There are few dishes that are more closely associated with Italy than a pizza. Whether it’s a Pizza Napolitana, a Pizza Siciliana or a simple Pizza Margherita, pizza is a treasured part of the nation’s culinary heritage and is loved by locals and tourists alike.
Everybody loves pizza but it’s not just the diversity of toppings that make pizzas so appealing, it’s also the fact that they are easy to make and the ingredients are relatively cheap. As a result, pizzas have become nearly ubiquitous in the world today. Even so, very few people are aware of the fascinating history that lies behind this unique culinary tradition.
Pizza In Antiquity – The Earliest Records Of Flatbreads.
While pizza, as we know it today, was not truly invented until the 17th or 18th Century, in Italy, there are numerous historical accounts of very similar flatbreads with toppings being made in much earlier times. The first use of the word ‘pizza’ can only be dated back to around 997 AD, in Gaeta in Southern Italy, although it was more like a Focaccia than a pizza as we know it today. There are also accounts of a very similar flatbread dish eaten by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans long before that.
For instance, in the 6th Century BC, Darius the Great is said to have been served flatbreads with cheese and dates by Persian troops, using their shields as plates. Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, a flatbread known as ‘plakous’ was popular and was usually served with oil, herbs, onion, garlic and cheese.
However, one of the oldest discoveries of flatbread being cooked in ovens dates back to more than 7,000 years ago in Sardinia. It’s highly likely that even 7,000 years ago, somebody might have got the idea to add some extra ingredients to the bread as a topping, but this is not known for sure. Even so, it’s quite possible that the earliest ancestor of modern pizza could have emerged on the Italian island of Sardinia.
When Did Modern Pizza Originate?
Naples was originally founded as a Greek outpost in around 600 BC. At first, the settlement was named ‘Neapolis’, or ‘new city’, by the Greek settlers. By that time, the ancient Greeks were already eating flatbread with various toppings, including olive oil, herbs and cheese. In fact, the Roman poet Virgil, in his epic poem the Aeneid which was completed in 19 BC, says that the legendary Trojans ate a flat round cake that they topped with vegetables.
As a Greek settlement, it’s highly likely that the earliest local populations of Naples were aware of flatbreads. At the very least, they may have picked up the recipe from the Greeks although they may have already been eating various types of flatbread before the Greeks arrived, nobody knows for sure.
Later, the Kingdom of Naples was founded in the late 13th Century and ruled over a large swathe of Italy’s Southern Peninsula, between 1282 and 1816. By the 16th Century, Naples was an important port city that thrived on the extensive ocean trade routes that had grown up in and around the Mediterranean. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Bay of Naples was busy, overcrowded and was home to a highly dense population of low-paid dock workers, known as ‘lassaroni’.
What Is The First Type Of Modern Pizza?
Many of the dock workers and their families lived in single-room homes and consequently spent most of their free time outdoors, sitting together around shared ovens and fires. The workers and their families needed a staple food that was simple, cheap and easy to cook in a basic oven or over an open fire.
Flatbreads perfectly fit these requirements; they could be easily cooked and any number of toppings could be added to improve the flavor. However, it wasn’t until the Spanish brought tomatoes back from the Americas, in the 16th Century, that the modern concept of a pizza, with tomato sauce and other toppings, was born in the bustling harbor communities of Naples.
At first, wealthier Italians looked down on the pizza, considering it to be a dish that was only suitable for the poor. Even so, pizza continued to evolve from a basic dish made with just tomatoes and cheese and by the 19th Century many new recipes had been invented, many of which were sweet and not savory.
History Of Pizza Margherita.
The reputation of the pizza changed, quite by chance, in 1889 when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita were visiting Naples. The Queen, who had been traveling for some time, had grown tired of her diet of the finest French-style haute cuisine and so she asked for a selection of the local piazzas from the ‘Pizzeria Brandi’, a legendary pizzeria that was founded in 1760.
After tasting a range of pizzas with various different toppings, Queen Margherita decided that the Pizza Mozzarella, which was topped with soft cheese, tomatoes and basil, was her favorite. Once the Queen had given the pizza her blessing, it started a nationwide craze for pizza that has lasted to the present day. It’s also the reason why the modern-day pizza with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil is known as a ‘Margherita’.
However, despite the huge popularity of pizza within Italy from 1889 onwards, the craze never caught on outside of Italy’s borders until after World War II.
How Pizza Conquered the World.
For hundreds of years, pizza was only eaten by Italians in Italy and Italian immigrants in America. However, today pizza is one of the most popular dishes on the planet! In fact, worldwide, there are now almost 250,000 pizza restaurants, of which only 42,000 are in Italy. So how did pizza spread from Italy to America and then to the rest of the world?
Following the liberation of Italy in World War II, American troops would always be on the lookout for cheap local food that they could use to supplement their meager military rations. During the war the American soldiers discovered pizza and from then on the local bakers found it hard to keep up with the demand for their services!
Once the war ended, the returning American troops did not forget how much they loved eating pizza. So it’s no surprise that once the soldiers arrived back in America, they would seek out pizza from bakeries in the Italian neighborhoods that were already well established in every major city in the country.
As word spread and more Americans came to learn about how delicious a pizza really was, pizza parlors soon started popping up to meet the growing demand. Over the years, pizza has become as much a part of American life as the apple pie. Today more than 350 slices of pizza are eaten every single second in the United States alone. This means that each day Americans eat 100 acres of pizza or 3 billion pizzas per year.
Pizza Delivered To Russian Cosmonaut In Space!
In 2001, Pizza Hut, a giant pizza restaurant company, paid over $1 million to have a 6-inch pizza delivered to the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Usachov on board the International Space Station. The cosmonaut was filmed giving a big thumbs up after becoming the first human to eat pizza in space!
The legend goes that Yuri had originally wanted a pepperoni pizza but because of the long delivery time, he had to settle for salami instead since it would stay fresh during the long voyage to the space station. Pizza Hut also added extra spices and herbs to the pizza to compensate for the fact that human taste buds don’t work so well in space.
One thing seems certain, no matter where humans manage to explore in space, pizza will be coming with them. So the only question that remains is, when will the first pizza be eaten on the moon?
The Most Famous Italian Pizzas.
The following are some of the most iconic Italian pizzas:
As the original pizza that brought the humble flatbread nationwide fame, the Margherita pizza, named after Queen Margherita in 1889, is made with mozzarella, tomato and basil toppings.
This is a traditional Italian pizza that is extremely simple, with toppings of tomato, garlic and oregano. The name can be a little confusing though because ‘Marinara’ literally translates to ‘seafaring’ or ‘sailor-style’ and yet the pizza has no seafood toppings. However, the pizza got its name because the ingredients were easy to preserve and were often used by sailors on long voyages.
Prosciutto E Funghi Pizza.
Undoubtedly one of the most delicious and popular pizzas on the planet, the Prosciutto e Funghi, or ham and mushroom pizza, is either made with cooked ham or cured ham and mushroom toppings with a tomato sauce base.
Quattro Stagioni Pizza.
The Quattro Stagioni, or ‘four seasons’ pizza, is made in several different ways. With base toppings of tomato and mozzarella, you can have ham, mushrooms, black olives and artichokes while in other cases you can also have additional ingredients such as anchovies. What gives the pizza its name is that each of the main ingredients is placed in its own quarter of the pizza, thereby representing the four seasons.
Quattro Formaggi Pizza.
If you love your cheese, then the Quattro Formaggi, or ‘four cheese’, pizza is the one for you. As well as a layer of tomato sauce, some of the cheeses that you can use for the toppings include Mozzarella, Stracchino, Gorgonzola, Fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano and Provolone, among others.
Ortolana pizza is a traditional vegetarian option and is made with tomato sauce, mozzarella and a range of different vegetables including peppers, aubergines, courgette and often an additional mix of seasonal roasted vegetables.
Literally meaning the ‘Devil’s pizza’, the Diavola pizza is very spicy and is made with tomato, spicy salami and fresh chilies. The Diavola pizza is the original Italian version of the modern-day American ‘Pepperoni pizza’.
This pizza is another typically Neapolitan recipe that is made with tomato sauce and toppings of mozzarella, mushrooms and slices of sausage.
Frutti Di Mare Pizza.
The Fruitti di Mare, or ‘seafood’ pizza, is exactly what it says on the tin! Made with tomato sauce, mozzarella with seafood toppings that include shrimp, squid, mussels and usually extra garlic and a parsley seasoning.
Pizza – Italy’s Greatest Gift To The World.
Pizza in Italy, and around the world, has become a part of our everyday lives. But there’s no need to worry too much about the academic and historical aspects of the dish because the true joy of pizza is in the tasting and sharing with friends. So don’t let yourself worry about the calories in a pizza because, as they say in Italy, ‘Non si vive di solo pane’, or, in English, ‘One does not live by bread alone’!