The true story of pizza Margherita, the queen of pizzas born among a thousand legends

by Giuseppe A. D'Angelo

"The queen of pizzas". So the is nicknamed Margherita Pizza, considered all over the world the pizza par excellence. So much fame, however, is accompanied by a history that is difficult to reconstruct, even starting from the origin of the word, which is probably of barbarian origin.

Go first debunked the most famous legend: many think that Margherita pizza was invented for pay homage the wife of Umberto I of Savoy. False.
Although there have been so many historical denials, it is often a legend stubbornly spread by the press, websites and even trade associations trying to create a patriotic bond with those white, red and green colors that characterize the pizza. There is even one plaque in Via Chiaia which tells this story from very dubious story.

Margherita lavorazione
A daisy under construction. Tomato on pizza has been used since the 18th century

The name of pizza Margherita, pioneer of marketing

So let's reconstruct the most famous story: the May 21, 1889 King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy went to Naples and stayed at the royal palace of Capodimonte. But her royal status certainly did not allow her to go to a pizzeria, so a pizza chef was summoned to the court.

The pizza chef was called Raffaele Esposito. Some say that the choice fell on him because he was the most famous pizza chef in Naples. Others say that Esposito had seen us for a long time calling his pizzeria "Queen of Italy", almost as if it had expected a future visit of the royal spouses, to ingratiate themselves with them. On the other hand, Umberto I of Savoy was particularly linked to the city of Naples elhe visited many times during his reign: it was just a matter of time. Memorable was his visit on the occasion ofcholera epidemic of 1884.
The pizza chef had taken over the famous pizzeria in Sant'Anna di Palazzo slope call "Pietro ... that's enough", which belonged to the pizza maker Pietro Colicchio, and later change her name, with a clever marketing move.

Esposito went to the palace with his wife Maria Giovanna Brandi, also the daughter of pizza chefs. There he cooked three pizzas which he presented to the queen: one with oil, cheese and basil (revised version of the mastunicola, the most famous pizza at the time); another with i cecenielli; and yet another with tomato and mozzarella, to which his wife added one basil leaf. It seems that the queen particularly liked the latter for the flavor, but above all for the colors that reminded her of Italian flag. Intrigued, she asked what his name is, and Esposito announced "Margherita", in her honor.

The next day Camillo Galli, head of table services at the Royal House, sent one to Esposito note of thanks from the queen. That note is still today hanging on the wall, framed and complete with a royal seal, in the pizzeria we now call Brandi, taken over in the 1930s by the children of Esposito's brother-in-law.

Targa pizza margherita Brandi
The plaque on the Pizzeria Brandi

The Margherita recipe had already existed for some time

The southerner Angelo Forgione on his blog and in the book "Made in Naples”, Reports a ride taken from the work "Uses and Customs of Naples and outlines described and painted", edited by Francesco de Bourcard. In the chapter "The pizzajolo“, Written by the Neapolitan philologist Emmanuele Rocco, there is a list of ingredients which are usually added to pizzas topped with lard, cheese and basil (the mastunicola, always): "[add] some thin slices of mozzarella. Sometimes we use sliced ham, tomato, clams, etc.".

Tomato and mozzarella therefore already appear in combination with cheese grated and al basil, but it comes to random pairings. The forerunner of Margherita would have been a pizza like many others. Indeed, continuing to read Rocco, it would seem that wasn't even that in demand: the chapter lists the most common ingredients in the pizza chef's line, and the tomato does not appear, although it has already been present in Neapolitan cuisine for over a century. AND Ferdinand IV was fond of it.

La vera storia della pizza Margherita, la regina delle pizze nata fra mille leggende

Forgione, however, points out another source: the European Commission Regulation accrediting the inclusion of Neapolitan pizza in the list of Italian TSG specialties. The regulation was approved in 2010 and we read that "The most popular and famous pizzas in Naples were the «marinara», born in 1734, and the margherita, dated 1796-1810, which was offered to the Queen of Italy on a visit to Naples in 1889 precisely because of the color of its condiments (tomato, mozzarella and basil) which recall the flag of Italy.".

The date of birth of the Margherita pizza it is therefore traced back to almost a century earlier. But what did this time frame come from?

He explains it Antonio Pace, president ofTrue Neapolitan Pizza Association, one of the two associations (the other is the Neapolitan Pizza Makers Association) which drafted the text presented to the EU.

Pace would point to the earliest found source of the representation of a pizza Margherita, which would be that of a watercolor of the time auctioned at Sotheby's. Unfortunately we have not been able to find further information on this. But Pace still specifies that it is only a representation, and we do not find the name Margherita accredited anywhere at the time.

It would therefore really belong to Raffaele Esposito the merit of having popularized that particular pairing naming it after the queen e thus favoring sales of the most famous pizza.

Margherita infornata
A photo that emits the scent of freshly baked pizza. I photograph Federico Quagliuolo

Between real and invented stories

But is it really so? An article by BBC Food from 2012 questions the entire story of the pizza chef summoned to the palace, noting several inconsistencies in historical sources. The article is actually the summary of in-depth documented research made by the American food historian Zachary Novak, associate director of The Umbra Institute of Perugia.

First of all, the only Raffaele Esposito who in Naples ever received a royal seal for an activity he was tied to a wine shop, in 1871, and not at a pizzeria. It is true that Antonio Mattozzi, in his book "A Neapolitan story”Tells us that Esposito, taking Pietro Colicchio's original pizzeria, actually had declared to the administrative authorities that he had a "pizzeria selling wine". But, as we said, this happened in 1883.

But the clearest evidence they are in the letter itself. Apparently, in the archives of the Royal Palace, there is no evidence that no letter had been sent that day from the chamberlain of the court Camillo Galli, nor to any Raffaele Esposito.

Not only that, but the whole letter was handwritten, including the header, and the court seal has been affixed as if it were a stamp. But the royal house had its own letterhead, with the seal printed at the top left. Seal which, among other things, also appears different from the one affixed to the alleged letter of thanks.

Lettera Brandi Pizza Margherita
The letter exhibited by Brandi in his restaurant

Novak proves it to us by comparing a real letter sent by Camillo Galli from the royal palace in Milan where it is evident that the calligraphy and signature are totally different from the one on display at the Brandi pizzeria.

The researcher imagines that letter to be a false historian artfully created by the Brandi brothers in the 1930s to revive the fame of a pizzeria that was undergoing economic depression and competition of the most famous pizzerias (such as the famous Pizzeria Port'Alba, a destination for intellectuals of the time). By linking the fame of Queen Margherita to the name of their acquired uncle, and consequently to the invention of the pizza, they would thus have attracted a new clientele of onlookers.

But nevertheless accurate debunking work, such a hypothesis could be rejected for a simple reason: the letterbe it true or false, does not mention the famous pizza in any way. In fact, the alleged Galli simply writes: "I confirm that the three qualities of pizza she packaged for Her Majesty the Queen were found to be very good!" without reporting the ingredients.

La vera storia della pizza Margherita, la regina delle pizze nata fra mille leggende
Margherita “in a wagon wheel”, “The Temple of Pizza”: do we also need to tell you the name of who created this masterpiece? photo by Giuseppe A. d'Angelo

But when, then, does pizza Margherita begin to take this name?

The journalist Tommaso Esposito points out that past cookbooks never used fancy names for their dishes but only the list of ingrediants (the only exception is Vincenzo Corrado's cooking manual), and that therefore we do not have written sources of pizzas entitled with the name of Margherita (but also of Marinara, or other) until the second postwar period.

In the book "'At Pizza, a journey into the Neapolitan song”, Esposito has collected song lyrics about pizza and pizza makers from '500 to '66, with the very famous 'A Pizza by Giorgio Gaber and Aurelio Fierro. In none of these does the name of a pizza appear, but only ingredients from time to time.

The scholar also shows us several guides dating back to the turn of the two wars, where we talk about Neapolitan pizza and one would expect to see at least one name appear. Eg in the Gastronomic Guide of Italy, dated 1931, the pizza is described as follows:

“It is the most famous and characteristic specialty of Neapolitan cuisine, for which the pizzerias are famous, which from Naples have spread to many other cities of ours. It essentially consists of a large circular cake, half a centimeter thick, of leavened bread dough, on the surface of which oil is poured, and on which various ingredients are arranged, such as mozzarella, tomato, anchovies, mushrooms according to taste. , as well as oregano as a flavoring. The pizza is baked in the oven and served very hot ".

The guide was written by the Touring Club during the reign of the Savoy. Esposito points out that it is somewhat strange that the cultural institutions of the time did not take the opportunity to praise a pizza named Margherita named after the famous queen, and thus pay homage to the rulers.

The names paired with the pizzas would only appear with the first menus appeared in pizzerias probably towards the end of the Second World War. A testimony is this of the pizzeria Da Attilio alla Pignasecca, which according to the date written in pen, it would date back to 1944.

La vera storia della pizza Margherita, la regina delle pizze nata fra mille leggende

The menu shows the names of the pizzas, but not their ingredients. It should be noted that the “pizza alla Margherita” is not yet listed at the top, as it would be today together with the Marinara as the two pizzas par excellence. AND we can't actually know if it was the same Margherita we eat today, as we explain later.

The same Antonio Pace, belonging to the family of pizza makers who owned the pizzeria Ciro in Santa Brigida, tells us that in '64 the first pizza championship was organized at the Mostra d'Oltremare, and remembers pizza chefs who went around offering one Margherita Pizza with mozzerella and tomato, actually making it rise again the first denomination of that type of pizza in those years.

pizza a portafoglio
Wallet pizzas sold on the street, 1960s

Pizza on television

Probably, the oldest testimony of a pizza of that type called by the name of Margherita is in this RAI service on the Neapolitan pizza of 1967.
A Neapolitan journalist asks the pizza chef if it is true that Margherita pizza is the one "with the egg in the center". The pizza chef replies "I don't know, the Margherita pizza they taught me has always been the one with tomato, mozzarella and basil"(Assuming that it was called by that name even years ago).

It seems implausible that in the 1960s a journalist from Naples did not know the ingredients of the classic Margherita. But there's more: the pizza chef adds "There is a pizza with egg, but she is no longer called Margherita. This means that a pizza with the same name was first made with different ingredients. And indeed one of the theories out there is that the name Margherita derives from a combination that wanted to recall the flower: the yellow of the cooked egg, in the center, would have been the pollen; the strips of mozzarella the white petals; and the fresh basil leaves the stem.

Instead the oldest video testimony of a pizza could even be in Totò's film "San Giovanni Decollato", from 1940. And in fact we note that the waiter brings the dish to the table without calling the name of the pizza, as you would do today, but simply saying "Pizza". Obviously this is not enough to give us confirmation on the habits of the time, but it is a another clue.

La vera storia della pizza Margherita, la regina delle pizze nata fra mille leggende
Totò eating a pizza in San Giovanni Decollato

Perhaps we will never know the answer and we will live, as always, in partisanship. Perhaps the beauty of pizza Margherita lies precisely in thataura of legend that surrounds it, and that made it famous all over the world. Perhaps one day other sources will appear that will give us a certain answer. But we know one thing: the Margherita pizza is undoubtedly the best dish that the genius of the Neapolitan people has ever given us.

-Giuseppe A. D'Angelo, founder of “Pizza Dixit”, the Neapolitan pizza blog

The story is dedicated to Raffaella Ventre for her generous donation. Support our research activities too!

Here an article by Giuseppe on his personal ranking on Neapolitan pizzerias.


Angelo Forgione, Made in Naples, Magenes, Milan 2013
Antonio Mattozzi, A Neapolitan History. Pizzerias and pizza makers between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slow Food Editore, Bra, 2009
Tommaso Esposito, 'A Pizza. Journey into the Neapolitan song. The ark and the arc editions, Nola, 2013

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1 Comment

The country ovens at Villa Ada - History & Stories 18 April 2022 - 12:18

[…] Pizza that is said to bear his name and was invented in his honor. But, in addition to being a legend that has been misleading for some time, unfortunately the temporal circumstances do not return even to long for a "Margherita" pizza [...]

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