Happy Birthday, Pizza Margherita!

I’m sure you’re already planning on getting some pizza this weekend, but history may be of some assistance in guiding your decision. This Saturday, June 11, marks the 122nd birthday of the Pizza Margherita.

Let’s back up the truck and discuss what constitutes a Pizza Margherita in the first place. All it means is crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. Those three ingredients baked on a simple dough constitute the origin point of all pizza as we know it today. Over time, cooked tomato sauces became more prevalent than crushed tomatoes because the cheap product being imported lacked strong flavor and needed to be doctored up. Longer shelf life and lower cost resulted in low moisture mozzarella taking the place of fresh cheeses. Year-round storage and better value kicked dried oregano into the spotlight and pushed fresh basil out. And thus, we have our modern Italian-American pizza.

But where does the Pizza Margherita begin? The combination of tomato and cheese gained popularity in the early 19th century as Europeans realized the tomato was not poisonous and cheese production became more affordable. However, the pizza didn’t have a special name until the summer of 1889. In June of that year, King Umberto I was visiting Naples to inspect a large road-building project he had begun four years earlier. The roads were meant to help organize the hectic, disease-ridden city. (For those who have been to Naples, you know those roads did squat.)

 

While Umberto was out looking at roads, his wife (and first cousin - eeewww!), Margherita, was doing her royal duty of schmoozing with the locals. At this time, pizza was still a regional specialty of Naples and had not yet spread throughout the newly unified country. The popular queen decided to play it cool and try the local specialty. She hired a local pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, to prepare her an assortment of pizza. Rumor has it she liked the pizza with crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil the most, and so Esposito dubbed it Pizza alla Margherita.

Some say Margherita liked this pizza because its tomato-mozzarella-basil combination is patriotic in its resemblance to the red-white-green of the Italian flag, but there is no evidence to support this claim. She probably liked those ingredients on her pie because they were in season. In fact, there isn’t any hard evidence to prove that she liked this particular pizza any more than the others she was served that day (one with whitefish, the other with salt and olive oil). A thank you note written by the royal taster says only that the pizzas prepared by Sig. Raffaele Esposito were all enjoyed by the queen. A copy of that letter, dated June 11, 1889, still hangs in the pizzeria once run by Esposito’s family, now called Pizzeria Brandi (Esposito’s wife’s family name).

The menu at Pizzeria Brandi is pretty neat, with the whole history written on the inside, but I noticed something funky on my last visit. The cover shot of Queen Margherita cowing down on her eponymous pie bears a striking resemblance to a large photo of the queen hanging on the wall. It looks like someone’s pretty handy with Photoshop. They even gave her a bottle of booze! AND WHAT’S THAT IN HER HAND? Why, I think it’s a fork and knife. Shocking!

 

Pizzeria Brandi, formerly known as Pietro e Basta Così (literally “Peter and That’s Enough”), may have been where Raffaele Esposito worked, but some stories claim that he was hired to travel to the Palace at Capodimonte to bring pizza directly to her majesty. It would have taken more than 30 minutes to get there from the pizzeria (4.2 km straight up Via Toledo) and it certainly would have cooled off by then, so it’s more probable that Esposito used an oven on-site to bake her a fresh pie. I haven’t checked the palace for hidden ovens but believe me when I say that mission is at the top of my list next time I’m in Naples. Unfortunately there aren’t any newspaper stories about the visit, so we have no concrete evidence to go by. If she ate her pizza at Capodimonte, it was most likely baked within the palace and not at Pizzeria Brandi.


The oven being used in this photo was built recently by Stefano Ferrara, whose grandfather began building ovens in Naples in 1920.

Regardless of why Margherita liked her namesake pizza, what she looked like when she ate it, or where it was made, the fact remains that her endorsement of the Neapolitan specialty helped inspire its spread throughout the Italian peninsula and across the ocean, where it morphed into something entirely new in the United States before being re-exported around the rest of the world. If it wasn’t for her husband’s road inspection in the summer of 1889, we could be all be eating whitefish on our pizza.

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