Dear Straight Dope:
Who really invented pizza? The Greeks, Italians, or Mexicans?
Yours in food, Chris & Blair, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Pizza is one of those foods for which we will never know a specific origin. For one thing, the definitions of pizza are many and varied. Putting stuff on flat bread as a meal certainly goes back as far as ancient Rome. The word "pizza" itself appears just before 1000 AD, in the area between Naples and Rome, meaning "pie."
There are traditional pizza-like dishes in Provence where bread (or sometimes a pastry) is topped with onion, tomato, anchovies, and olives. In the Middle East, lahma bi ajeen is a pizza base with minced onions, meat, and flavorings.
So we need to start with some definitions. Shall we confine our attention to American pizza, now found throughout the world? If so, no problem–it was invented in America in the 1950s. That’s probably not the answer you were looking for, although the New World did make possible pizza as we know it today.
Instead let’s define modern pizza as the tasty conjunction of flat bread, tomato sauce, and cheese. Most food historians point to Naples as the area of origin, and to Napoletana, the pizza of Naples, as the archetype of this type of pizza.
The word "pizza" itself is probably related to pitta (bread) so let’s start with the crust. In ancient times, all bread was basically flat, and treated as a food in and of itself. The idea of bread as a carrier or holder of other food pretty much started in the Middle Ages, what we today might call an open face sandwich. It wasn’t originally a new way of eating–the bread was a sort of place mat, to help keep the table clean during meals. Only the rich could afford plates, so a flat piece of (say) hard barley bread on the table was used to hold the meal, mostly meat and drippings. Bread was specially baked for that purpose. After the meal, sometimes the bread was consumed, and sometimes given to the dogs.
The closed sandwich has its origins in the 18th century, but that’s a different story.
Next ingredient: cheese. Cheese itself dates back to prehistoric times and was probably discovered by accidental fermentation. Mozzarella, a soft, fresh cheese traditionally made from the milk of water buffalo, originated in 15th century Naples. Mozzarella nowadays is made from cow’s milk. You can still find buffalo-cheese (or a blend of buffalo and cow cheese) in Salerno, but it’s too expensive and delicate for pizza topping, we’re told.
That brings us to tomato sauce–the New World’s contribution to pizza, since the tomato was a New World plant. Initially Europeans regarded the tomato with suspicion and fear. It had a strange texture, was too acidic to eat green, and looked spoiled when ripe. It disintegrated when cooked, and was even suspected of being poisonous.
But eventually it caught on. New plants from America arrived in Iberia and spread throughout the Mediterranean. Italy probably got the tomato shortly after Spain–its soil and climate, similar to that of Central Mexico, helped the import thrive. The first written mention of the tomato in Italy is 1544; it was fried and eaten with salt and pepper.
By 1692, we have the first recipe for Italian tomato sauce, with chile peppers, so the modern pizza was just around the corner.
Alas, we shall never know the genius who first put together the bread, tomato sauce, and cheese. But that’s how pizza (as I’ve defined it) came to be.
There are a many types of pizza, of course. Even in Naples, there is no consensus on what exactly constitutes a Neapolitan pizza. Burton Anderson writes that the most basic pizza is marinara–flat bread with oil, tomato, garlic, and oregano. It was stored on voyages so that sailors (marinai) could make pizza away from home. The pizza Margherita is just over a century old, named after the first queen of the united Italy, using toppings of tomato, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil–the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. We also have calzone (pizza with an enclosed filling), pizza maniata (kneaded), pizzette (miniature) and pizza bianca (no toppings).
Italian immigrants brought pizza to the United States, in the early 1900s. However, it was the 1950s when pizza caught on outside the Italian-American community, and quickly spread throughout the U.S. and became an international food, now found in every country.
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