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Your Favorite Pizza Has a Surprising Origin Story

How exactly did one of the world’s favorite Italian foods, the Margherita pizza, come to be named after a queen?

It all began in Naples circa 1889, 28 years after the unification of Italy. King Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita of Savoy, were enjoying a visit to this former capital when, as rumor has it, the queen grew tired of the gourmet French cuisine and called forth the most celebrated pizza-maker of Naples. She then instructed this chef, Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi, to concoct three new varieties of pizza, a food she had not yet had the pleasure of tasting. The queen herself would deem these pizzas worthy—or not—of her royal palate.

The first two pizzas that Esposito offered the queen—pizza marinara made with olive oil, tomato, and garlic; and pizza mastunicola, made with lard, olive oil, grated cheese, pepper, and basil—were not to her liking. The third, however, a simple variation made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and a touch of basil, hit the imperial spot. That is how the pizza Margherita got its name and became fit for a queen.

While there remains skepticism as to its origin, with similar pizza recipes combining cheese, basil, and mozzarella traced back to at least 1866, there’s no question of its symbolism. The pizza Margherita, whether on purpose or not, perfectly depicts the colors of the Italian flag: green, white, and red.

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As far as accolades go, as of 2009, the pizza Margherita is one of three Pizze Napoletane with an STG (Specialità Tradizionali Garantite—Traditional Guaranteed Specialty) EU label, along with the Marinara, made with garlic and oregano, and the Margherita Extra, with mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, fresh basil, and tomatoes.

How do local Neapolitan pizza makers feel about this imperial dish? When I asked pizza chef Sergio at the famous Neapolitan pizzeria L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which dates back to 1870, why he only serves this variety of pizza, coming in traditional, double-cheese, and no-cheese versions, he had little more to say than: “Margherita pizza is the best!”

Fellow pizza chef Luciano called it poesia, sharing that, “For us, it is a poem. There is much passion needed to make this pizza.” Luciano didn’t neglect to remind me that the pizza Margherita represents the colors of the Italian flag.

Francesco Filippelli, Pizzaiolo Chef at Gloria, a South London-based outpost by the Big Mamma Group, famed for their numerous Italian restaurants in Paris, also had a few thoughts to share. “We do consider Margherita pizza as the traditional Neapolitan pizza.” He also shed a little light on its origins: “Pizza has a very ancient history, and although pizzas with tomato as one of the toppings only appeared in [the] 18th century…pizza was already widely consumed in Naples much earlier than that. Originally, it was baked as a flatbread garnished with lard, salt, and garlic.”

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Filippelli’s evidenced expertise in his doughy craft includes thoughts about what authentic Neapolitan pizza looks like. “The true Neapolitan pizza is roundish in shape and has a diameter of 35 centimeters max,” Filippelli explains. “It presents a raised edge or ‘cornicione’ of one to two centimeters, which should be swollen and free from burns and the thickness from the center is no more than [a quarter] centimeter. It must be soft, pliable, and fragrant and cooked in a wood-fired oven at a temperature between 430 to 480 degrees Celsius for 60 to 90 seconds.”

And the famous pizza is not just found in Naples. Paris-based pizzeria Da Graziella in the city’s eclectic right bank neighborhood is a staple for Parisians looking for an authentic bite. This former bird shop, where both the owner and the wood-burning oven are imported from Naples, serves up some of the city’s best Margherita pizza. Taking a bite might lead you to wonder if their decadent fried pizza, a typical Neapolitan street food, would win Queen Margherita’s approval.