The pizza is Italian-ness in a nutshell. It is simplicity, conviviality, cheerfulness, and the pleasure of spending time together. It is one of the founding pillars of “living with gusto” as we Italians understand it, and as the world loves it. Speaking as an Italian, what represents us better than pizza?
Pizza is made of humble ingredients, available to everyone. Flour, tomato and mozzarella: the best, the tastiest you can get your hands on. Formality and frills go out the window; it’s all about simplicity and the joy of the moment. It’s a dish that brings people together; it represents inclusion and openness. It offers huge scope for creativity and imagination, but all within the same essential idea. We make much of however little we have to hand, and we make it good.
Because yes, pizza is goodness distilled. It has had an extraordinary journey, which we’ll go into here in a minute, and all the world has made it its own. With variable success, of course, in terms of quality, but pizza is more than just a dish. It’s the ritual around it, the ritual in which Italianness emerges to the full, even if no one in the room is Italian.
Not many people know that pizza as we understand it, i.e. a holy trinity of oven-baked dough, tomato and mozzarella, is actually a modern invention. It’s true that the practice of cooking flour-based doughs at high temperatures, with or without a raising agent, and then topping them with various ingredients goes back to ancient times; but we mustn’t confuse the history of bread with the history of pizza. Species of focaccia were eaten throughout the Mediterranean basin by the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Assyrians and of course the Italians, especially the Etruscans and the Romans. These breads tended to share similar names, precursors to the word pizza: thus pinza and pita, words which until the middle of the nineteenth century meant something quite distinct from what we nowadays think of as pizza.
There’s a very simple reason for this. In 1540, the tomato made its way via the Spanish from South America to Europe. But no sooner had it arrived in the courts of Italy, it was declared by the doctors, botanists and scientists of the time to be a dangerous, inedible species. In Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici took grateful receipt of a basket of tomatoes. He happily showed them off to all his retainers and visitors, but never took a bite of one!
The Aztecs ate tomatoes without any issues, but, as we know, we Italians are rather slow to trust new things. We wasted at least three centuries before discovering what a culinary gem the tomato really is. Indeed, the south of Italy proved even more favourable to tomato cultivation than their native soil had been, which is why the tomato established itself as such an important part of southern Italian cooking. What prompted them to take the first bite, one wonders? Who knows: maybe curiosity, maybe poverty, maybe just the wonderful smell of them…
Since the sixteenth century, meanwhile, the Neapolitans had already been eating a sort of tomatoless focaccia, sprinkled with basil and cheese, fish guts and different vegetables. It went by the name of pizza. And given the local abundance of tomatoes, which everyone had now realised were anything but poisonous, they began to add them to this traditional dish. Whether by mere good fortune, by intuition or destiny, Naples invented the most iconic, most symbolic dish of them all: pizza. Not long afterwards, the first pizzerias sprang up.
From the eighteenth century onwards, Naples had been a must-see stop on the Grand Tour, the formative journey that the well-heeled and the artistically-inclined habitually made across France and Italy. Alexandre Dumas was one early sampler of the sumptuous new tomatoey pizza, and little by little, word began to spread across the western world.
Another episode that did much for pizza’s cause was when the Queen Consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, came to visit Naples in 1889. Local pizza-chef Raffaele Esposito dedicated his famous tomato, basil and mozzarella trademark to the distinguished guest, naming it la Pizza Margherita in her honour. This type of pizza had already been around for decades, as had the Marinara (just tomato and garlic, no mozzarella, and so named because it was a favourite of the mariners returning to shore), and the Calzone, which is folded into a delicious, cheesey bundle. Emigration did the rest, especially those floods of Italians who sailed the Atlantic in the early twentieth century, right up to the 1950s. They brought pizza with them, naturally.
Today, Neapolitan pizza is regulated by an association which has laid down a set of rules: the crust must be thick, and the pizza must be cooked at temperatures of at least 500 degrees centigrade, and for no more than 90 seconds. Myriad new toppings appeared, spawning new classics in their own right. In the United States especially, pizza is such a part of the social fabric that many cities and even states boast of their “traditional” pizza. And some, notoriously – a safe distance from Naples – even like to top their pizza with pineapple.
De gustibus non disputandum est, as the Romans said: you can’t argue with personal taste, and I do think that pizza is something that should be exempt from snootiness and judgement. By nature it’s a people-pleaser; it naturally adapts to whatever culture has adopted it. It remains a wonderful message of how in Italy – and only in Italy, if you’ll forgive the outburst of chauvinism – we create things that everybody loves and everybody takes to heart, everything from a Renaissance masterpiece to a coffee maker.
Happy pizza to everyone! We at Vivere di Gusto suggest having it with a nice rosé or a young, aromatic red. We would stay away from beer – a wonderful drink, but one which, in our opinion, doesn’t quite find its true calling when paired with pizza.