As America celebrated National Pizza Day (February 9), it’s best that we understand the complicated route it took to our collective doorstep.
On April Fools’ Day back in 1957, the BBC famously broadcast a short documentary film showing a family harvesting their spaghetti trees for the season’s pasta crop. Hundreds of people were completely taken in by the footage of long strands of pasta hanging from the branches of tall trees, while a Swiss family calmly went about picking it. The film has been named one of the best April Fools Day hoaxes of all time and is definitely worth a look.
It is rather amusing:
But hold on, this article is supposed to be about pizza! Where am I going with all this spaghetti tree nonsense? I think it’s important to understand that back in the 1950s, Italian food in the Western world outside of Italy was considered exotic and glamorous, and the heady aroma of garlic was a rare and mystical beast. Many people had no clue that pasta was actually made with flour and egg and didn’t really grow on trees. But these days you can’t really go anywhere without encountering an Italian restaurant or a pizza place, or being continually bombarded with commercials on TV grandly parading their NEW! triple-cheese crust with extra avocado and sweet and sour sauce organic wood-fired lo-fat mega-calzone. But where did it all start, this global food phenomenon?
The whole pizza concept is far from new – ever since some bright spark at the dawn of time invented bread and then put some vegetables on top – and virtually every country in the world has a version of some sort of pizza-like flatbread topped with extra bits in their history. Interestingly enough, the idea of putting tomato on pizza is not as old as one may think, and who’s to say who did it first? Tomatoes were considered poisonous in Europe for centuries and no one ate them, but these cheeky imports from the New World were slowly becoming a hit, and it was the Italians who grabbed the humble tomato with both hands and a famous story emerged.
Are you sitting comfortably? Right then, let’s begin.
Now, this famous story of pizza, told to tourists all over Naples, is that a lowly Neapolitan pizza maker, back in 1889, made three pizzas for Queen Margherita, who purportedly was fed up with French food (I don’t know, some people …), and her favorite was the one made with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, which also happened to correspond to the colors of the Italian flag. Our pizza man, whose name was Esposito, promptly named it after his Queen, and thus Pizza Margherita was born.
Apparently, he asked the Queen to put the royal seal on his establishment, and the letter written to him in the Queen’s name hangs framed on the wall of his pizzeria still, a popular tourist destination in Naples, although it is now owned by a different family.
Right, while you’re all quivering with excitement and trepidation, here’s where it gets interesting. In recent years, the political significance of this little episode was not lost on Zachary Nowak, the assistant director of Food Studies at the Umbria Institute in Perugia, Italy, and he thought the whole thing was a bit too good to be true, too convenient, he says. Political pizza? Whatever do you mean, sir? We must remember that Italy had only recently been unified by Garibaldi, and there was still a lot of tension between north and south, so, having the Queen endorse a Neapolitan pizza shop also meant she was endorsing the south, and the fact that the pizza just happened to be red, white, and green like the flag seems to say that the south had embraced unification.
It all sounded too perfect, thought Nowak, and he dug up a few archival gems which point to a different and slightly more salacious story.
These days, you can’t really go anywhere without encountering an Italian restaurant or a pizza place, or being continually bombarded with commercials on TV.
Signor Esposito did indeed get his royal seal, but he was selling wine at the time, not pizza, and according to the archives in Naples, it was in 1871—18 years earlier than reported. Interesting. According to history, Esposito married Maria Brandi, the daughter of a well-known pizza maker, and he opened his own pizza place in 1883. He named it Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy, what else? Eventually he sold it to his in-laws, who renamed it Pizzeria Brandi and they enjoyed mild success up until the 1930s, when the Great Depression was in full swing and they found themselves struggling.
Now, we get back to the Queen’s famed letter bearing the royal seal hanging on the wall.
Apparently written by the Queen’s Chamberlain, it turns out to be different handwriting—another letter actually written by the real Chamberlain has been compared to Esposito’s and, apart from the handwriting, the other differences are also quite marked: the royal seal on the bottom is crooked and also it should be at the top; and it is not identical to the authentic royal seal.
At the top is handwritten “House of Her Royal Majesty,” which is odd—any self-respecting monarch would have monogrammed stationery and wouldn’t actually handwrite that bit themselves; and to cap it off, the letter, supposedly penned in the 1880s, begins, “Dear Mr Raffaele Esposito Brandi.” In no way would an Italian man of that day and age take his wife’s surname. Something rotten in the state of Umbria ….
It would seem distinctly possible that Esposito’s in-laws, the Brandis, were having a pretty tough time making ends meet selling pizza in the 1930s, and in a cunning and somewhat desperate bid to reclaim former pizza glory, may well have reinvented the whole royal endorsement story to their advantage and actually forged the legendary letter that hangs on the wall of their pizzeria in Naples. Hmmm …food for thought. Perhaps if they’d come up with home delivery instead things might’ve been different.
Whether it’s true or not I guess doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and if the Brandis did make it all up then they’ve managed to keep it hush-hush for the best part of a century, while the legend that is pizza lives on. In fact, just talking about it is making me hungry, so, if pizza is good enough for the Queen of Italy, then it’s certainly good enough for me.
Where’s my phone?