The History of Pizza in Naples

Is there anything that says Italy more than pizza? Biting into the perfect pizza is just heaven! While you’ll find excellent pizza all over Italy, there’s one place that’s absolutely the top – Naples. This is where pizza was born and where it’s still king. Come along as we take a look at the history of the Neapolitan pizza, from it’s humble beginnings to an international favorite!

Naples is proud of its heritage as the place where pizza was born. However, precisely when pizza as we know it today was invented has been lost in a cloud of flour dust. Even the pizza historians don’t all agree on exactly when tomatoes met bread and were later joined by cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and a few leaves of basil. (Yes, there are pizza historians. And, yes, we’re jealous of their job!)

The beginning of pizza, just as when you make one, is with the crust. Flat breads have been eaten in Naples since ancient times and were likely brought to the area from the Middle East. There are ovens that have been uncovered at the ruins of Roman Pompeii that look strikingly similar to wood fired pizza ovens today.

Oven at Ancient Pompeii Italy

However, it wasn’t until much later, the 1760s to be more accurate, that tomatoes baked atop flat bread became the thing to eat in Naples. For that we can thank Ferdinand, King of Naples, who rather liked cavorting with, well, let’s just say not the nicest class of people. For a king he was known for his vulgar tastes, and one of them was this dish of flat bread baked with tomatoes, olive oil, oregano and garlic. This was the very beginning of what is now called pizza alla marinara, the most basic pizza. (Imagine a world where this was considered vulgar … unthinkable!)

What worked for the King worked for the King, but it didn’t necessarily fly with the Queen. That would be Maria Carolina of Austria, the sister of Marie Antoinette. Would Marie Antoinette get her pretty gloves messy eating pizza? I think not. So you can imagine her sister’s response to King Ferdinand’s fancies. While she refused to have pizza at her table, she did allow her husband to install a pizza oven outdoors at the Capodimonte Palace. What happened next was the first pizza party. Quite literally! With the King and Queen hosting lavish parties with pizza it quickly became a court fashion.

Pizza Marinara and Pizza Margherita in Naples Italy

By 1830, when the first pizzeria opened in Naples near Port’Alba not far from Piazza Dante, pizza was the rage for all levels of society. The Port’Alba Restaurant and Pizzeria still stands and is quite busy! Now we’re approaching the all-important moment when mozzarella cheese arrived on the pizza. By all accounts this happened sometime before 1889, but there are no good stories before that date. And everyone likes a good story. So here it is!

In 1889, Queen Margherita, wife of Umberto I the King of Italy, expressed some interest in trying the famous Neapolitan pizza she had heard so much about. So on her visit to the city she summoned one of the best pizza makers of the day, one Raffaele Esposito from what is now called Pizzeria Brandi, to make her the local specialty. Keep in mind that Italy had only been unified for 28 years at this point and enthusiasm for the new country and its tri color flag were all the rage. The story goes that in order to honor the Queen with something extra special and to show his support for the new country, Raffaele added some mozzarella cheese and basil leaves to make the pizza green, white and red. A little messier than a flag, but much tastier!

Margherita pizza at Pizzeria Brandi

Naturally, the Queen was impressed and when word got out about the success it became a smash hit and is still called pizza Margherita in her honor. Now that’s a story! When you pass by Pizzeria Brandi not far from Galleria Umberto I, you’ll see a marble plaque celebrating the spot where the world’s most famous pizza was created.

Pizzeria Brandi Naples La Pizza Margherita 1889

You don’t have to go far to find a pizzeria in Naples and anyone you ask will have their favorite spot that makes the best pizza in the city. There are subtle variations, but to be considered la vera pizza napoletana (the true Neapolitan pizza) there are strict guidelines for the ingredients used to make the dough and the type of tomatoes and mozzarella used for the topping. Even if you like your pizza with lots of toppings, do try the classic pizza marinara and pizza Margherita while you’re in Naples. You’re going to want to try them in many pizzerias in Naples … consider yourself warned!

Neapolitan Presepe Pizzeria Naples Italy

With so much history it is no wonder that pizza is so deeply ingrained in Neapolitan culture. Walking along Via San Gregorio Armeno in the historic heart of Naples, which is famous for its rows of tiny shops where presepe—or nativities—are still handmade, you’ll even spot pizzerias and tiny pizza makers for the Christmas nativity. The best ones have the ovens lit up and the pizzaioli (pizza makers) put pizzas in and out of the oven. What could be more perfect for a Neapolitan Christmas nativity?

Image Credits: Pizza in wood fired oven by if you love me, Oven at Pompeii by Daniela, Pizzas in Naples by Jonathan Khoo, Pizza Margherita by Mr. dale, Pizzeria Brandi sign by nezzem, Presepe pizzeria by eti-eti.  

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2 Responses
  1. Your post reminded me that years ago, one of my Italian friends (whose name is Brandi and has since moved back to Italy) was a descendent of the Brandi pizza family, and gave a talk to the Italian cultural institute I’m involved with. I’ve got a yen to go back to that Brandi pizzeria in Naples.

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