More than any other food I’ve talked about, pizza is perhaps the most loved. A hamburger may beat it on price and convenience but it cannot hold a candle to the passion this decorated flatbread invokes across the western-world. As countless social-media posts will attest to.
Whether it be artistically shot Instagram posts or Tweets asserting an almost religious like zeal to the Italian classic, pizza is renowned for its taste, ease of eating and calorific content. It has however had an extraordinary amount of time to accumulate such a following. Far longer than anything else discussed in this series.
Pinsa, the Latin term for flatbread emerged sometime in the centuries preceding the birth of Christ. Flavoured with olives, cheeses and vegetables it had many cousins across the ancient world, such as topped pita bread. Indeed pita bread pizza’s are still going strong, I ate a good few hundred as a student.
Purist’s claim the Italian version emerged with the early Romans on the stilettoesque peninsular, others say it was imported from the eastern reaches of the empire. Regardless of the origins of this proto-pizza, the term pizza was first recorded in the Italian lexicon in 10th century Naples. Even this was not something any of us would recognise.
It was more like heavily flavoured garlic flat bread, a beefed up version of what the Romans ate. Why? Well one truly fundamental ingredient was missing, one that is the foundation of Italian cooking: The Tomato.
How!? I hear the pizza lovers of the world cry did it take so long for this wunderkind of the culinary world to become a feature? The answer is twofold. Like the potato tomatoes are not native to Europe. It was brought over from the Central America in the early 16th century. So like chips we have the new world to thank for this European creation.
Yet pizzas were not topped with tomatoes for another 150 years. Why? Like with so many other nutritious and now staple foods, our early modern ancestors deemed tomatoes to be poisonous perhaps here with some justification as they are related to the venomous nightshade plant.
Once this was debunked, to the immense gratitude of posterity, tomatoes emigrated onto pizzas. It is in the late 18th century that the modern pizza was first fired in the ovens of Naples. And it is Naples which unequivocally holds this title, both in cultural memory and European law as the birthplace of pizza.
Naples first Pizzeria opened in 1830. The Antica Pizzeria Port’alba can still be visited today offering only marinara and margherita, the only versions it considers to be actual pizza.
The modern pizza as with other dishes discussed in this series began as a street food. Sold by vendors to poor workers by the slice. Fulfilling the basic needs of such customers, price, convenience, a full belly and of course taste. The two non-hertical versions are born from Naples locality to the sea- marinara and the visit of Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1880.
An innovative or perhaps sycophantic chef created a pizza of basil, mozzarella and tomatoes the colours of the Italian flag in honour of her visit and thus a culinary masterpiece was born.
As with the hamburger the pizza travelled to America along with the millions of in this case Italians who braved the voyage across the Atlantic from the mid 19th century. Pizza remained popular with the Italian-American community but saw little popularity outside of this cultural enclave. The first licensed American Pizzeria only opened in Manhattan in 1905.
Enter World War Two, the catalyst for so much change. American G.Is sought out local dishes in the Italian campaign out of disgust at their own army rations. In doing so they discovered the delights and benefits of the Pizza just as workers had a century prior. They returned home looking for a taste of Italy in America. The pizza then burst out of Little Italy onto the nation’s menus. Italian and immigrant cuisine no longer a taboo pizza was sold to industrial workers of any ethnicity for a few pennies a slice.
The post-war boom saw Italian-Americans move to the suburbs and across the country, taking Pizza with them. Pizza became commercialised just as the hamburger and french fry had been, it’s cultural heritage artificially maintained by the ad-men. Although what an Italian would do if you handed them a frozen Chicago town deep-pan pizza I do not know, well I can hazard a guess.
The Pizza was now a national dish of America, they created the aforementioned Chicago style in the 1940’s and both the New Yorker and Hawaiian are now common heretical versions of the Neapolitan original. To the purists these might just be fancy flatbeads but to the world they are a staple of the drunken takeaway the office all nighter and the lazy Monday night.