It’s difficult to hear the word ‘pizza’ and not immediately think of Italy. But what people don’t often know is how pizza came to be. They mostly know about what crust they like, don’t like, the toppings they like or don’t like. Read further on and you’ll learn just how this world famous Italian food came to be.
It’s said that the pizza we know and love was invented in Naples in the 1700s, but in actuality, the origins of pizza go back to antiquity. Various cultures, including the Greeks and Persians, had their variations of what would later be chiefly identified as Italian.
The Greeks made a flatbread called plakous, or plakountos, which was commonly flavoured with herbs, onion and garlic. The Persian armies in 6th century BC, led by Darius I, baked a type of flatbread with cheese and dates, so their creation was more of a sweet dish than savoury.
Fast forward a bit to 16th-century Naples, there was a galette-style flatbread that was called a pizza. And just in case you’re not sure what a galette is, it’s a French invention that originated in Brittany, and most creperies refer to a galette as a small buckwheat flour pancake. These ‘pancakes’ are most often topped with egg, meat, fish, cheese, and even fruit.
The Vegetable That Changed Everything
Back to the Neapolitan pizza. In Naples, pizza was most often eaten by the poor folk, and like the French galette or even the Persian creation with cheese and dates, the very original Neapolitan pizza was sweet, not savoury.
However, once the poor citizens of Naples realised that the tomato itself was not poisonous, though it is a member of the nightshade family, they started using it as a topping. There are two main original variations of pizza. One is called marinara, and the other, margherita.
The ‘marinara’ version came about because a fisherman’s wife—la marinara–made a flatbread of tomatoes, oil, onion and garlic for her husband whenever he came home from fishing trips. The ‘margherita’ style of pizza, a combination of sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, is attributed to a man named Rafaelle Esposito who worked in a pizzeria back in the 1880s. Allegedly he made the pizza as part of a trio of pizzas he’d made for King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy. Her favourite pizza ended up being the one with the sauce, cheese and basil, as it contained the colours of the Italian flag: red, green and white.
Tradition vs Variety
Though it’s true that Italian immigrants took traditional Italian recipes with them across the Atlantic (especially those for pizza), and many varieties of crust and toppings evolved from Americans falling in love with the dish, according to pizza purists, there are only the two kinds of pizza that are true Italian pizza: the marinara and the margherita. Additionally, those are the two favoured versions by many modern Italians, regardless of how many flavours of toppings have come about as a result of Italian immigration.
Then there is the ‘Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana,’ or ‘True Neapolitan Pizza Association,’ and their strict definition of what constitutes true Neapolitan pizza, right down to how the crust is made and baked and how big and how thick the pizza is allowed to be. It’s not surprising that many people become a bit confused about what makes for authentic Italian pizza. Especially since Neapolitan-style crust is thicker than what is served in Rome, and it’s likely that recipes for both Neapolitan-style and Roman-style crust made it across the Atlantic.
It is clear, however, that pizza has become a favourite Italian food the world over, from the US to Canada, to the UK and South Africa and other places. Whether you prefer the Americanised versions or yearn for the delightfully minimalist tradition of either pizza marinara or pizza margherita, it’s not likely that pizza in any form will disappear any time soon.