History of Food Italian Food

History of Pizza – Learn the story of the traditional Italian pizza

There are not many nations that can say their national dish has become an international phenomenon. Italy has two such dishes, pasta and, of course, pizza. Both are famous all over the world, and both are part of the history of Italian food. With this post, we’ll follow the history of Pizza, the origin, and where it evolved!

The history of Pizza

history of pizza

In America pizza usually falls into two categories: thick and cheesy Chicago style or thin and more traditional New York pizza. In Italy pizza also falls into two distinct categories: Italian pizza and the rest of the world. It might seem silly considering the basic ingredients, but one taste of a true Italian pizza and that’s it. You will never feel the same about this simple and delicious food again. Let’s learn a little bit more about the history of pizza, shall we?

Pizza in its most basic form as a seasoned flatbread has a long history in the Mediterranean. Several cultures including the Greeks and Phoenicians ate flatbread made from flour and water. The dough would be cooked by placing it on a hot stone and then seasoned with herbs. The Greeks called this early pizza plankuntos and it was basically used as an edible plate when eating stews or thick broth. It was not yet what we would call pizza today but it was very much like modern focaccia. These early pizzas were eaten from Rome to Egypt to Babylon and were praised by the ancient historians Herodotus and Cato the Elder.

The origin of pizza

So, about the origin of pizza… The word “pizza” is thought to have come from the Latin word pinsa, meaning flatbread (although there is much debate about the origin of the word).

A legend suggests that Roman soldiers gained a taste for Jewish Matzoth while stationed in Roman-occupied Palestine and developed a similar food after returning home. However, a recent archeological discovery has found a preserved Bronze Age pizza in the Veneto region. By the Middle Ages, these early pizzas started to take on a more modern look and taste.

The peasantry of the time used what few ingredients they could get their hands on to produce the modern pizza dough and topped it with olive oil and herbs. The introduction of the Indian Water Buffalo gave pizza another dimension with the production of mozzarella cheese. Even today, the use of fresh mozzarella di buffalo in Italian pizza cannot be substituted. While other cheeses have made their way onto pizza (usually in conjunction with fresh mozzarella), no Italian Pizzeria would ever use the dried shredded type used on so many American pizzas.

A pizza napoletana verace
A pizza napoletana verace (elfQrin/wikimedia)

The introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries finally gave us the true modern Italian pizza. Even though tomatoes reached Italy by the 1530’s it was widely thought that they were poisonous and were grown only for decoration. However, the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas.

Since that fateful day, the world of Italian cuisine would never be the same, however, it took some time for the rest of society to accept this crude peasant food. Once members of the local aristocracy tried pizza they couldn’t get enough of it, which by this time was being sold on the streets of Naples for every meal. As pizza popularity increased, street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with many different toppings. By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and this venerable institution is still producing masterpieces.

More about the origin of pizza?

The popular pizza Margherita owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita who in 1889 visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples. The Pizzaiolo (pizza maker) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito created a pizza for the Queen that contained the three colors of the new Italian flag. The red of tomato, white of the mozzarella, and fresh green basil, was a hit with the Queen and the rest of the world. Neapolitan style pizza had now spread throughout Italy and each region started designing its own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.

Pizza Verace Napoletana is characterized by a crust thicker than the rest of the pizza, known as cornicioni
Pizza Verace Napoletana is characterized by a crust thicker than the rest of the pizza, known as cornicioni (Bauaro/flickr)

Neapolitan pizza is not only special for its relevance in the history of the dish, but also because, since 2010, it holds a STG qualification granted by the EU. STG means that Neapolitan pizza, or Pizza Verace Napoletana, as it is known (original Neapolitan pizza), is a specialità tradizionale garantita (guaranteed traditional specialty): its ingredients are controlled and regulated by law, just as its shape, the way the dough is prepared and cut, and where it can be consumed.

Yes, that’s right: to be so, a pizza verace napoletana must be consumed in the same premises where it has been baked, which means take-out pizzas lose their STG qualification. The STG qualification is a guarantee for the consumer that the product roots its origins in the culinary tradition of a certain area and, even more important, that it has been made following regulations apt to keep the Neopolitan pizza authentic.

Traditional Italian pizza

Continuing the history of pizza, we should have a look at the traditional Italian pizza too. Pizza Margherita may have set the standard, but there are numerous popular varieties of pizza made in Italy today.

Pizza from a Pizzeria is the recognized round shape, made to order, and always cooked in a wood-fired oven. Regional varieties are always worth trying such as pizza Marinara, a traditional Neapolitan pizza that has oregano, anchovies, and lots of garlic. Some other traditional Italian pizza is:

Pizza Capricciosa with a topping of mushrooms, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, olives, and ½ a boiled egg! Pizza Pugliese makes use of local capers and olives, while pizza Veronese has mushrooms and tender prosciutto Crudo. Pizzas from Sicily can have numerous toppings ranging from green olives, seafood, hard-boiled eggs, and peas.

Besides regional styles, there are several varieties that are popular throughout Italy. Quattro Formaggi uses a four-cheese combination of fresh mozzarella and three local kinds of cheese such as gorgonzola, ricotta, and Parmigiano Reggiano, or stronger cheeses such as fontina or taleggio, depending on the areas of Italy. Italian tuna packed in olive oil is also a popular topping along with other marine products like anchovies, shellfish, and shrimp.

Quattro Stagioni is another traditional Italian pizza similar to the Capricciosa. It represents the four seasons and makes a good sampler pizza with sections of artichokes, salami or Prosciutto Cotto, mushrooms, and tomatoes. In Liguria, you may find pizza topped with basil pesto and no tomato sauce. Of course, there are hundreds more to discover and all of them are delicious!

Within the history of pizza, and the traditional Italian pizza, there are other types of pizza and types of flatbread that are very popular in Italy (and not just). Here are some highlight!

Pizza al taglio, also known as pizza rustica, is sold everywhere in Italy, usually by weight and often piled with marinated mushrooms, onions, or artichokes. This style of pizza is cooked on a sheet pan at street stalls and makes a good quick lunch.

Focaccia is typical of Liguria and is characterized by a base usually thicker than that of pizza, topped with olive oil and rosemary. More toppings can be added, olive, caramelized onions, and cheese being among the more common.

Sfincione is a thick Sicilian sheet pizza that uses tomato sauce, anchovies (usually anchovy paste) breadcrumbs, and caciocavallo (or another local variety) cheese.

Italian calzone (no surprise here!) is smaller than its American cousin and is often filled with either meats or fresh vegetables (a favorite is a spinach) and mozzarella. A newer trend that is gaining popularity is the emergence of sweet pizzas and traditional Italian pizzerias are trying to accommodate this trend by using unique ingredients. These dessert pizzas often have flavor combinations such as Nutella, honey, fruit jam, yogurt, even mustard, and liquor.

One thing to keep in mind when ordering pizza in an Italian pizzeria is that the product is personal size. Each person at a table should order their own individual pizza – one bite will explain why. In certain areas outside Italy, there are a few pizzaioli who keep to their homeland traditions as best as they can with the ingredients they have, but it really isn’t the same. In the end, there is no going back once you try a real Italian pizza, no delivery or frozen product will ever stimulate your taste buds the way a real Italian pizza does!

These would be our highlights of the history of pizza, the traditional Italian pizza and the different types of pizza you can find. We hope you’re ready to taste and love.

By Justin Demetri

How to make Neapolitan Pizza

Note: since one reader posted that in Napoli pizza Margherita is made with Fior Di Latte (Cow Mozzarella) and not Buffala mozzarella I did some research and it looks like the reader is wrong. One of the most famous Neapolitan pizzeria (L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele) uses buffalo mozzarella and I suspect all do, I do not see how they could do otherwise since buffalo mozzarella comes from the Naples area and it has always been considered superior to Fior di Latte.


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