There is nothing quite like the rich, creamy sensation of buffalo mozzarella, especially when it’s decorating a real Neapolitan margherita pizza baked in a wood-fired oven in Naples. I can close my eyes and still remember the trademark pizza I sampled there over ten years ago. The region’s staple cheese, made with milk from the water buffaloes of Southern Italy, may not be readily available in your local market, but with a little love, local flair, and simple ingredients, this recipe will bring history and tradition to life in your kitchen. Recently, my nephew returned early from his all-too-brief stint with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, where he had mastered the art of pizza-making using local ingredients, including local purple basil. Here in Vermont, he and his cousins banded together to make Neapolitan margherita pizza for us using the best version of fresh mozzarella we could find, and the results were amazing. I highly recommend this as a fun summer meal!
Going back in time, you may already know that tomatoes were brought to Europe from their origins in the Americas. And when they arrived, southern Italians added them to their traditional pizza flatbreads, creating a modern miracle that has survived the centuries and is beloved around the world: the Neapolitan margherita pizza (made with buffalo mozzarella), or the simple margherita pizza (made with cow milk mozzarella).
To give you a taste of Italy, along with the best reason you’ll ever have to thank (or visit!) the buffalos of southern Italy, our friends at EF Go Ahead Tours gave us their recipe for Neapolitan margherita pizza. With this fun and easy recipe, chefs of all ages can enjoy learning about this traditional pizza. You can substitute your own hometown version using mozzarella made by hand in your own local supermarket, or whatever mozzarella you have access to now.
Total time: 3 hours, 30 minutes (the dough will rise for two hours)
Recipe origin: Naples, Italy
For the dough
1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water (110ºF), divided
1/2 tsp salt
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
For the topping
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup tomato sauce
One 8-oz ball fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, cut into small pieces
12 fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
In a large mixing bowl, combine yeast and 1/2 cup warm water. Allow yeast to dissolve and let it sit to proof for about 10 minutes. Thoroughly combine remaining cup of warm water with yeast, then add the salt and 3 cups of flour. Using either a mixer with a dough hook or your hands, mix the dough. If needed, add remaining flour to ensure the dough stays together.
Knead dough on a floured surface until it’s soft rather than sticky, about 10 minutes. Grease a large mixing bowl with 1 Tbsp oil and coat the dough by turning it a few times in the bowl. Using plastic wrap, tightly cover the bowl and let dough rise in a warm spot for about 2 hours.
(While your dough is rising, learn more about the origins of pizza in Italy here.)
Preheat oven to 425ºF. Remove dough from the bowl, knead it on a lightly floured surface for a couple of minutes, and cut it in half. Using your fingers on a floured surface, stretch and flatten each piece into a 12-in round. Lay each round on an oiled, 13-in pizza pan, and form a rim by turning the dough edges in about 1/2 in.
Using a basting brush, coat each dough round with 1 Tbsp oil. Cover each with 1/4 cup of tomato sauce, sprinkle on cheese, and garnish with basil leaves. Add salt and remaining 1 Tbsp oil. Bake pizzas until crust is browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.
While you’re at it, double the recipe, get creative, and make pizza with all your own favorite local ingredients! Make a hometown or home-state version. My state, Vermont, is known for maple syrup, cheddar cheese, and pig roasts—so mine would be Hog Wild Pizza: maple-smoked bacon and Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. What would your hometown local pizza be called? What would make it stand out as local to your town or region?
Editor’s note (2021): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.