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As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter.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,

Happy Pizza Margherita Day!!!

This ain’t no Hallmark holiday, this is actually a real thing based in history. Today marks the 124th anniversary of the naming of the Pizza Margherita! On June 11, 1889 the Italian “Department of the Mouth” issued a letter on behalf of her majesty Queen Margherita, consort of King Umberto I, to thank pizzaiolo (pizza maker) Raphaele Esposito for presenting “three quality pizzas” in honor of the royal couple’s trip to Naples. The purpose of the trip was to dedicate a road (Corso Umberto I) but the most memorable event was clearly this peasant meal. Legend has it the queen’s favorite was a pizza with mozzarella, tomato and basil — a pizza featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients. This dish now carries the queen’s name and helped pull pizza out of the slums and into the mainstream.

Check out photos of the letter and the pizzeria where it all happened in my post from 2011.

Electric Oven vs Wood-Fired Brick Oven

I just found this photo I took of two identical margherita pizzas baked in different ovens at a pizzeria called 900 Degrees (RIP) in the West Village. The one on the left baked for 5 minutes and 33 seconds in a brick-lined electric deck oven, the one on the right baked for 1 minute and 24 seconds in a wood-fired brick oven.

Judging by these photos, the wood-fired pie looks way better. The lower temperature electric oven caused the fresh mozzarella to break down before the crust completely baked. You can see why pizza makers switched to low-moisture mozzarella when deck ovens became standard (besides the fact that they had a longer shelf life). The crust on the right looks more even and the cheese/sauce separation has remained intact.

But looks are only part of the picture — almost everyone on the tour that day preferred the taste of the pie on the left. BOOM!

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.

Pizza Margherita Turns 121 TODAY

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!