• An actress dressed like Queen Margherita of Savoy tastes a pizza during a ceremony to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the pizza Margherita. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The beloved slice has its own dramatic tale, including a king, a queen and some culinary snobbery.
By
John Dickie

22 Jul 2016 - 3:44 PM  UPDATED 7 Feb 2018 - 1:09 PM

There are few hard facts in the history of pizza. The word probably shares its origins with the Greek pitta and the Turkish pide, which tells us that it belongs to a wide and ancient Mediterranean family of flatbreads. Many dictionaries of Neapolitan dialect from the late eighteenth century onwards tell us that ‘pizza’, at its simplest, was merely a generic word for all kinds of pies, and for what would be called focaccia or schiacciata elsewhere in Italy – that is, a flat piece of dough dappled with fat or oil and cooked quickly in a hot oven. This is such a commonplace recipe that it would be pointless to try to seek out its specific origins.

The genealogy of pizza is made more tricky still by the fact that for a long time pizza napoletana denoted a sweet tart containing almonds: that is what it meant to Scappi in the 1500s, and what it still meant to many cooks until the end of the nineteenth century. But there can be little doubt that, by the early 1800s, ‘pizza’ had also come to refer to something like the modern form of the thing. One of the earliest pizza sightings was made by the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas (père), who visited Naples in the 1830s and observed the lazzari eating pizza – largely because it was much cheaper even than maccheroni.

The pizza is a kind of talmouse [triangular cheese pastry] like the ones they make in Saint-Denis. It is round, and kneaded from the same dough as bread . . . There are pizzas with oil, pizzas with different kinds of lard, pizzas with cheese, pizzas with tomatoes, and pizzas with little fish.

Given the pizza’s sketchy history, it is perhaps no wonder that Neapolitans in search of certainties about their famous contribution to the way the world eats have latched on eagerly to one episode in June 1889. At that time Margherita of Savoy, the Queen of Italy, was making a month-long visit to Naples. Although from Turin, she was eager to try pizza – or so the story goes – and sent for the renowned local pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, who worked in a pizzeria tucked into a corner between the cramped alleys of the Spanish Quarter and the grand open space of piazza del Plebiscito. Esposito was set to work in the kitchens of the hilltop palace of Capodimonte where the queen was residing. He made three pizzas: one with oil, one with whitebait, and one with tomato, mozzarella and a couple of torn basil leaves. The queen preferred the last, and it was duly baptised ‘pizza Margherita’ in her honour. Esposito’s shop, now called the Pizzeria Brandi, still proudly displays the letter of recognition he received:

Household of Her Majesty
Capodimonte, 11 June 1889
 
 Mouth Office Inspectorate
Most esteemed Mr Raffaele Esposito. I confirm to you that the three kinds of Pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious. 
 
Your most devoted servant, Galli Camillo, 
Head of Table Services to the Royal Household

Feeling hungry? Make your own Pizza Margherita, with this recipe from Food Safari Fire. 

 

There seems little reason to doubt the authenticity of this document, although I can find no reference to Queen Margherita’s pizza experiment in the press of the day. Yet still the story suggests far too cosy a picture of what pizza meant to nineteenth-century Naples. Understandably, many Neapolitans assume that their disc of baked dough flavoured with tomato sauce and cheese is so unquestionably a good thing that it only needs to be discovered to be loved. But in reality pizza travelled a much harder and slower road to popularity. Italians had to learn to like pizza. Not only that: they had to learn not to loathe it.

One person who manifestly hated pizza was Carlo Collodi, the cook’s son from Florence who finished writing The Adventures of Pinocchio six years before the queen’s visit to Naples. After Pinocchio, Collodi’s next venture, published in 1886, did not meet with quite the same galloping success: it is an account of a young Tuscan boy’s journey round Italy, which often reads like chunks of a Baedeker tourist guide as retold in a twelve-year-old’s letters home. All the same it ran rapidly through fourteen editions, and sold particularly well in schools. When the boy in question reaches Naples, he finds a city of sunshine, happiness and singing. The lazzari are now just a memory and, we are assured, the famous maccheroni with tomato sauce are eaten with a fork rather than with the hands. But the breezy mood is broken when it comes to describing pizza:

Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a focaccia made from leavened bread dough which is toasted in the oven. On top of it they put a sauce with a little bit of everything. When its colours are combined – the black of the toasted bread, the sickly white of the garlic and anchovy, the greeny-yellow of the oil and fried greens, and the bits of red here and there from the tomato – they make pizza look like a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonises perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it.

Collodi was a hidebound Tuscan, so his revulsion could arguably be dismissed as regional chauvinism. But Matilde Serao is a different matter. Serao was a bustling, extrovert young journalist who, in 1884, wrote a series of reports on the poorest area of her home city, which were quickly published under the title The Bowels of Naples. Like Collodi, Serao’s description of pizza shows her explaining a custom that was as yet unfamiliar to the great majority of Italians. It also shows her distaste:

Pizza is made from a dense dough that burns but does not cook, and is loaded with almost raw tomato, garlic, pepper and oregano. If a pizza-maker has a shop, he makes a great number of these round focacce during the night. He cuts them into so many slices worth one soldo each, and gives them to a boy who goes off to sell them from a portable table at some street corner. The boy will stay there almost all day, while his pizza slices freeze in the cold, or turn yellow in the sun as the flies eat them.

So what was it about pizza that provoked aversion even in her? Fundamentally, it was not the quality of the ingredients or the dubious methods of the pizzaiolo; it was not even the flies. The problem with pizza was Naples.

Matilde Serao was a prominent writer at a time when women in any kind of public role in Italy were still very rare. She was also profoundly fond of Naples, and knew how hard life could be there … So what was it about pizza that provoked aversion even in her? Fundamentally, it was not the quality of the ingredients or the dubious methods of the pizzaiolo; it was not even the flies. The problem with pizza was Naples. And the problem with Naples was cholera. Cholera is a uniquely revolting disease. The Vibrio cholerae bacterium is carried in food and water …. But the symptoms of cholera do not directly result from this infection. Rather, it is when the bacteria are attacked by the immune system and break down, releasing a powerful toxin, that illness and death occur. … The most severe cases of cholera can bring about an instant, fatal collapse. Even slower progression can reduce the human body to a corpse-like, wrinkled pallor within a few hours. Death is frequently brought on by severe shock, and is preceded by violent wind, vomiting, diarrhoea, suffocating chills, agonising thirst, paroxysms of abdominal pain and uncontrollable writhing caused by muscular spasms. The torment is made more dreadful by the fact that the shrieking victims stay conscious and mentally alert throughout. Even those lucky enough to survive this initial, aggressive phase of the disease are usually too weak to make it through the quieter but more insidious stage that follows.

It wouldn't be a visit to Naples without pizza.

Nineteenth-century Naples had a fearsome reputation for this malady.  … With nearly half a million souls, Naples was still by far Italy’s biggest city, and Europe’s most crowded, when Collodi and Serao wrote their descriptions of pizza. London could then count 13,000 people for every square kilometre, Naples five times as many. In the three most densely packed quarters, the figure reached 130,000. This was the dark and terrifying ‘low city’ near the sea front, the stinking belly of Naples where no outsider would venture without a revolver.

Desperate poverty was the norm in the low city. In The Bowels of Naples, Matilde Serao explains how the indigent majority ate mostly in the street – even rudimentary cooking was difficult in the ‘kennels’. The cheapest dishes, at one soldo, consisted of a slice of pizza, or four or five fritters made from bits of cabbage stalk and fragments of anchovy, or nine boiled chestnuts swimming in a reddish juice. 

[In 1884] King Umberto took the initiative… When news of the raging epidemic reached Umberto, he resolved to go to Naples in person. As well as a politically astute move, this was also a very brave one. There was not just the cholera and popular tumult to face: when Umberto visited the city for the first time, soon after inheriting the throne in 1878, an anarchist cook had tried to stab him to death. But this latest royal stay in Naples was greeted with almost universal relief and approval: according to the New York Times, Italy went ‘almost crazy with enthusiasm for the King’. His presence settled the nerves of the populace and gave new courage to the overwhelmed authorities. He visited the hospitals, accepted petitions, gave out money and even went on a personal tour of the poorest boroughs – without, it can safely be assumed, sampling pizza. Whether it was Umberto or his prime minister who said, ‘Naples must be disembowelled!’ during that stroll through the low city is not certain. Nevertheless, the phrase became the slogan of the long-term government response to the crisis: the city’s putrescent innards had to be ripped out, the tenements demolished, and new, clean, airy quarters constructed. This was also the phrase that provoked Matilde Serao to write The Bowels of Naples, and her description of pizza.  …

And it was to inaugurate the reconstruction work that King Umberto went back to Naples in June 1889. The queen accompanied him; this was the visit during which pizza Margherita acquired its name…

The Margherita pizza is attribuated to a pizzaiolo of Naples, Raffaele Esposito Brandi, who created the dish evoking the colors of the Italian flag.

Margherita, who was blonde, forthright and personable, was far more loved than the doughty Umberto, and Matilde Serao, a conservative monarchist, was a loud trumpeter of her virtues. …  According to one Neapolitan biographer, the queen hygienically balanced what she ate with her ‘digestive power’, by preferring chicken and game birds, rice, boiled vegetables, eggs and milk products, with an ice-cream and black coffee after her meals – everything calculated not to ‘disturb the digestion’. Her rigorously French formal lunches were also modest and hygienic, typically consisting of a consommé, a couple of hors d’oeuvres, two entrées, a sorbet, a roast, vegetables, and entremets.

The water supply in Naples was certainly much cleaner when the royal couple returned in 1889 than it had been in 1884. But whether the Queen of Hygiene had the courage to taste the pizza named after her is open to doubt – the letter in the Pizzeria Brandi offers no conclusive proof either way. All the same, her gesture in bestowing royal approval on the poorest dish of the poorest city in Italy made political and human sense: it can be thought of as a late-nineteenth-century equivalent of the moment in 1987 when Princess Diana embraced an AIDS patient. With pizza, Margherita took her own journey into the bowels of Naples.

In the name of hygiene, Naples was the subject of much undeserved snobbery from further north in Italy. Commenting on the royal inauguration of the ‘disembowelling’ in 1889, the Florentine newspaper La Nazione expressed the patronising hope that the Neapolitans would learn to correct their old habits, which were ‘certainly not very hygienically correct’. But even a Neapolitan could not disguise how unsavoury pizza was. Not just unsavoury, in fact, but so unhygienic as to be potentially lethal. The chances of exporting this sample of squalor outside Naples were close to zero. A poignant passage in Serao’s The Bowels of Naples tells the story of a small-time Neapolitan entrepreneur who tried to set up a pizza outlet in Rome. In theory, there should have been a ready market: many Neapolitans had taken the opportunity to move away when the Italian seat of government was transferred to Rome in 1870. The entrepreneur offered the full range of products: tomato pizza, pizza with mozzarella, pizza with anchovies, pizza with garlic, oil and oregano. But the business flopped. As Serao rather daintily put it: ‘Pizza, when taken away from its Neapolitan environment, seemed out of place; it was indigestible.’

The word ‘pizzeria’ is not recorded in an Italian dictionary until 1918. Even in 1947 a Neapolitan journalist, describing his city for a national audience, used the word in inverted commas – he clearly thought outsiders might not be sure what it meant. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that most of the rest of Italy found pizza not only digestible, but delicious.   

This is an edited extract from Delizia by John Dickie (Sceptre, $24.99, e-book 12.99), also the host of Eating History: Italy. 

Champion pizza maker Teresa Iorio and John Dickie make pizza together.