Pizza Margherita may be fit for a queen, but was it really named after one?

The iconic Neapolitan dish was allegedly named for an Italian queen after she sampled it in Naples, but some say that theory is a little half-baked.

By Braden Phillips
Published 19 Apr 2022, 11:07 BST
Pizza
The Margherita pizza is an iconic Neapolitan dish with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil creating the colors of the Italian flag.
Photograph by Luciano Furia/Getty

Pizza is one of the most popular dishes in the whole world. This simple combination of baked flatbread, tomatoes, and cheese flowered in Italy and then spread to the United States in the early 20th century with Italian immigrants. Pizza’s popularity exploded in America, becoming ubiquitous across the nation, reaching the U.K. in the years following World War Two.

There are many different styles of pizza, but only one has a royal pedigree. The origin story began when the queen of Italy visited Naples in 1889. Strolling through the streets of the city centre, Queen Margherita and her husband smelled a delicious aroma wafting from a pizzeria.

Intrigued, the couple invited the chef of the establishment, Raffaele Esposito, to the city’s Capodimonte Palace to cook the dish for them there. Esposito prepared three different kinds of pizza. One option emulated the colours of the Italian flag: It featured red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and fresh green basil.

Husband and wife Raffaele Esposito and Maria Giovanna Brandi are the alleged creators of the Margherita pizza.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The following day, Esposito received a letter from Camillo Galli, head of the Services of the Table of the Royal Household, which read: “Esteemed Signor Raffaele Esposito. I confirm that the three kinds of pizza prepared by you for her Royal Highness the Queen were found to be excellent.” Although Margherita enjoyed all three pizzas, she declared the red, white, and green to be her favourite. Esposito duly named it after her, and a classic Neapolitan specialty was born.

(Images from the Nat Geo archive evoke the timeless atmosphere of coastal Italy.)

Pizza and patriotism

This tale, with variations, continues to be told in tourist guides, cookbooks, and food histories. It has the right ingredients for popular appeal: the fairytale motif of a queen sampling the food of the common people, and the patriotic overtones embodied by the colours of the pizza and the Italian flag.

Aspects of the story have been verified. Historians confirm that in 1889, Esposito was the owner of a pizzeria (which, by coincidence, he had renamed as The Queen of Italy Pizzeria six years before). Umberto and Margherita were indeed in Naples when the pizza letter was sent on June 11, 1889. Galli was the head of the Services of the Table of the Royal Household, and the royals did have a motive to ingratiate themselves with the Neapolitans, who had chafed under the high taxes of the new Kingdom of Italy.

The movement to free Italy from foreign rule had begun in the early 1800s. In 1861 southern Italy and Naples was wrested from its Bourbon rulers (who were linked to Spain), and the independent Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed.

(Deconstructing tiramisu, the coffee-infused Italian classic.)

The inclusion of Rome in the new kingdom in 1870 completed unification. In 1878 Italy’s second king was crowned: Umberto I, with Margherita as his queen. United Italy, its flag, and its monarchy, however, were new concepts, and not popular with all. In the first year of his reign, Umberto survived an assassination attempt in Naples. Food, therefore, could be a unifier, especially a Neapolitan pizza, made with the colours of the flag, praised by—and named for—the queen.

Cooking up a myth

Was the pizza Margherita a savvy piece of culinary diplomacy crafted by royal officials? Having the royal family sample the food of the people would be a way to win over hearts and minds. Traditionally, the origin story has been interpreted that way. According to recent research, however, the story is not only just that, a story, but one based on forgery.

Food historians have found several key holes in the account. Probably the most damning is that the dish existed at least three decades before any royal visit to Naples. In an 1853 collection of essays about Neapolitan customs, author Emanuele Rocco describes a pizza topped with “basilico, muzzarella, e pomodoro”: basil, mozzarella, and tomatoes.

(Why are these foods named after places?)

Local records reveal no contemporary reference to the Esposito pizzeria incident. The Gazette of the Kingdom of Italy, which published royal news, has no mention of the queen’s visit or Galli’s letter to Esposito. Samples of Galli’s handwriting have been compared to the signature of the letter sent to Esposito; they do not match. 

So if Galli did not write the letter on behalf of the queen, who did? A possible clue lies in the name of the letter’s recipient: Raffaele Esposito Brandi. The inclusion of this second surname is odd. Raffaele Esposito’s wife, Maria Giovanna, had the maiden name of Brandi. Traditionally, European men do not take their wives’ last names, so Esposito would not have used Brandi. There were, however, two people linked to the pizzeria who would have: Giovanni and Pasquale Brandi, Maria’s nephews who took over the pizzeria in 1932.

One theory is that the Brandi brothers, trying to drum up business, crafted the hoax. Having renamed the establishment the Pizzeria Brandi in 1932, the letter they allegedly forged had to have a reference to the Brandi name. Tales of the royals eating street food were widespread in Italy. In 1880, a decade before the pizza letter was allegedly sent, a similar story appeared in the newspaper Il Bersagliere, in which Queen Margherita praised a pizza-maker’s wares.

Esposito’s pizzeria is still in business today and is still called Pizzeria Brandi. The veracity of the pizza Margherita story is still in question, but in 1989, to mark the 100th anniversary of the pizza’s naming, a commemorative plaque was placed on the wall outside.

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