Pizza, Pizza, Pizza!
Who says the Italians don’t have fast food? In fact, they invented it. Pizza has been around since ancient times and today it’s an ubiquitous sight not only in Italy, but throughout the world. Pizza goes back to ancient times when people ate it as a pita bread with toppings. The Etruscans were the first in the country to create what comes down to us as focaccia bread. The ancient Greek colonizers in Italy, then, during the 6th century B.C. recorded eating a flat bread with herb, onion, and garlic toppings. By ancient Roman times, Virgil wrote about pizza in his epic The Aenied. His description, along with the wood fire ovens still seen today at Pompeii, tell us that flat bread with toppings was a common meal shared at home as well as in restaurants.
Pizza as we know it, however, began with the lazzaroni of Naples. The poor of the city wanted a cheap dish that could be eaten anytime. Their particular innovation was to add fresh tomatoes to flat bread. By the 1700’s their creation was so renown that tourists such as Alexander Dumas deliberately went into the slums of the city to taste their specialty.
Today, throughout Italy, pizza is a mainstay eaten at lunch, dinner, or as a snack. For lunch and dinner, Italians eat pizza with a fork and knife. They serve one whole pie for one person and the dish pairs best with cold beer. As a snack, they eat a slice folded over into a kind of sandwich.
Pizza comes with a large variety of toppings, but certain elements remain the same. First, the crust must always be thin. Second, pizza must be baked in a wood fire oven just as they did during ancient Roman times. Because the wood fire oven is so hot, baking happens in a mere minutes. Third, whatever topping is placed on the pizza, splashes of olive oil finish the process. Professional pizzaiolo’s might tell you that the tomatoes and olive oil should be drizzled in a clockwise direction.
Toppings aren’t heaped on the pie, but remain sparse—that’s what makes pizza a very light dish. Popular toppings in Italy include fresh anchovies with garlic. The sailor’s pizza has shelled shrimp, mussels, clams, and octopus. Then, if you go to a soccer game, enter a beach lido, or hang out at a shopping mall, you’ll see pizza sold with French fries and sliced hot dogs on top. White pizza also mimics the ancients, the topping of smoked provolone cheese with finely grated walnut a most unusual delight.
By far the most frequently eaten pizza in Italy, and pizzaiolo’s once again will say the only authentic pizza, is called the napoletana or the margherita. Legend has it that in 1889 pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito prepared a new pizza for the Royal Family. He served the dish topped with tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and basil to match the colors of the Italian flag. King Umberto I and his Queen Margherita commended Raffaele on his creativity and Italians liked his pizza so much, they named it after the queen herself.
In the 19th century, pizza entered the United States via Italian immigrants. From there, the dish spread throughout the country and, once again, turned itself into many renditions, including thick crust, heaped toppings, and everything that defines American innovation cuisine. Still, with Italian pizzaiolo’s insisting that there is only “the best” way, one wonders: is simple still better? Whoever might be right, we do know that pizza is here to stay.