First of all, what IS pizza? Is it just flat bread with a bunch of stuff on it? If it is, then it can be argued pizza originated from Iran around 500 B.C.. Persian soldiers would bake flatbread on their shields and cover it with cheese and dates: a scrumptious feast for the battlefield. But was it pizza? Is it pizza if its cooked in an open field on metal plates instead of in an oven? Many argue no, and that those Persian soldiers were gorging themselves on plain and simple flatbread. These early references are just too obscure, so let’s just talk about the modern pizza as we know it.
The first specific pizza recipe can be traced back to the famous Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius during the 1st century AD. He wrote of popular Roman cuisine and food preparation in his cookbook “Das Kochbuch der Römer. Eine Auswahl, gespickt mit literarischen Köstlichkeiten”, which included recipes calling for the placement of various ingredients on a flat bread base. Some of these ingredients include chicken, cheese, garlic, pepper and oil, which forms a dish not far from the modern pizza that we know today, with the exception of tomato sauce. The Romans cannot be blamed for this though, since tomatoes could only be found in the Americas at that point in time.
It was only in the early 1500s that tomatoes made their way from the Americas to Europe, but with them brought an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. Europeans thought the tomato’s texture and colour was indicative of a lurking poison, and that a ripe tomato looked rotten and indigestible, poised to kill. Only the peasants of Naples, with nothing more to eat than olive oil, flour, cheese, herbs and lard, were open to the idea of using these controversial fruit. They chose to mash the tomatoes up into a concoction they spread across their flatbread, giving rise to the “modern” pizza, then known as the “Napoletana” pizza. It only took a while for the people of Naples, and even people from far beyond their borders, to discover the perplexity of flavours to be offered by this seemingly simple dish.
The pizza gained rapid popularity and, by the end of the 19th century, was recognised as worthy of the royals when the King and Queen of Italy requested a sample on their vacation to Naples. The Queen enjoyed it so much she ate three, and even expressed her gratitude through letter afterwards. The pizzaioli whom had whipped up her meal was so honoured he dedicated his creation to her and named his pizza the “Margherita”.
However, pizza as we have come to know it would not have been possible without the American spin placed on the dish at the beginning of the 20th century, when Italian immigrants brought it over to America. The first known official pizzeria was opened by a grocer, Gennaro Lombari, and began business in the early 1930s selling pizza, as well as a range of other Italian food like spaghetti. Before long, people got innovative with the pizza, and the deep dish pizza was introduced in the 1940s by Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. It’s basically a pizza that holds so many toppings it has to be contained in a pan.
Pizza only truly gained its popularity and iconic status that it still holds today in the 1950s, when pizza became widely recognized outside of the Italian-American community. The pizza was made public by celebrities like Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra, and was written about it songs like Dean Martin’s That’s Amore. I’m sure we can all recognise the famous line, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s amore”. The big pizza pie truly took the world by storm from that point onwards and began rivalling the hamburger as America’s favourite fast food. With globalisation and greater connectivity between nations, even countries like Japan, Korea and Leban have embraced the pizza with open arms and put their own spin on it. We have referenced the many forms of pizza that exist in countries around the world today in our article “Pizza All Around The World”.
So there. That’s how our Saturday night treat came to be. We hope this gives you a clearer picture on the pizza’s cultural context. The next time you bite into a Hawaiian, give a little thought to Queen Margherita and the Italians for birthing this delectable in the first place.
– Nomster Tori