The methods to making a delicious Neapolitan style Margherita pizza comes from a time-honored craft in Italy. A true Neapolitan pizza is held to a high standard of rules, orally transmitted by Neapolitan’s generations of pizza-makers, from fathers to sons. Ingredients must only be sourced from Campania regions of Italy. As a firm believer of eating local, most of the ingredients for this pizza are sourced locally from Sacramento. Thus, this is a Neapolitan style pizza, and not a true to tradition Neapolitan pizza.
I wanted the experience of learning how to make as close to Neapolitan pizza as possible. Not too many restaurants are able to meet this. I sought out Chef Crystal Ortega from Federalist Public House and asked for a lesson. I like to think I begged relentlessly for pizza secrets, however she might tell you I didn’t beg enough. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
It all started with Marvin, at his son’s birthday party about 5 years ago. Federalist’s owner, Marvin Maldonado, built a small brick oven to make pizza for family and friends. The pizza was a huge hit. Over the next year, Marvin and his wife quietly formulated, planned, and contemplated the logistics of opening a wood-fired pizza restaurant with sandwiches and salads.
Having always been a close cousin to Marvin and attending culinary school during the time, Crystal Ortega received a phone call with an interview offer to begin working as a line cook.
Within a month of the phone call, Crystal began work at Federalist Public House, helping with the cleaning, setup, and equipment organizing.
The first chef previously worked at another pizza restaurant which held a passion for Neapolitan style pizzas. He brought his passion with him to Federalist and helped to develop the original menu.
After a year of working as a line cook, Crystal took over as sous-chef. When the original chef moved on for another venture, Crystal was put in charge as chef of Federalist Public House.
With a hunger to better the pizza and reach a deeper understanding of Neapolitan pizza culture, Crystal and Marvin developed plans to see how the restaurant compared with true authentic Neapolitan pizzas.
Italy had always been top of Crystal’s list to travel. During one of Crystal and Marvin’s conversations about the restaurant, they decided Marvin’s wife Bridgette and Crystal would travel to Italy together – on the condition a lot of pizza would be eaten. During the trip, Crystal found herself with the opportunity of a lifetime.
In Rome, Crystal and Bridgette ordered some pizza at a spot where the waiters spoke English. A conversation started about their restaurant back home and it came up that Crystal was the sous-chef. She made the dough, cooked the pizza, and performed all the functions of a seasoned pizza chef.
There were 2 pizzaiolos (a person who makes pizzas in a pizzeria) working the pizza restaurant in Rome, one older gentleman stretching and building the pizzas, with a younger man cooking them. They talked to the younger guy and he was dismissive of Crystal’s abilities, questioning if she really knew how. The older pizzaiolo came over and asked Crystal about stretching, testing her with his questions. He pulled Crystal by the hand into the kitchen.
He pulled out a ball of dough for both Crystal and himself. He gave her a rolling pin as a test to see if she’d use it. She declined, saying she uses her hands. She stretched, and he told her it was good, but to watch him. She watched him – it took a mere several seconds compared to Crystal’s twelve to stretch the pizza.
The pizzaiolo pulled out two more balls of dough and they stretched together, to see if Crystal payed attention. Then, he let her build a Margherita and sent Crystal on her way.
Crystal spent her time in Italy eating and watching pizza-making throughout Rome and Naples. She went to Da Michelle, considered one of the greatest pizzerias in the world, to watch how they did their pizza.
In Naples, pizzas are served whole, without cut, and on porcelain plates. They brought back the Neapolitan style marinara pizza with them to the restaurant menu. Being in Naples and experiencing the taste, style, and how pizza is made and presented offered great perspective. Crystal noted that the restaurant pizza was very close to Neapolitan style pizza already with their marinara and margaritas. The rest of Federalist’s pizza menu is full of California and local influence.
Back home, the restaurant’s first Margherita pizza recipe was tweaked to better match what was enjoyed and experienced in Naples.
Federalist’s pizza dough is all prepared Neapolitan style. The dough is proofed for several days. Sourdough starter yeast is used.
Salt, flour, water, and starter is all that is needed for the dough. The ingredients are mixed, rolled out, and left in the walk-in for several days.
The secret to good stretchy dough is double-zero flour and a slow-proof cold ferment.
Before being stretched, the ball is left out for about an hour. Each ball of dough is hand stretched over a lightly flour-dusted piece of marble. I watched Crystal stretch ball after ball with precise perfection in seconds, much as she described the older Italian pizzaiolo from her trip to Rome. She let me try – the results were neither pretty nor fast!
During periods of experimentation on improving their pizza, they found using almond branches to be superior over oak. Almond is a harder wood and gets hotter faster making it far more suited to retaining heat. Ambient heat is kept at 950-1000. The deck, or bottom of the oven where the pizza sits, is reaches temperatures of 750. This cooks a pizza in 60-90 seconds, depending on the flame, the wood, and amount of toppings.
Federalist Public House will have been open four years in December 2018.