Whether you’re a fan of thin-crust or deep-dish pizza, pepperoni or pineapple, you are likely to be familiar with the margherita. A Neapolitan classic, the margherita pizza has just three toppings: basil, mozzarella and tomato.
The story of the margherita pizza is steeped in legend, as it is believed that a little pizzeria in the narrow alleys of Naples created the famous dish to celebrate Italy’s unification and the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy.
But how much of this tale is true? And when exactly was the margherita pizza first documented?
Here’s the history of a classic Italian dish.
The unification of Italy helped bring Queen Margherita of Savoy to Naples
For centuries, what is now modern-day Italy was a patchwork of fragmented states. By 1861, a national parliament convened and proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy. Though the country would continue to change and evolve over the coming decades, this moment of unification and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy marked a major change in the course of the country’s history.
In 1878, King Umberto I came to power, but he was incredibly unpopular because of his conservative politics, to the point where anarchists attempted to assassinate him in the first year of his reign. King Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita, went on a visit to Naples in 1889, a city that had been part of the former southern kingdom. Naples is known today as the home of pizza, and even today has strict rules about how it ‘should’ be made.
The former capital city of the southern kingdom was poor, and pizza was a meal that could be adapted and eaten quickly and cheaply. These early pizzas consisted of flatbreads topped with tomatoes, olive oil, oregano and garlic, which is known as pizza marinara today.
Queen Margherita was bored of French cuisine
When the King and Queen visited this city, Queen Margherita summoned a prominent chef, Raffaele Esposito of the Pizzeria Brandi, to cook for her visit. It is said that she was bored of the French cuisine that was popular with European royalty at the time, so she asked Esposito to make her something new. Esposito pulled from the local cuisine and made the Queen three different pizzas.
The first two pizzas Esposito presented to the Queen were pizza marinara and pizza Napoli. The pizza Napoli stands apart for its prominent ingredient of anchovies. These two were not to the Queen’s taste.
The third pizza, what is now known as the pizza margherita, was fit for a queen. Esposito is said to have been inspired by the unification of Italy and featured the colours on the new Italian flag: basil for green, mozzarella for white and tomato for red. Queen Margherita was allegedly delighted by this presentation, and Esposito named the pizza in her honour. Thus, a simple legend was born.
After the Queen’s visit, Esposito apparently asked for a note from the Queen with the Royal Seal on it. That note is still hanging on the wall of the Pizzeria Brandi today, which of course still serves patrons the classic pizza margherita.
However, historians have pointed out that the seal does not actually match other royal stamps of the time, and the handwriting does not match that of Camillo Galli, the chamberlain who allegedly wrote the note. It is suspected that the royal fable – which is still widely believed – was concocted when the family business fell on hard times in the 1930s and needed a story to drum up business.
Pizza margherita may owe its name to other causes
The story of Queen Margherita’s visit and the pizza made in her honour may be untrue, but the popularity of the pizza is undeniable. In reality, the use of basil, mozzarella and tomato was already quite widespread in Naples at this time and had even been described in a book published in 1866.
What is likely is that the Pizzeria Brandi had the popular combination on the menu and called it pizza margherita, and that is the name that stuck for all pizzerias in the city thereafter. Another explanation comes from the translation of the word ‘margherita’ itself. Margherita means daisy in Italian, and the mozzarella on a pizza margherita is arranged in such a way as to resemble petals.
Did Queen Margherita inspire one of Italy’s most celebrated dishes, or was it just be a fable concocted to draw up business during hard times? Regardless of its origins, the margherita pizza remains a global favourite and can be found on menus from Naples to New York to New Delhi.