It’s not terribly easy to nail down the precise origin of pizza. At it’s essence it’s a flat, round bread, of which there were countless varieties in and around the Mediterranean dating back to at least 4000 BC. I say “at least” because 4000 BC is the rough date at which anthropologists believe yeast was developed by the ancient Egyptians. Semi-leavened or unleavened flat breads were being made from flour-and-water pastes as far back as 8000 BC, probably earlier.
Just how difficult it is to point to a particular spot on the food/place timeline and say “Aha!” was impressed upon me a few nights ago while I was eating — pizza, actually — in front of the tube with the wife. We happened to flip by one of Michael Palin’s travel shows, and caught him sitting in the middle of the Sahara eating goat with some nomads. For a moment the camera panned away from him and over to one of the tribesmen sitting in the sand. The fellow was cross-legged in front of a flat rock holding a stick. On the rock was a U-shaped fire, and he was using the stick to flip some of the larger embers on to a big round something-or-oth— oh my God that guy is baking!! Yep, right there in front of me was a 4-second demonstration of humankind’s very first baking technique. The flat bread he was cooking up was the direct ancestor of the slice of pie I was holding in my hand.
True, most people like to attribute pizza to the Romans and Greeks. But then everybody likes to attribute just about everything to the Romans and the Greeks, mostly because the Romans and the Greeks wrote lots of things down. Those civilizations make very convenient “Aha!” moments for historians, who too often make it appear that between them they invented pretty much everything, pretty much all at one time.
The word “pizza” may in fact have Indo-European roots, which would make it very old indeed. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence for this, except to say that there are a lot of words for flat bread in the Mediterranean, and many of them sound suspiciously alike. “Pita” is just one good example.
But then pizza is a flat bread with stuff on top. When did people start doing that? Probably right about the time the first nomad didn’t have three hands to hold his bread, a stick and his piece of cooked goat. In other words, who knows? Virgil (a Roman) writing about Aeneas (a Greek) in the First Century BC, describes the Greeks eating meals off pieces of round, flat bread when they landed in Italy, very interestingly, not at all far from the modern-day city of Naples. Indeed, many records of flat breads with things like olive oil, herbs and cheese on top pop up around that time. The ruins of the city of Pompeii, also very near Naples, contain the wreckage of something that looks suspiciously like a pizzeria.
Of course it wasn’t until the Age of Exploration that the tomato was introduced to Italy from South America. So whether it was actually pizza that the Pompeiians were stuffing their faces with when Vesuvius ruined their Superbowl parties in AD 79, it’s hard to say. Though it looks very much as though Naples has been one of the better places to “order out” for a very long time.