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.
If you’re a pizza maniac planning your first trip to Italy, there are a few things you should know before hitting its winding streets and alleys in search of the perfect pie. Pizza begins in Naples, so don’t assume that Rome or Florence are going to deliver ancient slices. These cities are packed with deliciousness, but if remnants of pizza’s past are what you’re after, you’ll need to check out these must-see (and must-eat) pizza landmarks.
Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba
Via Port’Alba, 18
Open noon - 4; 7pm - 1am
No Neapolitan vacation is complete without at stop at the world’s oldest pizzeria. Port’Alba sold street foods back in the 1730’s but became a pizzeria by adding tables and chairs to its current location in 1830. The pizzeria is located along a street called Port’Alba. If you’re heading west along Via Tribunali (the main concourse of pizzatown), you’ll find it just after passing through an arched passageway. The building and pizza ovens have most certainly changed, but you can’t deny the magic of dining in the same space as the world’s earliest pizza eaters.
Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo, 2
Open 12 - 3pm; 6:30 - midnight
The spread of pizza throughout Italy can be traced back to the name Margherita. Queen Margherita, wife of King Umberto I (of Savoy), famously enjoyed a pizza featuring crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil and was so taken by it that the pizzaiolo renamed the dish in her honor. With this new-found endorsement, the word (and recipe) of pizza spread throughout the peninsula. Although it is unlikely that he created the dish, master pizzaiolo Raffaelle Esposito’s fame grew alongside that of the pizza bearing the Italian queen’s name. His pizzeria is located within Naples’s Spanish Quarter and celebrates itself as the birthplace of the Pizza Margherita in 1889 (the restaurant opened in 1780).
Pizzeria Da Michele
Via Cesare Sersale, 1
Open 10am - 11pm
This place was super busy long before Julia Roberts ate pizza here in the film Eat, Pray, Love. The Condurro family began making pizza in 1870, but Michele Condurro opened his own pizzeria in downtown Naples in 1906. In 1930, the pizzeria moved to its current location, continuing a tradition five generations deep. Now it’s one of the city’s most popular and beloved pizzerias. The long wait for a table is offset by the extremely fast bake time of the pizza (usually around 45 seconds). It takes even less time to choose your pizza from the brief list of options; you can only choose between pizza Margherita and pizza marinara. That means it’s easy to eat your way through the menu! Just be sure to enjoy some of the history while you’re there — keep your eyes peeled for faded family photos and pizza poetry lining the walls.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
Open 8:30am - sunset (last admission 1.5 hours before sunset)
CLOSED Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
While you’re in the area, be sure to take day trips to Pompeii and Herculaneum, where you’ll find the most historic brick ovens in Italy. Both cities were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in August of 79 A.D. but their respective positions give each of the two cities unique features. Pompeii, located south of the volcano, was damaged by the eruption’s intense heat release before being covered with ash and debris. Herculaneum was more of a vacation town for the wealthy and its position near the water on the west side of the volcano was literally out of the line of fire. Since it wasn’t hit with intense heat before being buried, many of the features and artwork are extremely well preserved.
On the left is a photo of a bread oven in Pompeii. This one’s in the large house right by the main exit. There are several ovens in Pompeii because it was a large city and just about all of them were communal because it didn’t make sense to have an oven in every home. The oven on the right is the only one I could find in Herculaneum. It was hidden behind some scaffolding so I had to bend the rules to get a good look. Please don’t alert the authorities.
There’s plenty of pizza history to see in and around Naples so plan carefully and you’ll be able to pack your days with sweet sweet pizza goodness. Just be sure to leave room for gelato and sfogliatella!
On June 11, 1889, Queen Margherita of Italy had a letter composed to thank Raffaele Esposito for making her a pizza with mozzarella, tomato and basil. This photo of the letter is posted in Esposito’s restaurant in Naples, Pizzeria Brandi.
It’s tough to see, but the date in the upper right corner is June 11, 1889. I found the phrases “Raffaele Esposito” and “tomate buonissime” but the rest is a mystery. Please contact me if you can translate it. I can send you some close-up shots.
Queen Margherita was the second queen of a newly unified Italy. By eating a dish so associated with the peasants of Southern Italy, she made an incredible, and probably accidental, political move and earned the support of her country. As word of her taste test spread, so did the dish itself. But recipes changed to suit local customs and ingredient availability, so pizza developed into several localized varieties. This is why the thin and crunchy pizza of Rome is so different from the soft and chewy pizza of Naples.
So eat a pizza with fresh mozzarella, crushed plum tomato and basil to celebrate this historic day!
I am privileged to have been raised in the Land of Great Pizza. My home state of New Jersey lies right in the middle of a constellation of industrial cities that dot the northeastern USA, which attracted so many Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. Those immigrant communities provided our nation’s earliest pizzerias, many of which are still in business today. But these immigrants did not simply come from Italy, they came from Southern Italy. Vastly different from the Northern region of the country, Southern Italy holds within its boundaries the roots of our beloved pizza.
When attempting a pilgrimage to Italy’s sacred pizza hotspots, all roads lead to Naples. The bulk of my trip was spent observing and absorbing the culinary traditions of various Neapolitan pizzerias, all of which boasted nearly identical wood burning ovens and ingredients (Caputo “00” flour, salt, water, yeast, mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil) that caused their pizza to remain pretty similar. When in Naples, don’t expect a New York slice with its crispy exterior and foldable crust. The Neapolitan pies are served whole and unsliced. While people used to enjoy an entire pie by picking it up and folding it into a tight cone-shaped street food, the current accepted method is to attack the 33 cm pie with fork and knife. Attempting to pick up a slice often leads to a sauce-cheese avalanche.
The crust (corniccione) of a Neapolitan pizza is a tender and puffy lip, filled with air and soft as a pillow at the end of a bed. It gives way to a pool of crushed tomato and moist mozzarella di bufala. The image is stunning.
Since these pizzas are baked on 800 degree bricks just inches away from a well-tended wood fire, they char around the circumference as well as underneath. These spots indicate the intense heat of the oven.
It being my first trip to Naples, I had done plenty of research and selected my pizza stops from among those listed in selections from every pizza enthusiast’s library (Peter Reinhart’s American Pie, Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, Pamela Sheldon Jones’s Pizza Napoletana!, etc). The pizza at every stop was exceptional, and since the trip was back in January I managed to miss the lines of tourists looking for the best pizza in town. These are, in chronological order, the stops I made throughout the three days I spent in Naples:
1. Solopizza – Immediately upon reaching Naples, I ate at the first pizzeria I could find. This is part of a small chain of Neapolitan pizzerias. It was nothing special.
2. Fratelli la Bufala – This place is located across the street from Solopizza. It was my first night in Naples and I wanted to get it started with a bang. The pizza looked like the pictures of Neapolitan pizza I studied while on the train, but the taste wasn’t transcendent.
3. Pizzeria Brandi – The famous pizzeria of Raphaelle Esposito, who famously crafted pizza for Queen Margherita in 1889. These are the best dressed waiters I have ever seen in a pizzeria. The only thing that puzzled me was the use of canned mushrooms. The pizza margherita is divine with a smokey crust and rich mozzarella di bufala.
4. Antica Pizzeria Port Alba – Allegedly the first pizzeria, opened in 1730. Very similar to Brandi with an even smokier crust. The place was completely empty at 7 PM but that changed by 8:30. Definitely a must visit for every pizza geek.
5. Pizzeria Di Matteo – This is the same puffy crust I encountered all over Naples topped with a more acidic tomato. Absolutely phenomenal. Very popular with the locals. I also tasted the pizza fritta, a deep fried calzone filled with broccoli rabe and sausage.
6. Pizzeria Da Michele – In its current location since 1912, this pizzeria originally opened in 1870. They serve a pizza margherita and a pizza marinara, each of which is available in three sizes. Beverages are each 1 euro. The pizza marinara may be the tastiest pizza I have ever eaten. The margherita was delicious even though it was the least cheesy of the trip. Don’t forget to take a number before waiting in line.
7. L’ Europeo di Mattozzi – This was the most unique pizza margherita of the whole batch. It included diced cherry tomatoes and the crust was slightly crispy. Definitely a standout pizza in a city of pizzerias.
8. Pizzeria La Notizia – The pizzeria owned by my only Neapolitan contact Enzo Coccia is located away from the historic center of town as not to get lost in the sea of pizzerias located in that neighborhood. I sampled several dishes and pizzas but enjoyed the eggplant roll appetizer the most. A golden pastry-like crust surrounds a piece of sweet eggplant in this simple dish that precluded a barrage of pizzas (margherita, broccoli rabe + pork sausage, pizza bianca with mushrooms, nutella-filled pizza dough roll).