Updated: Jul 31, 2019
There's one way I like to judge a pizzeria, and that's by tasting the Margherita pizza. It is one of my favorite pizzas because of the perfect balance of complex flavors and simple ingredients. My good friend Frank worked at an NYC pizzeria and graciously shared with me his excellent technique for the perfect Margherita pizza.
Tip #1 - Dough Temperature and Stretching
The first step to making any pizza is making sure your dough as at the right point for stretching. I like to go for an internal temperature of about 25 Celsius /77 Fahrenheit. If you don't have a thermometer that can read internal temperatures, no problem! I like to use a basic "poke test," where I ensure that If I poke one of the balls of dough, it springs back slightly. You'll also want to make sure your dough is not cold. Cooking cold dough will usually not yield a good pizza. If it gets a bit too warm or hot, you can still get a decent pizza. Since you'll probably be outside, and depending on your climate, it's normal for your dough to get an extra amount of proof.
For stretching the dough, you can start by pushing the gas bubbles towards the outer edges and then using a gentle slapping technique or a slight pulling method to stretch the dough out into a disk. You'll be aiming for a 9 or 10" diameter. You can use a generous amount of flour if needed, but not too much because it can affect the bottom of the pizza while it's cooking.
By the way, if you haven't tried my sourdough pizza dough recipe, go give it a read here!
Tip #2 - Salt and Pepper
This is one of the most important parts. Before you put anything onto your pizza, give the crust a good coating of pepper and salt. I have found the flavor of the pizza and the crust to be so much more enhanced when there is a nice coating of these two seasonings added before the tomatoes.
Tip #3 - Sauce
Whatever your tomato choice happens to be, I like to buy them whole and crush them with my hands to create my sauce base. I find that there is more concentrated flavor in whole tomatoes compared to ones that have been pureed into sauce already. I don't use a spoon to ladle my sauce on, but rather I grab at the crushed tomato pieces and spread them throughout the diameter of the dough. Make sure that you don't grab too much of the thin tomato juice. As you put the tomato down on the dough, you can crush and mash them up even more.
Tip #4 - Cheese and Basil
My typical cheese choice is some sort of freshwater mozzarella and I use the same principles I use with my sauce. Rip your cheese into chunks and spread it around as generously as you desire. I like to have nice, thick chunks rather than grated or uniformly cut cheese. During the cooking process, it will spread out, yet remain concentrated and get a nice color on it.
For basil, it's ok to add onto your pizza before cooking since the cooking time is so short for a wood-fired pizza. If you are cooking your pizza in a home oven where it will take longer than 60 seconds, you will want to add the basil on towards the end of the cooking process so that the oil doesn't dissipate. I like to have a mixture of cooked basil and fresh basil on my pizza.
Before loading into the oven, I like to sprinkle grated Parmesan and drizzle a dash of olive oil onto the pie.
Tip #5 - Finishing Touches
As you wind down the cooking process in a wood-fired oven, I like to give it a nice dome (using the peel to bring the pizza close to the top of the oven where there is concentrated heat) so that the cheese can get a quick bit of coloring on it. When you pull your pizza out, the last thing you'll need to do is add a bit of fresh basil and perhaps another sprinkle of fresh Parmesan.
Although these tips are relatively simple, I believe the smallest of details is what can give you the best amount of flavor with the least amount of ingredients. Make sure you leave a comment if you have anything you would like to add to the process!