According to popular legend, in 1889, Queen Margherita of Italy visited Naples, where a local pizzaiolo named Raffaele Esposito whipped up a new style of pizza in honor of her majesty. Made with mozzarella cheese, fresh basil and tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, the Margherita pizza, as it came to be known, paid tribute to the white, green and red of the Italian flag.
Today, the Margherita stands as one of Naples’ crowning culinary achievements, an outstanding example of Neapolitan pizza, a broader category of pizza that has been recognized as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and protected by Italian regulations that dictate exactly how a “true” Neapolitan pizza must be made. The dough has to be concocted with just water, salt, yeast and flour and cooked quickly in a wood-burning oven that reaches temperatures of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s the formula they use at Bavaro’s, a small Tampa Bay chain that came to Sarasota in 2019. Owner Dan Bavaro is a friendly, blunt-talking New Jersey native who is fanatic about doing things just like they do in Naples. That means importing brick ovens crafted by renowned Naples oven maker Stefano Ferrara and using only top-shelf Italian ingredients, like “double zero” flour that has been ground multiple times and is as soft as talcum powder.
Bavaro dropped out of school at age 16, “going down the road of being dead or in jail,” he says. A few years later, though, he founded a chauffeur and transportation company. “I put all that energy into the business, and it changed my life,” says Bavaro, now 42.
After he sold the chauffeur business, Bavaro needed a new project, and turned his attention to pizza. At the time, according to Bavaro, only one restaurant in New York was making legitimate Neapolitan pizza (Anthony Mangieri’s beloved and influential Una Pizzeria Napoletana) and no one was making it in Florida. Bavaro became obsessed and began trying to reverse-engineer a recipe for a Neapolitan pizza in his garage with an oven set on self-cleaning mode so that it would get hot enough.
“They were horrible,” says Bavaro. But he knew he was onto something.
At age 30, he and his family moved to Tampa, packing a U-Haul with everything they owned, plus a 100-year-old Neapolitan yeast that still gives life to all of Bavaro’s pies. Fed three times a day, it aerates Bavaro’s soft crust, which cooks in 90 seconds in the restaurant’s ultra-hot oven and is designed to be eaten with a fork and knife. For five-and-a-half years, Bavaro made every pizza by hand at the first Bavaro’s, in Tampa.
The restaurant makes many different types of Neapolitan pies these days, but Raffaele Esposito’s creation, the Margherita, remains a crowd-pleaser. More than a century later, the formula remains untouchable. “Everything else is a knockoff of that,” says Bavaro.