A Brief History of Pizza
Pizza, as we know it today, derives from focaccia, flat bread that has been prepared since antiquity in different forms and garnished with herbs, olives, fat, raisins, honey, and nuts. In fact, the word “pizza” in Italian identifies any type of flat bread or pie that is fried or baked.
Although you can find many types of pitas or pizzas around the Mediterranean, it is in Naples, after the tomato appeared on the table in the 1700s, that pizza first emerged in the form we know today.
Naples has records of pizza since around the year 1000. The first records call these flat breads laganae, and later they are referred to as picea. In those times, pizzas was dressed with garlic and olive oil, or cheese and anchovies or small local fish. They were baked on an open fire and sometimes were closed in half, like a book, to form a calzone.
Naples is also where the first pizzerias opened. They had brick wood-burning ovens covered with lava stones from mount Vesuvius. The chefs of those times ignored pizza because it was considered a poor man’s food. Yet the introduction of tomato into the combination around the 1770s must have raised some curiosity even in the royal palace.
Ferdinand I Bourbon, King of Naples, loved the simple food of the people and went to taste pizzas made in the shop of Antonio Testa. He liked them so much that he wanted pizza included in the menu at the court. He failed after the opposition of his wife, Queen Maria Carolina. His son Ferdinand II also liked all kinds of popular foods. He loved pizza so much that he hired Domenico Testa, son of the now famous Antonio, to build a pizza oven in the royal palace of Capodimonte.
Pizza became very popular, earning its place in Neapolitan folklore. Simple and economical, it turned into a food for everyone, even sold on the streets, as shown in many illustrations of the time.
A famous episode extended the popularity of pizza beyond the limits of the city of Naples. It was 1889, and Margherita, queen of Italy, was visiting the city. She was told about pizza and wanted a taste. A famous cook named Don Raffaele, with the help of his wife Donna Rosa, was invited to cook pizza at the royal palace.
They prepared three pizzas typical of that time. One was with cheese and basil; one with garlic, oil, and tomato; and one with mozzarella, basil, and tomato. The queen, impressed by the colors of the last pizza, which resembled the national flag, preferred that one. Since then, this pizza has been known as Pizza Margherita, and Don Raffaele is credited with its invention, even though we know today that it had already existed even then for a long time.
At the beginning of the last century, Italian immigrants opened the first pizzerias in the United States, where pizza has become a mass phenomenon. Yet, even today the best pizza is found in Naples, where it is rigorously made with buffalo mozzarella.
Superior pizzas are considered those obtained by moderate variations of the simplest and most popular: Pizza Napoletana with tomato, garlic, oil, and oregano; Pizza Margherita; Pizza Marinara with tomato, anchovies, capers, and olives; and Pizza Four Seasons, divided in four quadrants, each dressed in a different way. Pizza with hot salami, the American pepperoni pizza, is instead found in the Calabria region south of Naples, where this type of hot sausage is produced.
Anna Maria Volpi
Pizza seller in the streets of Naples, engraving, early 1800s. The tradition of preparing and selling all kinds of pizzas in the streets remains well and alive today in the small lanes of downtown Naples. Pizza and calzoni, panzerotti, and pizzelle fritte are delicious when eaten warm - prepared right on the spot - in hundreds of small shops. As with fast foods, they can be either a snack or a full meal.