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As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter.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