The King, The Queen, and The First Pizza Buffet (3)

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series. You can read Part 1 here.

In Naples, the Pizzeria Brandi displays an 1889 letter from the royal “Inspection Office of the Mouth” (seriously!), confirming the Queen of Italy praised the excellence of the restaurant’s pizzas. Tour guides cite the letter when pinpointing Naples as the birthplace of the modern pizza. Their stories vary, but have three things in common:

1) Umberto of Savoy, king of Italy, summons Raffaele Esposito, the most famous pizzolio in Naples, to prepare his very best pies for the queen. 

2) Of the three pies Raffaele creates, Queen Margherita declares the one with tomatoes, cheese, and basil her favorite, as these ingredients embody the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. 

3) Raffaele names this pie the “margherita pizza” in honor of the queen.

History confirms Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. In all likelihood, though, her visit there had more to do with Barack Obama than with pizza.

Umberto Ranieri Carlo Emanuele Giovanni Maria Ferdinando Eugenio, also known as King Umberto the First of Savoy, was a short fellow with a long name. His glossy hair and regal forehead were his best features, but his good looks ended at the eyebrows. His bulging eyes gave him a startled expression. His ears rode low on his tiny head. To make matters worse, he sported a comically large mustache, so thick and wide it looks like a fruit bat roosted beneath his sharp little nose.

King Umberto, accompanied by his mustache.

Joining him in Naples was Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna. Margherita wore her blonde hair up, complementing her almond-shaped eyes and earnest face. Despite being long-necked and long-limbed, she slouched, perhaps to disguise the fact she was taller and more graceful than her lump of a husband.

Queen Margherita, who, perhaps, looks a bit sad for good reason.

Margherita was Umberto’s queen by title, his first cousin by birth, and, by means of a joyless arrangement, his wife. Two years into their sham marriage, Umberto stopped sleeping with Margherita and installed Eugenia Attendolo Bolognini, the love of his life, as the queen’s lady-in-waiting. 

Though not loved by her husband, Margherita was adored by her people, who revered her as a model of clean living. She limited her diet to lean meats, eggs, and vegetables, finished with a taste of ice cream and black coffee — a menu believed to promote perfect digestion. Fashion magazines of the day celebrated this smart, straight-talking woman not for her wits, but for her excellent hygiene.

In fact, Margherita’s reputation for cleanliness was almost certainly why she ended up in Naples. As the Queen of Clean, she made the perfect nemesis for the city’s resident super-villain: a bacterium called virbium cholerae

Five years earlier, thanks to a population density greater than Paris and a woefully inadequate sewer system, human waste saturated the soil of Naples. Cholera — called “The Blue Death” because dehydration by diarrhea turned victims bluish-grey — killed hundreds.

Advocates of germ theory clamored to remove the infected soil and build new sewers. But on the Neapolitan equivalent of Fox News, shysters pooh-poohed the idea that invisible creatures cause cholera, and called for city leaders to “cleanse the air” by burning sulphur in the slums. 

Plan B had no effect at all on vibrum cholerae, but proved a boon for land developers, who seized abandoned slums after residents fled the sulfurous fumes. Soon, the foul air of Naples reverberated with the agony of the dying and the wailing of the bereaved. The death toll climbed to 14,000.

When a city the size of Naples loses three percent of its workforce, the national economy suffers. With plans for modernizing the sewers mired down in bureaucracy, corruption, and land speculation, Naples needed more than urban renewal. It needed a PR campaign. But what could possibly lure people back to the a city best known for brimstone and the Blue Death?

The tour guide’s tale, then, asks us to believe this: in June of 1889, King Umberto visited the filthiest city in Italy, phoned up Esposito’s Tavern and ordered the lowliest of low cuisines, and served these dubious pies to Margherita, the cleanest of clean-living Italians. 

Given the issues of the day, Queen Margherita visiting Naples, becoming peckish for a pizza, and wrapping her pristine lips around a steaming slice is the Neapolitan equivalent of President Barak Obama visiting Flint, Michigan, breaking into a convenient coughing fit at the press conference, and guzzling down a glass of lead-laced Flint River water. 

Both gestures communicate a message: the crisis is over, and this city, despite what you’ve heard about it, is open for business again.

While my spin on the story feels more authentic than the one shared with tourists, the ugly truth is that both tales hinge on documentary evidence: the letter hanging in the Pizzeria Bondi.

That letter is almost certainly a fake.

Royal records, so meticulous they do capture Raffaele Esposito’s application for a liquor license, don’t mention the King summoning the same man to bring the queen a pie. The seal on the letter is in the wrong place; worse, it is unlike any seal ever used by the royal house. The letter, attributed to Camillio Galli, whose distinctive script graces hundreds of court documents, is not in his handwriting. And palace records show Queen Margherita was in Rome, not Naples, on the date in question. 

The story of the first pizza buffet is most likely a political stunt, invented after the fact to stoke national pride, or an early attempt at viral marketing, fabricated as a means of boosting business. Even so, as the tale has been told and retold over the centuries, it has acquired a weight and value that transcends truth. 

From a certain perspective, questions about the veracity of the margherita pizza miss the point entirely. As an origin story, the function it fulfills — what it does for us and for those who hear it — is more important than its factuality. 

This is also true of our own origin stories — including the one I’ll tell you next, about a pizza buffet in a small Alabama town, a longing glance across a crowded restaurant, and kiss on a porch on a summer’s day.