Luca Varuni opened his Morningside Neapolitan pizzeria Varuni Napoli in 2014. Three years later, he expanded to Krog Street Market, opening a pizza counter across from Jeni’s Ice Creams and Ticonderoga Club with a large bar offering seating and a scaled back menu to that of his full-service restaurant. Nearly a decade later, Varuni Napoli continues to be one of Atlanta’s best bets for Neapolitan-style pizzas.
The restaurant’s most popular pie is the margherita. It’s also Varuni’s favorite pizza. The pizza is simple and bursting with flavor, which comes from three core DOP ingredients (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) imported from Italy directly to Varuni: San Marzano tomatoes; buffalo mozzarella cheese; and Sorrento Syrrenyum extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
The history behind the origins of the margherita pizza remains fuzzy, but the general consensus believes the pizza was named for Queen Margherita — the queen consort of Italy. She and her husband, King Umberto I, visited Naples in 1889 where she became enamored with a pizza made for her by famed Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito. Esposito created the pie using three basic ingredients: fresh tomatoes; mozzarella; and fresh basil. He named his pizza creation for the queen.
Naples ultimate authority on all things pizza, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, now recognizes the margherita as one of only three Neapolitan pizza types.
Varuni, who grew up in Naples, says the right ingredients are key to making a proper margherita pizza. He chooses to import San Marzano tomatoes, both the buffalo and fresh mozzarella cheeses, extra virgin olive oil, and even the salt used in the pizza straight from Naples. Every summer, Varuni travels home during San Marzano tomato harvesting season, putting together large shipping containers filled with ingredients to ship back to the United States to arrive every three or four months throughout the year.
Dough is created using EVOO from Sorrento and a natural sea salt called Il Sale dei Papi or “salt of the Pope” — a salt blessed by the Pope himself.
“The first batch of salt gets delivered to the Pope and he gives a blessing,” Varuni explains. “It’s important to use a sea salt because of its absence of bitter minerals, making it naturally more sweet than other sea salt, and it doesn’t alter the taste of the dough.”
Varuni leaves his dough to sit out at room temperature, allowing it to soften. When it’s ready to work with, the dough is then placed on a marble surface, dusted with flour, and rolled out by hand, pushing air in the dough to the edge of the pizza. This creates the signature puffed up crust of the margherita that begins to take shape during baking.
San Marzano tomatoes are crushed to give the pizza sauce a creamy texture. Varuni believes the quality of these bright red tomatoes is unmatched due to the sweet flesh he says is less acidic and contains fewer seeds.
Varuni moves the thin layer of dough to a pizza peel, tops it with sauce, fresh basil, buffalo mozzarella, more basil, and a drizzle of EVOO and pecorino romano cheese. The margherita is finally placed inside another Neapolitan import — a Stefano Fererra oven.
At 850 degrees, the margherita bakes for at least 60 seconds, but no more than 90 seconds, Varuni says. It’s turned two to three times at 45-degree angles during the bake, before the pizza is removed from the oven and raised to the top of the dome to double check the pie is properly baked.
Varuni says this attention to detail and his carefully selected ingredients create what he feels to be “one of the best margherita pizzas in the world,” — or at least in Atlanta — and sets Varuni Napoli apart from its competitors.
“I always aim to put something on our guests’ plates that are unique to me and to my home in Naples.”