Pizza might seem like an all-American snack or meal to those who live in the United States. However, it actually originated as an Italian dish brought over by immigrants and soldiers after World War II. It’s one of the few national dishes that have become internationally popular, with several countries having their own version of this delectable food. Pasta is another Italian dish that’s gained popularity all over the world, but pizza is probably the closest to everyone’s hearts.
When one is in New York, for example, they’re told that they simply must have the traditional thin-crust New York style pizza that’s available all over the place. The $1 slices are just as much a part of New York culture as any of the tourist landmarks. The other major pizza option in the United States is the thick, saucy, cheesy, deep-dish Chicago style pizza.
While these pizza options have their own interesting history, let’s now delve back a little and look at the history of pizza in its home country. Some say that the Italian pizza is the original kind, so let’s see how it all came about:
The Start of Pizza
Simply put, pizza is little more than a seasoned form of flatbread with various toppings. It has a complex history, with both the Phoenicians and the Greeks easting plain flatbread made of water and flour. When this was seasoned using herbs, the Greeks named the dish ‘pizza plankuntos’. This was initially used as a type of plate for holding stews, thick broths, etc. Still a far cry from the pizza we have today, but these ‘pizzas’ did receive praise from ancient historians such as Cato the Elder.
The actual word ‘pizza’ comes from ‘pinsa’, a Latin term. This literally means ‘flatbread’, though the origin of the word itself is under debate to this date.
There’s a legend about pizza rearing some Roman soldiers who developed a liking for matzoth, a Jewish dish that they might have tried during the Roman occupation of Palestine. After they went back home, these soldiers developed their own version of the food.
However, this legend has been disproved by the discovery of a preserved pizza dating back to the Bronze Age within the region of Veneto. As time progressed, the pizzas developed and became more like the modern versions we know today. They were still mostly food meant for peasants, though, who topped the dough with herbs and olive oil before baking.
Eventually, the Indian Water Buffalo gave another dimension to the first pizzas; mozzarella cheese. The history of mozzarella cheese is worth a read in itself, so check it out if you want a more detailed story. Fresh mozzarella is still a staple in authentic Italian pizza, though many other kinds of cheese are also used. In any case, a true Italian pizza will never have that dry, frozen, pre-shredded cheese that we find on many American pizzas.
Tomatoes first came to Italian cuisine in the late 18th century. They were actually in the country in the 16th century but were mostly thought to be poisonous and meant for decorative purposes. However, the peasants in Naples soon started using tomatoes in their recipes and found them to be quite palatable.
While tomatoes were what made the modern Italian pizza, the dish was still a peasant food in essence. By the early 19th century, one could see street vendors selling pizza on the street in Naples. Eventually, these evolved into shops where one could customize pizza according to their needs. In 1830, the Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba was established, becoming the first real pizzeria. The location is operable to this day.
The Advent of Margherita
Even with all the hubbub about pizza in Italy, the dish was still not well-known until the year 1889. This was when King Umberto 1 and Queen Margherita took a tour of the land. The queen saw this peasant culinary offering and loved it. She ordered her personal chef to create all sorts of pizzas according to her preferences.
The queen’s chef soon came up with the most delicious creations to please the queen (and many others, in retrospect). One version was inspired by the Italian flag colors; red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. This was the first Margherita pizza, the classic option we all know and love today.
World War II
After the creation of the Margherita pizza, World War II was the next big step in enhancing the dish’s popularity. Soldiers who were stationed within Italy during the war came back home and wanted something similar. This eventually led to the numerous pizzerias, pizza chains, and pizza vendors that we know today.
The Authentic Italian Taste
We might love our pepperoni pizza and other various toppings, but only the marinara and Margherita pizzas are said to be the true Italian kind. Marinara pizzas use only tomato, extra virgin olive oil, basil, oregano, and garlic for flavor in addition to the dough.
Of course, there are several modern pizza versions available throughout the world and in Italy today. These include the Italian calzone, the Neapolitan pizza, and several other options. However, These are relatively new versions that might not be accepted by those who crave absolutely authentic Italian pizza.
The shape and size of the pizza are quite important if it’s to be defined as authentic Italian cuisine. The center should be quite flat, no more than 0.1 inches tall. The crust should be 0.75 inches or even less. The dough should be kneaded manually and from the traditional form of flour. The size of the pizza itself should be 13.25 inches or less, while it’s also essential that the pizza is round.
Pizza is a simple food, but it has a deep and rich history. It’s important to know about the Italian version of this history, if only to satisfy our curiosity. While the basic ingredients might remain the same, it’s surprising how the taste of an authentic Italian pizza has transformed the dish for many people. We might have to go to Italy and try one for ourselves before long!