What narrative would you like as a topping?

December 10, 2017

 

All of my guests here in Rome are taken by me to the Pantheon, which for me is the most impressive and breathtaking spot in this impressive city, whose historic center was declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO. Now THAT'S impressive!

After our breath is taken - my guests' for the first time and mine for the uncountable time - by the massive doors, the hollow dome and the supernatural grace which tangles us, we move on to pay respect to the kings of Savoy who are buried there. On one side of the round structure we find the grave of "Padre della Patria" ("Father of the Homeland"), Vittorio Emanuele II, who united Italy at the end of 19th century, and on the other side the one of his son Umberto I, who continued his mission until he was assassinated in 1900.

Then I ask my guests to look under Umberto's grave, where is laid his wife Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna di Savoia, better known as Regina Margherita. You know, the one from the pizza.

 

The famous story is about how in June 1889 the royal couple arrived in Naples while traveling around the kingdom, a second visit to the place where Umberto had survived an assassination attempt 11 years earlier. Allegedly Italy was already united for almost 30 years, but only allegedly since the rich north which had spawned to the south didn't actually embrace it. You know, like today.

Soon after arriving in Naples the queen, who was bored with the French cuisine which reigned the royal kitchen, asked for something "local", and immediately a royal invitation was sent to Raffaele Esposito, one of Naples' most famous pizzaioli (= pizza bakers) of the pizzeria Brandi, only three minutes walking from the palace (one minute of running in the case the queen calls you).

Esposito arrived and did what he did the best - three pizzas - to be eaten by the queen:

Mastunicola - olive oil (or lard), a semi-hard cheese and basil,

one with Cecenielle fish,

and one with tomatoes (red), Mozzarella cheese (white) and basil (green).

 

You can guess already where it goes, right? The queen chose the third version which displays the colors of the new Italian flag, and it was a clear sign of the acceptance of the south by the north and the unification of Italy. Ben fatto!

Naples is united, but not on the Unification Day but for the world cup, since there are more important things. Photo: Riccardo Siano

 

After my guests are amazed by the story I ask for their apology and tell them about Zachary Nowak's article "Folklore, Fakelore, History: The Origins of the Pizza Margherita". Nowak, an Associate Director for the Food Studies Program at the Umbra Institute‏ in Perugia, showed in his 2014 article that the holes in the dough of the really great story threaten to turn its heroine - the pizza - into a doughnut.

Let's set aside the claims regarding the false romance of Italy's unification, and go deep into those that deal with the interesting stuff - the pizza (the full article can be found here).

 

First, Nowak deals with the claim that Queen Margherita asked - even demanded! - to eat pizza after having enough with the elite cooking at the palace.

Food historian Dominico Musci went through the royal menus up until 1908 yet hasn't found any influence of the laymen kitchen whatsoever. Of course, a one-time taste of a pizza doesn't mean that it's going to enter permanently to the menu, but just read how pizza was described at that time. According to Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, the pizza ingredients "give the pizza an air of complicated grime which corresponds perfectly with that of its seller", and the Neapolitan journalist Matilde Serao mentioned that the pizza vendor walked around the streets letting "these slices of pizza which freeze in the cold, which turn yellow in the sun, eaten by the flies" (in Nowak's article). Not so tempting, right?

It's true that Umberto wanted to unite Italy / take over the south (choose your narrative) peacefully, and even visited cholera patients in the city where the disease controlled its poorer parts. Still, it's a long way from this to bring the pizza - and who knows where it was before - inside the palace.

19th Century Neapolitan pizza vendors - without flies, in the well informative blog pizzanapoletanismo.com - you can figure out what it deals with, right?

 

Now, what about the pizzeria? Well, the Neapolitan archives affirm the being of a Raffaele Esposito who in 1883 purchased the pizzeria "Pietro... e Basta Così" ("Pietro... just Pietro") from Pietro Calicchio's son, Ferdinando, and immediately asked for a permission to change its name to "Pizzeria della Regina d'Italia" ("The Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy"). Did Esposito know that his pizza and his own faith will be tied to the queen's one 6 years later? Makes you think...

The thing that you cannot find in the archives is that Esposito wasn't a pizzaiolo whatsoever. He is mentioned as an alcohol vendor who sent in 1871 a box of wines and spirits to the enjoyment of Vittorio Emanuele II, asking for a royal warrant for his spirit shop. It's quite hard to believe that in 12 years Esposito learned how to prepare pizza and in 6 years turned out to be "one of Naples' most famous pizzaioli". It makes more sense that whoever took charge of the dough was his wife since 1877, Maria Giovanna Brandi, or her parents Giovanni Brandi and Maria Luigia Ottaiani/Ottajani, that were well-known pizzaioli back then.

Giovanni Brandi, Esposito's father-in-law, was the main character of a very similar story which was published in the Roman newspaper Il Bersagliere in 1880, although that story dealt with 8 types of pizza that were sent to the palace with hope to get the permission of placing the royal seal above his pizzeria entrance. No mention of any type of pizza that was named after any queen.

 

On the pizzeria wall hanged proudly today a thank you letter which was sent on the same day to Esposito from Camillo Galli, "The Inspector of the Office of the mouth of the Royal Palace" - such a great title! The letter doesn't mention any tricolored combo, that the queen tasted it or even that Esposito met her, but only confirms that the three types of pizza that were sent to the palace were excellent. That's it. Even more incredible is the fact that a copy of the letter can't be found in the royal archives of June 11th 1889 or of any other day, or that any other letter that was sent from the palace to Esposito and back. It all means that the only copy is on the pizzeria's wall and not on the royal side of the story. Interesting.

The pizzeria's website

 

Nowak continues to count the differences in the paper quality, the shape and location of the royal seal on it between the letter of the pizzeria - the sole allegedly evidence to the story - and authentic letters that were sent from Galli's chamber. The comparison doesn't leave a doubt (if you still had any) - this letter wasn't sent from the palace. Unless, of course, Galli encountered a paper shortage and decided to improvise. How not Italian of him.

 

Another matter that Nowak points out is the fact that the letter is addressed to "Raffaele Esposito Brandi". Now, Esposito is a family name that was given in Napoli also to orphans, so it's narrowly possible that Esposito decided to take his wife's name - an unbelievable act also these days, not to say at the end of the 19th century. And do you remember the request to change the pizzeria's name in 1883? It was signed by Raffaele Esposito - without any "Brandi" supplement. The pizzeria got its Brandi name only in 1932, almost 50 years later, when it was handed over to Giovanni and Pasquale brandi, Maria Giovanna's relatives.

You could have thought that such a legendary story would turn into a folklore and an immediate pride - IF it was true. But you cannot find any mention of it until the 1930s after the Brandi brothers started to spread it around.

 

All of the above (and some more) draws Nowak to a conclusion, that beside some grains of truth the story is none but a myth that was crafted by the Brandis as a way to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. In order to do so they "bent" a little the family history and baked a "Fakelore", or even "Folklure" as it's called by Nowak. Nowak underlines in a very important footnote (number 66, for whoever survived and wants to check) that the current owners of the pizzeria, the Pagnani brothers, supported his research - yet disagreed with his conclusions.

 

On our last visit to Naples, I convinced wonderful V. to eat at Brandi, although I was already familiar with the story and Nowak's article. You cannot just give up the chance of going behind the scenes of a theater or a magic show and watch - or taste - the stuff that legends are made of.

Same oven, same walls, only the pizzaioli have changed. Maybe.

 

We were six and ordered six Margheritas, nothing that the waiter hadn't seen already. The TV screens around us projected the Pagnanis hosting Italian and international celebrities, politicians, artists and football players. Above all stood the image of Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, the grandson's grandson of Umberto I and Margherita, who in 2009 handed the pizzeria a royal thank you letter to mark the 120th anniversary of presenting the pizza to his great-great-grandmother, the Italian nation and the world. That means 120th legendary year, right?

To understand how deep the myth is, the day after the grand celebration in Brandi, the Neo-Borbonic Movement announced that "there is no doubt" that the story is fictitious and was invented by the Savoy house (which occupied the south of Italy from the house of Borbon, if we go back to the beginning of the story). As a retaliation act it declared the celebrations of "The Borbon Pizza of Maria Sofia" after Queen Maria Sofia Amalia di Bavaria, the last queen of Borbon.

Can you spot the prince?

 

Finally - how's the pizza? Well, the pizza is Neapolitan style (duh), which means a very thin dough with high outer rim (cornicione, if you want to pretend to be pretentious) that hold all the cheese and tomatoes at its center. Unlike the Roman pizza and its crunchier crust that holds better the mixture, the Neapolitan is softer so it turns it all into a some kind of pizza soup. I'm sorry, but I prefer the former.

Having said that and despite the risk that the first bite could be too heavy to handle, we all agreed that the pizza is light, delicate and very tasty. You know what? I'm not ashamed to confess that I thought of the option of having another one...

 

What would have happened if I had gone to Naples and had eaten a pizza Margherita before reading Nowak's article? Probably I would have felt as if I managed to grasp a bit of a very tasty culinary history. Even if the bubble of the pizza is popped you cannot deny that this is a great story which survived, rose well and regarded as a complete truth. The decision of believing it is given to each and every one of us.

 

(The story in a glance can be found when you download and play this presentation)

 

Brandi

Salita Santa Anna di Palazzo 1-2, Naples

www.brandi.it

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