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As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter.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