I recently spent a whopping 40 hours in São Paulo, Brazil and my brain almost exploded from excitement. São Paulo has had pizza for over 100 years and there are so many pizzerias in town that nobody really knows the exact count (it’s in the thousands). I ate some pizza, but my biggest takeaway had to do with the pizza boxes. They are insane.
You can see in the photo above that Brazilian pizza boxes don’t look like normal pizza boxes. First of all, they’re not square. I get the question all the time “Why does a round pizza go into a square box?” Squares are easier to deal with in manufacturing and assembly. It takes much less time to assemble a standard American pizza box, but what’s the fun in a boring square box when you can get octagons like they have in Brazil!?!?
Once you recover from the shock of octagonal pizza boxes, take a closer look at the artwork. All three boxes in the above photo contain funny die-cut shapes on their lids. The one all the way to the left becomes a soccer field, complete with goal posts that pop into place and a two-piece soccer ball that snaps together for gameplay. But the other two boxes get even crazier.
Here’s what the box all the way to the right looks like when you snap out and assemble all the pieces:
Today marks the 125th anniversary of the Pizza Margherita! It’s a big day for pizza lovers everywhere in which we avoid sausage, peppers, onions, anchovies, pepperoni and the like in favor of a simple combination of crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil.
As the story goes, Queen Margherita joined her husband King Umberto I on a trip to Naples in 1889. As a sign of goodwill, she sampled a local food, popular only with the peasants, called pizza. The pizzaiolo she hired, Raffaele Esposito, crafted three different pizzas for her: one with only oil, one with fish (whitenbait) and one with mozzarella and crushed tomato. As the final pizza was about to leave the kitchen, Esposito’s wife Maria Giovanna Brandi tossed a handful of basil on top so that it will match the colors of the Italian flag in a display of patriotism. The queen loves the pizza and Esposito dubs it Pizza Margherita in her honor.
It’s a fantastic story, but one with many holes. I’m as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the legend, but the time has come to take a closer look at the facts behind one of pizza’s great creation myths.
In 1889, the pizzaiolo Rarraele Esposito owned a pizzeria called Pietro e basta cosi (Pietro and that’s enough). That pizzeria still exists under the name Pizzeria Brandi. It’s one of the most famous in Naples but the main attraction isn’t edible. Brandi has a framed copy of the famous thank you note sent by Queen Margherita to Raffaele Esposito.
As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter. First of all, it gives us a date. The top of the letter clearly states “11 June (Giugno) 1889,” which is why pizza enthusiasts celebrate today. But that’s about the only concrete piece of information we can get. Check out the translation:
Household of Her Majesty
11 June 1889
Moth Office Inspectorate
Most Esteemed Raffaele Esposito. I confirm to you that the three kinds of Pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious. Your most devoted servant
Head of Table Services to the Royal Household
No mention of mozzarella, tomato or basil. No mention of the Italian flag. That doesn’t mean the queen didn’t eat the famous pizza, it only means we don’t have clear evidence of it happening in the only document tied to the events.
There’s something so special and untouchable about the pizza you grow up eating. Every Sunday night you’d gather with family at the same restaurant and order the same dishes and eat them the same way. You’ll eat better pasta, better chicken marsala and better pizza in your life but somehow it will never make you feel the same as those family get-togethers. Sunday nights were particularly special for my friend Michael Berman, who would spend them at a restaurant called Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland. Michael is a fantastic photographer, recent author of a great book about things to do in NYC with kids, AND he runs an excellent blog called PizzaCentric. I was deeply honored when Michael invited me to his Brooklyn abode to share some of the pizza he carefully transported back from his favorite pizza restaurant in Bethesda after a Memorial Day weekend visit.
Actual conversation between two adult males about pizza transportation.
I tried to visit Pines of Rome on Michael’s recommendation when I was in Washington, D.C. a few months ago. I got there 30 minutes before closing time but the pizza guys had already gone home, leaving me with a consolation prize of eggplant parmigiana, which I ate on the bench out front. I knew in my heart that one day I would make good on my blood oath to Michael to eat his favorite hometown pizza.
Just some details about my latest bread-baking session last week…
Step 1: Making Dough
I began with a starter fed with rye flour and water. Once it doubled in volume, I whipped up a batch of dough with the following amounts:
I let the mixture sit 20 minutes before adding that salt, then I kneaded it all until I was convinced the salt was evenly distributed. It’s a wet mix, so kneading is done more by lifting and folding than by pushing.
I then put the dough into my mixing bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. That sat in the fridge overnight, actually about three days.
Step 2: Shaping and Proofing
The shaping process is hard to describe in text, but it basically involves folding the dough together and tightening its form so it will capture more gas during the proofing stage. I let the shaped dough sit in the base of my cloche (sprinkled with semolina to avoid sticking and give texture) until it reached room temperature and filled with some gas. On this particular day, I turned my oven on for a minute and then switched it off so the dough (in the cloche) could sit in the warmth for a bit to speed up the process.
Step 3: The Bake
Once the dough had rose sufficiently (ie I was running out of time) I sprinked some flour on it and scored a pattern so it would A) rise and open, and B) look cool. It worked! Bake temp was 450 F but I let the oven preheat for about 35 min at 550 F with a Baking Steel in there. Since I didn’t preheat my cloche, I figured I’d use the steel’s fast conduction to throw heat into the clay and give the dough some nice spring. The bread baked in the cloche for about 30-35 min before I removed the lid for the final 7-10 min. That last bit gets the top nice and golden brown!
Step 4: The Crumb Shot
You gotto wait at least 30 minutes (it’s fun to listen to the little crackling sounds) but then you get to cut in and find out whether or not you’ve made anything worth eating. Sometimes the outside looks great but the inside is dense and undercooked. This loaf came out awesome and the crumb is clear about that! Funky, uneven holes but dense enough to spread some butter or jam.