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, both have made the history of Italian food.
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.
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 a flatbread made from flour and water. The dough would be cooked by placing 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 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.
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.
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 their own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.
Neapolitan style 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 loose 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 it authentic.
Italian Traditional Pizza
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. Pizza Capricciosa: 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 cheeses 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 a pizza similar to the Capricciosa that 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!
New Trends in Pizza
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 rosmary. 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 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 piazzioli 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 pizza will.
By Justin Demetri