The Taste With Vir: Going to Italy? First read all you need to know about Pizza
Some Italians will tell you that pizza is an ancient dish. This is nonsense. Yes, flatbreads are ancient but pizza, in the sense of a base with tomato and cheese cannot be ancient by definition.
A passing reference in Rude Food last weekend to pizza has evoked some interest. I was writing about travelling through Lombardia in north Italy and made the (unexceptional, I thought) point that, contrary to what many of us may believe, pizza is not a dish that is cooked in every Italian household. The original pizzas were regional favourites in the South, especially in the town of Naples. Equally, I said, while America may have made the pizza globally famous, the real pizza tradition was Italian and mostly regional.
This has provoked so many questions that I thought it might be a good idea to offer some more details and clarifications.
The Invention: Some Italians will tell you that pizza is an ancient dish. This is nonsense. Yes, flatbreads are ancient but pizza, in the sense of a base with tomato and cheese cannot be ancient by definition. Pizza needs tomatoes which are not native to Italy and were introduced to Europe from South America. So, pizza did not really catch on till the 19th century. That’s hardly ancient.
The official origin story has it that though there were variations of pizza available all over Naples, the breakthrough moment came when Raffaele Esposito invented a pizza with tomato, basil and cheese in 1889 and offered it to Queen Margherita. She loved it, or so the legend goes, and thus was born the Margherita pizza, the basic pizza of Naples.
The legend is a lie. We can be sure of that now. But the dates are more or less accurate. So, the pizza was born in the middle or the end of the 19th Century.
What is a Naples pizza?: There is a mandatory definition so that question is easy to answer. It is a pizza the size of a dinner plate with a raised, blistered edge that tapers to a thin (not more than 1/10 of an inch) and wet centre. The Margharita topping must be crushed (or pureed) tomato, basil, mozzarella and olive oil.
The pizza must be cooked very quickly in a wood-burning oven at 800 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. This is how pizzas have been cooked in Naples for decades.
What is an American pizza?: The first pizzerias in America were founded in New York at the beginning of the 20th century by Italian immigrants. As coal was more readily available in New York, the pizzas were usually baked in coal (rather than wood-fired) ovens.
Pizza remained popular on the East Coast of the United States (US) but only took off nationally after World War II when three things happened.
Italians moved out of their ethnic eastern enclaves to cities all over the US. The gas-fired pizza oven was invented. And a device called the Hobart Commercial Mixer became available to the restaurant trade.
The Hobart Mixer made it easy to mix the dough. And the gas oven (you still see the same sort of gas-fired oven in every pizzeria today) offered a clean way of baking the pizzas. The Italians who moved around the US opened pizza places all over the country to the extent that in 1958, a hundred new pizzerias were opening in America every week.
A gas oven does not give you the same kind of heat as the wood-fired ovens of Naples so the pizzas were cooked at lower temperatures and changed in shape to become tyre-size discs which had thin and flexible bases. And that is what much of the world thinks of as a pizza today.
Take-away/fast food pizza: In 1958, two brothers, the Carneys, opened the first Pizza Hut in Kansas. Their pizzas were not very good but they were cheap and anyway, who in Kansas knew better? They eventually sold to Pepsico for $300 million and created the first fast food pizza franchise.
In 1990, another set of brothers, the Monaghans started pizza delivery. One of the brothers, Tom, ended up running Domino’s and he kept the focus on delivery. In 1998, he sold the company to Bain Capital for a billion dollars.
This created the global fast food pizza boom. These pizzas are only distantly related to the Naples original though they have their fans. They have their detractors too who claim that fast food pizzas are loaded with saturated fat and cheese. In 2014, a study found that between 25% to 33% of the average American’s caloric, saturated fat and sodium intake was coming from pizza.
But the pizza giants are happy. Pizza is now a $230 billion global market and global pizza consumption is rising at more than 10% annually.
Pizza in Italy: This is not as straightforward as you might think. It is astonishingly easy to get really bad pizza in much of Italy. The further you go from Naples, the worse the pizza can get.
There are alternatives to the Naples pizza. In such cities as Rome, you get a flatter pizza that can be good. And there is pizza al metro, or pizza by the metre. It comes out of the oven as a rectangle and they cut off a piece and give it to you.
But the truth is that northern Italians did not really grow up with Naples pizza and many are quite taken with US fast food pizza. We like to imagine that countries are so proud of their own cuisines that they resist fast-foodisation but the opposite is often true. For instance, France is the largest European market for McDonald’s and the chain continues to grow rapidly in the French market.
So, most Italians don’t have a preconceived notion of what pizza should taste like. (In my Rude Food travelogue, I gave the parallel of Haryanvis and dosas: They have no familiarity with the original version of the dish so are less picky.) Many northern Italians are quite happy with all versions of pizza.
So, don’t go to Italy and expect to always get a great pizza. You may well be disappointed.
There are many good books on pizza but the one I learned the most from and have relied on here was not about pizza at all, but about tomatoes: Ten Tomatoes That Changed The World by William Alexander.