Pizza is a baked savory dish pie of Italian origin, consisting of a shallow bread-like crust covered with seasoned tomato sauce, cheese, and often other toppings like sausage or olives. There are few places in the world today that don’t have their own local version of pizza, indicating how much this dish has traveled the world!
Linguists believe the word pizza comes originates from an old Italian word meaning "a point." This mutated into the Italian "pizzicare," to pinch or pluck.
Pizza itself may have originated with the Phoenicians, the Greeks, or the Romans, or any population who mixed flour with water and then heated the mixture on a hot stone. In one of its many forms, pizza has been a basic part of the Italian diet since the Stone Age. This earliest form was a crude bread baked beneath the stones of a fire. After cooking, the bread was seasoned with various toppings, and used in place of plates and utensils. Some historians believe the idea of using bread as a plate originates with the Greeks who ate flat round bread (plankuntos) baked with an assortment of toppings.
We do know it was a working-class food due to its low production cost and ease of both procuration and consumption. Bread has always been at the heart of a low-cost diet in Italy, and pizza was included in this scenario. Check out the timeline below for a brief synapsis of pizza’s history and roots.
6th Century B.C. - At the height of the Persian Empire, the soldiers of Darius the Great, who were accustomed to lengthy marches, baked a flat bread flat upon their shields, and then covered the resulting bread with cheese and dates.
3rd Century B.C. - Marcus Porcius Cato, know as Cato the Elder, is remembered primarily for writing Rome’s first history. His writings tell of "flat round of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey baked on stones.”
1st Century B.C. - In Virgil’s "The Aeneid,” the origin of the Roman nation is included. Within this, we find a description of bread: "Beneath a shady tree, the hero spread his table on the turf, with cakes of bread; and, with his chiefs, on forest fruits he fed. They sate; and (not without the god's command). Their homely far dispatch'd, the hungry band invade their trenchers next, and soon devour to mend the scenty meal, their cakes of flour...See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”
1st Century A.D. - Modern knowledge of Roman cookery primarily comes from the stunning excavations at Pompeii, as well as from the cookery book of Marcus Gavius Apicius, called "De Re Coquinaria,” the finest culinary expert of his time (that we know of!). So great was Apicius' love of food that he is reputed to have poisoned himself when his finances fell apart to avoid dying of hunger. In addition to a historical perspective, Apicius' book also contains recipes, including one putting different ingredients on a base of bread (a hollowed-out loaf). Here we see the use of chicken meat, pine kernels, cheese, garlic, mint, pepper, and oil (all used today in modern pizza-making). The recipe concludes with "insuper nive, et inferes" meaning "cool in snow and serve!”
79 A.D. - Following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, evidence was found in Pompeii of a flat flour cake baked and widely eaten both in Pompeii and nearby Neapolis, the Greek colony that became Naples. Evidence was also found of shops, complete with marble slabs and other tools of the trade, resembling today’s pizzerie. The Museo Nazionale in Naples exhibits a statue from Pompeii called I pizzaiolo, thanks to its stance and subject.
16th century - Tomatoes were brought to Europe from the New World (Peru). Originally thought to be poisonous, Naples’s poorer people added tomatoes to their yeast dough out of necessity, and created the first simple pizza as we know it today. Typically they had access only to flour, olive oil, lard, cheese, and herbs which they used as best they could to provide nourishment to their families. The pizza however appealed to all populations of the country, and amazingly, the Neapolitan tradition became an all-around favorite. The Tavern of the Cerriglio was a hangout for the Spanish soldiers of the Viceroy, and historic records show the soldiers flocked there to feast on the specialty of the house - pizza.
17th century - Pizza by now had achieved a local popularity among visitors to Naples. They would venture into the poorer areas to taste this peasant dish made by men called “pizzaioli."
18th century - Queen Maria Carolina d'Asburgo Lorena, wife of the King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, had a special oven built in their summer palace of Capodimonte so that their chef could serve pizzas for both her household and guests.
19th century - Umberto I, King of Italy, and his wife, Queen Margherita di Savoia, during a holiday in Naples, called to their palace the most popular of the pizzaioli, Raffaele Esposito, to taste his specialties. He prepared three kinds of pizzas: one with pork fat, cheese, and basil, one with garlic, oil, and tomatoes, and a third with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes (in the colors of the Italian flag). The Queen adored the last pizza so much that she sent a letter to the chef thanking him and expressing her appreciation for his creations. Raffaele Esposito dedicated his specialty to the Queen and called it "Pizza Margherita." This pizza set the bar for modern pizzas, and firmly established Naples as the pizza capitol of the world.
In the late 19th century, pizza was considered an all-day street food in Naples, suitable for any meal (even breakfast). It was cut from a large tray cooked in the local baker's oven and featuring a simple topping of mushrooms and anchovies. As pizza became more popular, stalls were set up where pizza was made-to-order. Various toppings were invented. The stalls soon developed into pizzerie, open-air places for people to congregate, eat and drink.
Italians migrated to America in the second half of the 19th century, bringing with them pizza and other culinary traditions. Pizza was introduced to Chicago by a peddler selling pizza on Taylor Street from a metal washtub. This recalled the traditional Neapolitan way of selling pizza: from copper cylindrical drums with false bottoms packed with charcoal to keep the pizzas hot. The name of the producer was embossed on the drum.
20th century - Gennaro Lombardi claims to have opened the first pizzeria in the US. His establishment could be found in New York City at 53 1/2 Spring Street. Today, Lombardo is recalled as the “Patriarca della Pizza." Tables and chairs were added to the restaurant in the early 1930s, and spaghetti was included to the menu.
1940s - Chicago-style deep-dish pizza was created by Ike Sewell at his bar and grill called Pizzeria Uno. Patrons love this pizza with a flaky crust rising an inch or more above the plate, and heaps of deep toppings.
The presence of American soldiers in Italy during WWII brought about great appreciation for pizza. When the soldiers returned to the US, they brought back this love, and in 1948, the first commercial pizza-pie mix, "Roman Pizza Mix," was produced in Worcester, Massachusetts by Frank A. Fiorello.
1950s - Celebrities of Italian origin like Jerry Colonna, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, and baseball star Joe DiMaggio all devoured pizzas. Legend also has it that Dean Martin, when singing “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore" got Americans singing and eating pizzas.
Frozen pizzas were introduced and sold in local grocery stores. The first was marketed by the Celentano Brothers. Pizza soon became the most popular of all frozen food, and still enjoys a special culinary spot the world over.
Want to make your own fresh authentic Italian Pizza? Check out Mamablip's Pizza recipes for lots of great toppings and fresh dough. What to pair with pizza - wine, of course! Check out Filippo Bartolotta's tasting notes of some great Brunello di Montalcino options here. While Brunello is a hefty wine, you might be whipping up a hefty pizza, so don't miss Filippo's videos for lots of food and wine matching inspiration!
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