A Slice of History
By Robin Jay
Oh, do Americans love their pizza. This year alone, pizzerias have raked in $32 billion, with consumers devouring 350 slices of pizza every second. Having a pizzeria on virtually every corner in this country, it’s easy to take its novelty for granted. Yet, for a dish with very humble beginnings, the history of its rise to popularity is quite rich.
The Origins of Pizza
University of Denver history professor Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, says the pizza phenomenon started as a peasant-style street food in Naples, Italy – especially in the regions of Liguria and Sicily. Naples became a Greek settlement in 600 B.C., and by the 1700s, was a bustling waterfront kingdom, with an abundance of lazzaroni, or working poor, who bought pizza from street vendors. It is said that fishermen would fuel up on pizza for breakfast; a custom that led to the term ‘pizza marinara,’ or pizza of the seafarer.
Legend says people traveled from far and wide to Naples to try the region’s novel pizza. However, many foreigners at first took aversion to the dish.
One of them, Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, visited Naples in 1831 and described pizza as,
“a loathsome local specialty, a species of the most nauseating cake, resembling bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer.”
However, in 1835, journalist Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) voyaged to Naples and afterward published a much more uplifting notion about pizza, “The Neapolitan of the lower class…is not wretched; for his necessities are in exact harmony with his desires. What does he wish to eat? A pizza or a slice of watermelon suffices. Pizza is a sort of bun or talmouse [French term for “pastry shell with a filling of cheese”] like we bake at St. Denis in France, and it is round in shape and molded by the same dough as bread. At first glance, the pizza appears to be a simple dish; after examination, it manifests as a compound dish. The pizza is with oil, the pizza is with bacon, the pizza is with lard, the pizza is with cheese, the pizza is with tomato, the pizza is with small fish; pizza is the gastronomic thermometer of the food market: it increases or decreases in price depending on the course of the ingredients named above, depending on the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the pizza with fish is priced half a grain, the fishing has been good; when the pizza with oil sells at one grain, the harvest has been bad. The more or less degree of freshness of pizza also has an impact on its price.”
How Tomatoes Became a Pizza Staple
According to Professor Helstosky, no one knows exactly when or why tomatoes were first introduced as a pizza ingredient. “Brought over from the New World, tomatoes were first recorded in 1544. And while many Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous, Southern Italians embraced the fruits, hence the flattering name pomi d’ oro, or golden apples. Tomatoes grown in Naples are sweet because of the volcanic soil. Preferred tomatoes are from San Marzano.”
Rosario Buonassisi, author of Pizza: The Dish The Legend, theorizes pizza vendors combined tomatoes and bread as a means to compete with Neapolitan macaroni makers who peddled pasta garnished with tomatoes.
Some speculate the pizza craze skyrocketed, especially with tomatoes as a topping, after Queen Margherita and King Umberto visited Naples in 1889. History.com reports that the royal couple became tired of their usual French haute cuisine and ordered a selection of pizzas from Pizzeria Branding, the predecessor of which was Da Pietra Pizzeria originated in 1760. The Queen took a liking to a dish called ‘pizza mozzarella.’ Ironically, it was topped with ingredients symbolic of the Italian flag: white cheese, ruby red tomatoes and green basil. As a result of the Queen’s fancy, the dish was renamed “pizza Margherita” and is a globally popular pizza recipe even today.
Original Pizza Margherita Recipe
Neapolitan pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, created the pizza margherita in 1889 for Queen Margherita’s and King Umberto I’s visit to Naples. Recipe Source: Disciplinare di Produzione della Specialità Tradizionale Garantita “Pizza Napoletana”
• 2 lb Italian “00” flour
• 1 oz fresh yeast
• 2 cups water
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 lb buffalo mozzarella cheese
• Basil leaves to taste
• 1 lb canned tomatoes
• Salt to taste
Mix flour, water, salt and yeast. Pour a liter of water into a deep mixing bowl, dissolve 50-55 g of salt, add 10 percent of the total amount of flour. Dissolve 3g of yeast and mix gradually, adding the remaining 1.8 kg flour until the dough is smooth and very pliable.
Rising: Let the dough rest on a marble slab or a wooden surface for 2 hours covered with a damp cloth.
Divide into ball-shaped portions of 180 grams each. Set aside in a container to rise again
for4-6 hours at room temperature.
Rolling: With a round motion, use your hands to roll out the dough on a marble slab covered with flour until it becomes 3 mm thick with a 1-2 cm edge.
Filling: Use a wooden spoon to place 60g to 70g of chopped tomatoes in the center of the dough.
With a spiraling motion, spread the tomato over the surface. Add a pinch of salt on the tomatoes,
80-100g of sliced buffalo mozzarella, and some basil leaves. Starting from the center with a spiraling
motion, add 4 to 5 grams of extra virgin olive oil.
Cooking: Bake in a wood-brick oven at a temperature between 450C° to 480C,° rotating the pizza
frequently to ensure heat is spread evenly.
To figure metric conversions into U.S. portions, go to www.jsward.com/cooking/conversion.shtml.