It is 1760 and on the throne in Naples is King Ferdinand IV. Pietro Colicchio has opened Pizzeria di Pietro e basta così, and the name says it all: “Pietro’s Pizzeria and that’s enough.” A restaurant strictly selling pizza, it will become known as one of Naples’ first pizzerias.
As we move into the 19th century, Raffaele Esposito and his wife Giovanna Brandi take over Pietro’s, which is located on via Chiaia, the city’s “good sofa” as they say in Neapolitan, meaning one of the best and more elegant parts of the city. It’s here that Brandi Pizzeria creates a legend of its own, without the help of Pietro.
Raffaele Esposito is the protagonist of this story – one that has been handed down for generations – a story about the birth of the Pizza Margherita. It’s a pizza that is, without exaggeration, the most popular in the world.
It is the summer of 1889 and the Savoy royals are in Naples. Queen Margherita is housed in the Palace of Capodimonte. As the story goes, tired of the palace’s fussy French cuisine, the queen expresses a desire to taste “the famous Neapolitan pizza.” So, a palace official sends out an invitation for Raffaele to come through with his classic pies.
He makes three types for the occasion. The first, a white pizza, with oil, pork lard, cheese and basil. The second, with cecenielle (whitebait). The third represents the tri-colored Italian flag: white mozzarella, green basil and red tomato. You can guess which one was just right for Queen Margherita. Thus, the Pizza Margherita was baptized into legend.
According to some historians, however, Raffaele’s story is just that: beautiful propaganda. They say the Pizza Margherita of tomato, mozzarella and basil was known and named in Naples before 1889. It was called “margherita” due to the fact that its crust took the shape of the marguerite daisy. Whatever the truth, we have Maestro Raffaele to thank for starting a wonderfully long-standing tradition of Neapolitan gastronomy.
The 21st-century Pizza Margherita coming out of Brandi’s oven is still extraordinary, using the best San Marzano tomatoes, dairy products from Agerola on the Sorrento Amalfi Coast, basil of the Vesuvian villages and the best extra virgin olive oil from Campania.
Our final destination on this three-part flight is Pizzeria Brandi of the 21st century. Still owned by the Brandi family, still maintaining its status as a legend. Giovanna’s nephew, Vincenzo Pagnani, took over the pizzeria in the 1960s and, since 2005, Vincenzo’s two sons have been in charge. Paolo, 56, and Eduardo, 60, are aided by their children, the fifth generation of pizza makers, and the owners of one of the most famous Neapolitan pizzerias.
“For decades, our usual clientele were linked to Neapolitan culture and entertainment. This is a district of theaters. Theatre-goers would eat pizza before going to a show and, after performances, theater companies would come to have dinner,” Paolo tells us.
Today, however, there is a large base of customers in the form of international tourists, coming to take in the fame of the pizzeria. It is home to relics of the late-19th century that testify to the central role of this pizzeria in the panorama of Neapolitan pizza makers. “The workhorse is always the Pizza Margherita, of course,” Paolo says. It is the only one of the three pizzas Raffaele allegedly presented to the queen that still survives. (It is now forbidden to fish for cecenielle, and pizzaiolos have moved away from the unhealthy use of lard on pizza.)
Regardless, the 21st-century Pizza Margherita coming out of Brandi’s oven is still extraordinary, using the best San Marzano tomatoes, dairy products from Agerola on the Sorrento Amalfi Coast, basil of the Vesuvian villages and the best extra virgin olive oil from Campania. At Brandi, the pizza is the perfect size, with a dough recipe that is easy on the stomach. All in all, a great pizza.
But even for one of Naples most-famous pizzerias, the struggles with the Covid-19 lockdowns were almost too much to bear, and they were forced to make considerable changes. “During the pandemic, we set up an online delivery platform, but we realized it wasn’t worth it. We could not even cover the expenses, and so we decided to close,” Paolo says. “We reopened in May 2021, increasing the number of seats outside and distancing people in our five indoor rooms. Luckily, the 2021 season has been really long and exceptional” he says. Even more, the pizzeria has expanded to include a traditional trattoria on its premises.
The trattoria serves typical Neapolitan fare: ragù, genovese, and pasta and peas. This is in addition to the fried appetizers, which have always been the typical accompaniment to pizza. “In this way, we are able to offer the customer a more complete service, allowing those who visit Naples for a short period to have an experience of a pizzeria and a Neapolitan trattoria at the same time,” Paolo adds. It’s a duo that is quite common across the kitchens of the city.
Of course, despite these new additions, what one should come here for is to taste the 130-year-old recipe of the Pizza Margherita. There’s nothing like tasting the world’s most-famous pizza in the spot where it was actually born.