzerias in America have now been certified, including a number in the Washington area, such as Il Canale in Georgetown, Menomale in Brookland, Pupatella in Arlington and Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church. But does a certification from VPN Americas — which handles inspections in the United States for the umbrella group, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana — automatically mean that a pizzeria serves a superior margherita? Or, conversely, does the lack of certification mean a pizzeria sells an inferior one?
I sampled 25 margheritas, covering a geographic area from Centreville, Va., to Gaithersburg, Md. The list that follows is based on my recent pies only, which is important to remember for the reasons laid out above. One wrong move by a pizzeria during my visit was likely to sink its chances to crack the list — or at least to appear higher on it.
This fact was not lost on Peter Pastan, the chef and restaurateur who raised the bar for all pizzamakers in the District when he opened 2 Amys in 2001. Had I visited the 25 pizzerias a week later, Pastan noted, I probably would have 25 "totally different impressions" of the margheritas.
He's right. But here's another truth: Pizza in Washington has never been better. A shop that's not firmly in control of its operations can easily suffer by comparison to those pizzerias that are. So, with these caveats, I offer up my 10 favorite margheritas. As of today.
10. 2 Amys
Crust: With an outer lip inflated like an inner tube and spotted almost geometrically with char, this crust is a supermodel, the kind that will instantly light up your Instagram account. But even after a 36-hour fermentation, mostly in refrigeration, the soft, chewy crust tastes too crackery.
Sauce/toppings: The plum tomatoes, sourced from the fertile Campania region on Italy's west coast, are freshly milled into a bright, sweet sauce, the perfect foil to the relaxed creaminess of the buffalo mozzarella.
Overall: I expected Pastan's temple of Neapolitan pie to rank higher. Has the mighty fallen? Or was this just an off night? I suspect the latter.
$12.95. 3715 Macomb St. NW. 202-885-5700.
Crust: Frank Linn's dough benefits from a nearly three-day fermentation, including a 24-hour period when it develops at room temperature, when the yeast produces these subtle sourdough-like flavors.
Sauce/toppings: Unlike many pizzamakers, Linn cooks down his plum tomatoes into a concentrated soup, more pasta sauce than traditional Neapolitan pizza sauce. Its sweetness contrasts nicely with the cow-milk mozzarella and the salty goat-milk Romano.
Overall: This is a margherita unlike any other in the area, sweet and obsessive. A pie that's not beholden to the Neapolitan rules.
$11. 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md. 301-832-1065.
8. Timber Pizza
Crust: The base of this margherita — which must be special-ordered — is crustier and sweeter than those found at traditional Neapolitan pizzerias. There's a reason for that: Timber co-owner Andrew Dana created a dough with King Arthur high-gluten flour, the kind often used in bagels. To help kick-start the yeast, he also adds sugar.
Sauce/toppings: Timber bucks tradition with its basil, too, which is added after the pie is pulled from the oven. The uncooked greens radiate floral aromas, holding their own against the cow-milk mozzarella and the Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, a plum variety developed, in part, by Chris Bianco, the pizza guru who inspires trips to Phoenix just to taste his pies.
Overall: Timber established its reputation with a line of more-is-more pizzas, densely constructed pies that pile flavor upon flavor. But this margherita proves that the place has the fundamentals down pat.
$12. 809 Upshur St. NW. 202-853-9746.
7. Il Canale
Crust: Everything about this flatbread reminds me of Naples, the birthplace of pizza. Its rustic, asymmetrical shape. Its fearless embrace of char, and its depth of flavor, derived from a dough fermented at least 24 hours in a specially designed room set at temperatures below 70 degrees.
Sauce/toppings: The plum tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella are Italian imports. The former is applied with a generous ladle, emphasizing the tomato's fruitiness, while the latter is sprinkled sparingly, a nod to owner Giuseppe "Joe" Farruggio's belief that pizza should not have too much cheese.
Overall: A superb, certified margherita that would have rated higher had the mozzarella not melted into the sauce, creating cream of tomato soup in the middle of the pie, a mistake in the rarefied world of Neapolitan pizza.
$12 for lunch, $14 for dinner. 1065 31st St. NW. 202-337-4444.
Crust: The first thing you'll notice about the crust is its tang, courtesy of a sourdough starter used by Bertrand Chemel, a French chef trained in the ways of Italian pizza. Yes, a starter is allowed under the formal rules for margherita pizza.
Sauce/toppings: The sauce, milled from Italian San Marzano tomatoes, barely stains the crust. It's the very definition of a lightly sauced pizza. And yet: The tomato's sweetness is fully integrated with the buffalo mozzarella and crust.
Overall: For this certified margherita, Chemel doesn't tinker much with Neapolitan tradition. Instead, he channels it loud and clear, reminding us of its essential perfection.
$13. 400 South Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 703-226-3460.
Crust: Chef and partner Michael Friedman has developed what he calls an "all-American dough," using a finely ground Italian-style flour from Vermont and a whole-wheat flour from California. It produces a complex, sweet and nutty crust that's not that as soft as classic Neapolitan bases.
Sauce/toppings: Accessorized more than its peers, this margherita is finished with Sicilian oregano and a grating of grana padano cheese. Interestingly, one small technique seems to have a large impact: the cut ribbons of basil appear to release their oils straight into the Bianco DiNapoli tomato sauce, perfuming the whole pie.
Overall: Friedman argues that his margherita, dubbed the Bayside, is more New York than Naples, but I suggest it's neither. It's a D.C. original.
$17. 1250 Ninth St. NW. 202-849-6174.
Crust: Co-owner and Naples native Ettore Rusciano pushes the extremes of char on his crust, which arrives almost blackened from the wood-burning oven. Fortunately, his dough, fermented at least 24 hours at room temperature, can embrace the bitterness without compromising its own flavors.
Sauce/toppings: Menomale relies on freshly milled San Marzano tomatoes from Campania and cow-milk mozzarella from the States, which together serve as sweet and creamy counterpoints to the crust.
Overall: Like some pizzerias in Naples, Menomale downplays the basil, with only a few skimpy leaves scattered on its certified margherita. You won't miss them.
$13. 2711 12th St. NE. 202-248-3946.
Crust: Like All-Purpose, Etto mixes an atypical dough, one prepared with hard winter wheat and spelt, which are milled in-house. Lipped with dark, almost foreboding bubbles of char, the resulting crust boasts a nutty, bready personality, though one baptized by fire.
Sauce/toppings: Etto uses canned Italian plum tomatoes and low-moisture buffalo mozzarella, which ensures that the cheese, when baked, won't turn the margherita into a swamp in the middle. They may like soupy pizza in Naples, but they don't in Washington.
Overall: The crust is so unique, it alters the interactions with all the other ingredients, in a fundamental way. Original and delicious.
$17. 1541 14th St. NW. 202-232-0920.
Crust: As a card-carrying member of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, Pupatella co-owner Enzo Algarme follows the rules for Neapolitan pies, although he ferments his dough far longer than required, which explains my desire to eat every last piece of his pillowy, evenly charred crust.
Sauce/toppings: Imported from Naples, the buffalo mozzarella is applied liberally (and equally) across the pie, offering a creamy contrast to the sweet-tart Italian plum tomatoes.
Overall: This pie appeals to the eyes as well as to the palate. "I wanted to make something beautiful for people as well," Algarme says.
$13. 5104 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 571-312-7230.
Crust: Blistered and unabashedly charred, this flatbread has the airy, irregular hole structure of a fine baguette. The dough, a mix of three flours ground more coarsely than most used for Neapolitan pizza, is fermented at room temperature for at least 24 hours. It bakes into a robust, full-flavored crust.
Sauce/toppings: Inferno doesn't use buffalo mozzarella or Italian tomatoes. Instead, chef and owner Tony Conte relies on a creamy cow-milk mozzarella and those trendy Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, which are adapted from San Marzanos. Both ingredients are sublime.
Overall: Conte, a former fine-dining chef, produces a neo-Neapolitan margherita, informed by tradition, but not a slave to it. His pizza is bright. It's bready. It's brilliantly constructed.
$13. 12207 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown, Md. 301-963-0115.