Today is the 125th Anniversary of the Pizza Margherita Myth

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Today marks the 125th anniversary of the Pizza Margherita! It’s a big day for pizza lovers everywhere in which we avoid sausage, peppers, onions, anchovies, pepperoni and the like in favor of a simple combination of crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. 

As the story goes, Queen Margherita joined her husband King Umberto I on a trip to Naples in 1889. As a sign of goodwill, she sampled a local food, popular only with the peasants, called pizza. The pizzaiolo she hired, Raffaele Esposito, crafted three different pizzas for her: one with only oil, one with fish (whitenbait) and one with mozzarella and crushed tomato. As the final pizza was about to leave the kitchen, Esposito’s wife Maria Giovanna Brandi tossed a handful of basil on top so that it will match the colors of the Italian flag in a display of patriotism. The queen loves the pizza and Esposito dubs it Pizza Margherita in her honor. 

It’s a fantastic story, but one with many holes. I’m as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the legend, but the time has come to take a closer look at the facts behind one of pizza’s great creation myths. 

In 1889, the pizzaiolo Rarraele Esposito owned a pizzeria called Pietro e basta cosi (Pietro and that’s enough). That pizzeria still exists under the name Pizzeria Brandi. It’s one of the most famous in Naples but the main attraction isn’t edible. Brandi has a framed copy of the famous thank you note sent by Queen Margherita to Raffaele Esposito. 

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As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter. First of all, it gives us a date. The top of the letter clearly states “11 June (Giugno) 1889,” which is why pizza enthusiasts celebrate today. But that’s about the only concrete piece of information we can get. Check out the translation:

Household of Her Majesty
Capodimonte
11 June 1889

Moth Office Inspectorate

Most Esteemed Raffaele Esposito. I confirm to you that the three kinds of Pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious. Your most devoted servant

Galli Camillo
Head of Table Services to the Royal Household

No mention of mozzarella, tomato or basil. No mention of the Italian flag. That doesn’t mean the queen didn’t eat the famous pizza, it only means we don’t have clear evidence of it happening in the only document tied to the events. 

I recently came across a brilliant piece by Italy-based historian Zachary Nowak in which he systematically pulls apart the famous Margherita letter and exposes it as a fraud! He compared this letter to other documents of its time and finds inconsistencies with the royal seal, signature and even the wording itself. Here’s a brief article Nowak wrote for the BBC but if you’re a serious pizza geek you really owe it to yourself to purchase the full article in Food, Culture & Society.

Nowak posits that the letter may have been an attempt by Esposito’s wife’s nephews (the Brandi brothers), who purchased the pizzeria in the 1930s, to gain a stronger marketing position for their business. Esposito did receive royal permission to use the name of the Queen to bolster his business, but it was in 1871 and intended for a liquor store and not a pizzeria. Perhaps this is a different Raffaele Esposito, but it’s the only person by that name who requested and received permission to use the royal seal in that era. The involvement of the Brandi brothers becomes likely when you notice that the letter itself refers to the famous pizzaiolo by his wife’s last name, which is very out of the ordinary. If the brothers did create the letter to stabilize bolster their business in an increasingly crowded market, it was a pretty brilliant move. Heck, it’s the reason I get a pie at Pizzeria Brandi every time I go to Naples.   

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If we stop and think about Italian politics in 1889, the famous story makes even less sense. The Italy we know today only came into existence in 1861, before which time it was a collection of city-states. History books use the word unification but that term is pretty controversial in the minds of Southern Italian because Southern Italy was pretty much annexed by the north for political and economic reasons. By 1889, Italy was clearly not a unified country. So why would a lowly pizza maker create a dish to honor the queen who represented the Northern conquerors?

Some Neapolitans are even go so far as to claim the Pizza Margherita isn’t even named for her at all, that it’s named for the margherita flower, or daisy. I can see the mozzarella flower petals, but what about the yellow in the center? One Neapolitan pizzaiolo told me it used to be an egg yolk. I’ve seen plenty of pizzas with eggs, but never in Naples and never on a pizza Margherita. 

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And so the mystery remains. Regardless of what you read on pizzeria menus or hear from Italian tour guides, we just don’t know the true story behind the naming of the Pizza Margherita. It’s very likely it has something to do with the Italian Queen, but I’m not comfortable making any claims beyond that. Just think of today, June 11, as a day to enjoy and celebrate the elegant simplicity of fresh mozzarella, crushed tomato and torn basil leaves,

The Pizza of Our Youth

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Michael in front of his toaster oven as it reconstitutes treasures from his youth.

There’s something so special and untouchable about the pizza you grow up eating. Every Sunday night you’d gather with family at the same restaurant and order the same dishes and eat them the same way. You’ll eat better pasta, better chicken marsala and better pizza in your life but somehow it will never make you feel the same as those family get-togethers. Sunday nights were particularly special for my friend Michael Berman, who would spend them at a restaurant called Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland. Michael is a fantastic photographer, recent author of a great book about things to do in NYC with kids, AND he runs an excellent blog called PizzaCentric. I was deeply honored when Michael invited me to his Brooklyn abode to share some of the pizza he carefully transported back from his favorite pizza restaurant in Bethesda after a Memorial Day weekend visit.

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Actual conversation between two adult males about pizza transportation.

I tried to visit Pines of Rome on Michael’s recommendation when I was in Washington, D.C. a few months ago. I got there 30 minutes before closing time but the pizza guys had already gone home, leaving me with a consolation prize of eggplant parmigiana, which I ate on the bench out front. I knew in my heart that one day I would make good on my blood oath to Michael to eat his favorite hometown pizza. 

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As much as I do love eating great pizza, I’m far more interested in the story behind it. One taste of a slice, even one that has been reheated, paints a portrait of the pizzeria itself. This is an Italian-American restaurant in its most classic form. Bread is served in baskets, the walls are lined with faux wood paneling, salads are served in textured plastic bowls and accompanied by an oil-and-vinegar caddy. Pizza is available, but it’s not based on an ancient family recipe. This is pizza that fills a void on the menu. Not to say it isn’t delicious — because it IS — but it has been cast as a supporting actor rather than the lead. 

Michael showed me a great video of the pizza-making process that confirmed my expectations. Doughs are pre-rolled and topped with slices of low-moisture mozzarella. When an order is placed, sauce and toppings are added and the pizza bakes in the pan for a few minutes. Nothing artistic, just the basic definition of Italian American restaurant pizza. 

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Michael’s 95 year old grandfather enjoying the Sunday ritual.

The experience of eating this pizza in Michael’s kitchen was beautiful. Maybe it would have tasted better in the restaurant, but that really didn’t matter. I could see that sharing it with me was for Michael what religion is to some people. He asked me if this pizza was truly as brilliant as he always thought it to be or if it was just the attachment to his youth that made him love it so much. I started thinking about my own childhood pizza and how I have long since come to terms with the fact that it isn’t very good. But does that really matter? Do we need to separate emotion from flavor? In a food culture that’s getting more judgmental every day, I truly hope that separation never happens.

Last Week’s Loaf

Just some details about my latest bread-baking session last week…

Step 1: Making Dough

I began with a starter fed with rye flour and water. Once it doubled in volume, I whipped up a batch of dough with the following amounts:

  • 387g total starter
  • 306g Trader Joe’s white All Purpose flour
  • 156 room temp tap water
  • 12g salt

I let the mixture sit 20 minutes before adding that salt, then I kneaded it all until I was convinced the salt was evenly distributed. It’s a wet mix, so kneading is done more by lifting and folding than by pushing.

I then put the dough into my mixing bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. That sat in the fridge overnight, actually about three days.

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Step 2: Shaping and Proofing

The shaping process is hard to describe in text, but it basically involves folding the dough together and tightening its form so it will capture more gas during the proofing stage. I let the shaped dough sit in the base of my cloche (sprinkled with semolina to avoid sticking and give texture) until it reached room temperature and filled with some gas. On this particular day, I turned my oven on for a minute and then switched it off so the dough (in the cloche) could sit in the warmth for a bit to speed up the process.

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Step 3: The Bake

Once the dough had rose sufficiently (ie I was running out of time) I sprinked some flour on it and scored a pattern so it would A) rise and open, and B) look cool. It worked! Bake temp was 450 F but I let the oven preheat for about 35 min at 550 F with a Baking Steel in there. Since I didn’t preheat my cloche, I figured I’d use the steel’s fast conduction to throw heat into the clay and give the dough some nice spring. The bread baked in the cloche for about 30-35 min before I removed the lid for the final 7-10 min. That last bit gets the top nice and golden brown! 

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Step 4: The Crumb Shot

You gotto wait at least 30 minutes (it’s fun to listen to the little crackling sounds) but then you get to cut in and find out whether or not you’ve made anything worth eating. Sometimes the outside looks great but the inside is dense and undercooked. This loaf came out awesome and the crumb is clear about that! Funky, uneven holes but dense enough to spread some butter or jam. 

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Is your brain even prepared for our amazing new POCKET PIZZA JOURNALS??? Everyone who takes a pizza tour with us gets one of these adorable little books to keep track of the day’s research but we also have them available at wholesale prices for any fun store that wants to carry them! New upgrades include:

  • more topping options
  • improved overall rating system
  • crust measurement in centimeters for better accuracy
  • crust-o-meter for base stability
  • a mushroom that is slightly tilted because one person said it looked like a dog’s nose
  • pizzeria location data section
  • WORD SEARCH on the back page!!!

Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. Special thanks to our designer Ciara Gay and the incredible team over at Scout Books, who tells me there’s a decent chance traces of recycled pizza boxes may be found in these pizza journals. 

Secret Pizza Party Belongs in Your Pizza Library

I love books about pizza almost as much as I love animals dressing in disguises just so they can eat pizza alongside humans without getting chased away with a broom. That’s why I absolutely adore Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri. It perfectly captures one raccoon’s pizza obsession and the lengths to which he will go just to savor a slice. Go buy it for everybody you know!