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Was margherita pizza really named after Italy's queen?

Pizza margherita

Loved around the world for its simplicity, margherita pizza is commonly believed to be named after an Italian queen. But Zachary Nowak, the assistant director of Food Studies at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy, questions the provenance of this popular pizza.

Despite being united with northern Italy in 1861 by swashbuckling general Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1889 southern Italy was still smarting from its loss of independence.

That year the Italian king and queen decided to make a visit to Naples, the former capital of the Kingdom of the South, to ingratiate themselves with their southern subjects.

Legend has it that the queen, while staying in Naples' Capodimonte Palace, got sick of French gourmet food that was the royal standard across Europe at the time.

She summoned the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, and had him bake her three pizzas in the palace kitchen.

She did not like the one with garlic (pizza marinara) or anchovies (pizza Napoli), but she loved the pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and a sprig of basil.

Into the oven

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Esposito immediately named his invention after the queen - whose name was Margherita - and asked only to put the royal seal on his pizzeria.

A few days later she had her chamberlain send Esposito a thank-you note, one that hangs to this day on the wall of the Pizzeria Brandi, which his descendants still own.

At least that's the story.

The chromatic coincidence has always seemed too convenient for me: the queen just happens to like the pizza whose colours - red, white, and green - are those of the Italian flag.

The queen's pizza takeaway shows the Italian monarchy's acceptance of the south and its traditions, and the tricolour pizza is the south's final acceptance of unification. Sounds like a fable.

But then there is the famous thank you note to testify, complete with a royal seal.

My curiosity got the best of me and I began digging through the archives in Naples.

It appears that though a certain Raffaele Esposito had indeed received permission to put the royal seal on his shop, it was in 1871, and it was not a pizzeria but rather a shop that sold wine and spirits.

Pizza letters: On the left the Brandi pizzeria thank-you from Camillo Galli , on the right, the real letter from Camillo Galli Is the Pizzeria Brandi thank-you letter (left) a fake? On the right, a real letter from Camillo Galli

In 1883 Esposito pops up in the archives again - he had married the daughter of a famous pizza-maker, Maria Giovanna Brandi, and had opened his own pizzeria called Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy.

This is a full six years before the royal visit and supposed royal pizza, meaning a remarkable degree of foresight or simply marketing acumen.

While the signer of the royal thank-you note, Camillo Galli, did indeed work as the queen's chamberlain in Naples, the palace's archives have no record of a letter from Galli, or to Esposito, that day. There are orders for payment to the washerwomen, and a response to the request of the Prince of Syracuse to have his royal allowance early, but no letters to pizza-makers.

Still, the letter bears the royal seal. Or does it? A careful comparison of the seal shows that it is very similar but not identical to the various royal seals of the period.

Even more obvious to even the casual glance is that the seal is quite off-centre and several degrees off the vertical axis.

Margherita pizza

Margherita pizza coming out of oven

The original recipe for margherita pizza was for a tri-colour version - featuring the colours of the Italian flag basil (green), tomatoes (red) and mozzarella (white).

But these days it is common to find it on menus featuring just tomatoes and cheese, or with a sprinkling of oregano.

Raffaele Esposito is credited with coming up with the margherita in Naples in the late 1800s.

Pizza purists believe there are only two true types of pizza - margherita and marinara.

Find out more with Umbra's Food Studies Program

Unlike all the other royal correspondence of the day - which had seals printed on them, not rubber-stamped on like the Galli letter - this seal appears at the bottom centre, not on the top left.

The words "House of her Royal Majesty" is handwritten on the top of the letter, leaving us to believe that the queen had run out of stationery.

Again, the archives provide a clue.

In 1891, Camillo Galli wrote a long letter from the royal palace near Milan, requesting among other things some wine. A comparison between the two letters - this letter and the thank-you missive - reveal immediately that the authors were not the same person.

Then who were the authors and when did the famous letter - one that is described in every culinary and tourist guide entry on Naples - get penned, framed and put up on the wall?

Again, the answer is right in front of us.

Raffaele Esposito's pizzeria, the Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy, was eventually purchased by his brother-in-law's sons, the Brandi brothers.

They renamed the pizzeria Pizzeria Brandi and as eminent pizza historian Professor Antonio Mattozzi (himself a scion of a famous Neapolitan pizza family) says, tried to restore it to its former glory with eminent guests.

In my mind I see the Brandi brothers sitting down after-hours in their pizzeria in the early 1930s, the world depression weighing heavily on their shoulders. Though the version with Queen Margherita and Raffaele Esposito is the most famous, stories about pizza-eating royals had been circulating since the previous Bourbon kings.

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The Brandis decide to reshape the legend and link it to their enterprising uncle - it was a credible story since the pizzeria had been called, until recently, "Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy".

One night after serving the last pizza, a friend arrives with a wooden stamp he's carved to look like the royal crest.

One of the Brandis takes a clean sheet of parchment bought at the corner tobacco store and starts writing: "House of her Royal…"

The proof that the letter was composed in the 1930s and not the 1880s is in the letter's opening line: "Dear Mr Raffaele Esposito Brandi."

Raffaele Esposito - like all Italian men - did not take his wife's last name, so the last name "Brandi" is completely out of place.

Transcriptions of this famous letter, recognising this, often simply leave "Brandi" out, or put it in parentheses, but it is clearly visible in the original.

The Brandi brothers, having bought the pizzeria in 1932, had hit upon a clever ploy (the royal thank-you) but there was no obvious relation to the famed pizza-maker, unless he shared their last name.

Despite this culinary sleuthing, there is no agreement about the letter's veracity.

The current owners, unrelated to the Brandis, claim that the letter was perhaps written by Galli's assistant.

Not under dispute, however, is the excellence of the pizza. Royal pedigree or not.

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