Inexpensive, nutritious, delicious, popular, and famous all over the world: Pizza is so important to warrant UNESCO heritage. Everyone knows about it. Some people love it so much they could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you separate urban legend from its origin story you’ll appreciate an Italian trait so much more. The U.S. may have perfected it. But Napoli was the birth center of marketing.
It all started with the depression in the 1930s and a rivalry. The rest is history, and the world never tires of repeating it.
The king ruled, the queen mattered
At least when it comes to the most famous of all pizzas – Margherita. Legend has it that in 1889, the Italian king and queen decided to visit Napoli. Italy had become one country recently, 1861. Napoli was the capital of the Kingdom of the South.
This was a diplomatic move. The story goes that the queen, sick of gourmet French cuisine, summoned the most famous pizza-maker (“pizzaiolo”) a Napoli. Raffaele Esposito was to make three pizzas in the Capodimonte palace kitchen.
She didn’t like the garlic and tomato (pizza marinara) and the anchovies (pizza Napoli). But she loved the pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. Hence the name of the pizza Margherita, in her honor.
“Bufala” means urban legend. Its origin is probably from the type of mozzarella used in the pizza. There’s even a handwritten thank you note from the queen to go with the story. It says she liked the pizza also because it wore the colors of the Italian flag – red, white, and green.
Necessity is the mother of invention
A neat story to explain the diplomatic exchange – the monarchy accepts the South, that in turn accepts the flag. Raffaele Esposito displayed the royal seal in his wine and spirits store in 1871. It’s so good, that the BBC investigate it.
Esposito pops up again when he married the daughter of a famous pizza-maker, Maria Giovanna Brandi in 1883. He then opened his own Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy. The dates don’t match. The royal seal itself doesn’t match the original. There were letters, but at different times for different matters.
What we do know is the Brandi brothers took over the pizza business. In the 1930s, at the height of the world’s depression, they must have decided to use the most famous of the royal-eating pizza legends (there were others), to publicize their pizzeria.
The magic ingredients
Pizza’s universal appeal is due to its simplicity. Agriculture spread the practice of cooking grains on stone from East to West, with a special mention to Egypt that takes the prize for discovering yeast. The leavening agent made wheat and cereal light and easier to digest. Bread was born.
Farmers in ancient Roma figured out how to make flour. Add water, herbs, and salt, put the round focaccia on the stone atop the fire embers, and you had a tasty flat bread to scoop up your sauce.
The word pizza comes from bite – “bizzo” in Gothic-Lombard or “bizzen” in German circa VII A.D. Between 1000 and 1300, “pizis” e “pissas” meant bakery products in different parts of Italy. If it was Roma that gave us flour, it was Napoli that gave us pizza.
If you ordered a pizza in 1600, you got a flat bread lade with lard, garlic, and coarse salt. Or you could get the higher calorie version with cheese. Olive oil replaced lard in the seventeenth century. Tomato got to Italy via America. Initially they’d make a sauce of it with salt and basil.
And there you have it, the perfect sauce for pizza. Mozzarella came a couple of centuries later, after pizza was already quite popular. The name Margherita seems to have come from how the thin slices of mozzarella were spread on the pizza – making it look like a daisy.
Common folk and kings – they all loved it. A satisfying and unifying meal. Its ingredients came from the most disparate places.
A winning recipe for delish all over the world
Napoli contributed the original recipe. Now you can find pizzas of different sizes and thicknesses with the most creative toppings. It was World War II that spread it North, in the Italian industrial triangle. It arrived in Milano, Torino, and Genova with the immigrant laborers wave.
In the 1960s, Pizza was a favorite food all over Italy. Then it spread all over the world.
In 2017, the art of Neapolitan pizza makers (“L’Arte dei pizzaioli napoletani”) became the third Italian food and wine contribution to UNESCO Heritage, following Mediterranean diet (“Dieta Mediterranea”) in 2013, and the sampling screw of Pantelleria (“La vite ad alberello di Pantelleria”) in 2014. Putting Italy on par with Japan.
Today, many pizza restaurants in Italy prepare the dough with natural yeast. It makes it much more digestible. Most of the pizzas you’ll get in Northern Italy are fairly thin. Why you can easily eat a whole pie without feeling stuffed.
I prefer the “schiaccia,” the version without tomato and mozzarella, with some rosemary and coarse salt. It’s feather light and goes well with roasted vegetables or as a bread companion to grilled fish (a worthy exception for breaking the no carbs+proteins rule.)
But I understand that when it comes to pizza, most people are all-in.