A Little Pizza History

Last week I alluded to the “long” history of pizza, which it to say the history of various types of round, flat breads on top of which other food items are placed and then the whole thing eaten. If that’s your definition of “pizza” then it has a very long history indeed, stretching well back into antiquity. Flat breads being the oldest types of breads there are, pizza could conceivably be traced back to the time when the first Neolith plopped his first chunk of roasted mastodon rump on a piece of proto-pita to keep from getting his fingers greasy. I mentioned that the residents of Pompeii had something that closely resembled a modern pizza parlor, at least until Mount Vesuvius came along put a permanent kibosh on their Superbowl parties.

Interesting as all that may be, for the vast majority of us, pizza isn’t pizza unless it sports at least three base ingredients: bread (crust), cheese and tomatoes. The bread I just covered, and the cheese in the previous post, which brought us up to the year 1200 or so. Could Neapolitans have been melting bits of buffalo mozzarella on top of their hearth-baked flat breads back then? Certainly, and they most likely did. However that still wouldn’t have been pizza, at least by modern standards. It would take the arrival of tomatoes from the New World (in around 1525) for the Golden Age of Pizza to begin.

Just how long it tool Neapolitan peoples to begin applying tomatoes to their flat breads is a mystery, yet it seem that true pizzas have been popular in and around Naples for at least a couple of hundred years. As the story goes the first pizzas weren’t sit-down fare but street food. Traditional pizza vendors were roving sorts who carried a supply of “pies” stacked up in round metal tins that they balanced on top their heads. The bottom of the containers supposedly contained a small compartment in which embers were deposited, so as to keep the product warm. Say what you will, it must have made for a very hot hat.

The very first modern brick-and-mortar pizzeria opened in Naples in either in 1829 or 1830, depending on who you listen to. It was called Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba and it’s still there if you can believe it, at 18 Via Port’ Alba, turning out pizza by the truckload every day. Given how long that place has been in business, it’s safe to assume pizza-selling in Naples has always been as solid business.

Still, pizza might well have remained just another regional novelty if it weren’t for a fellow by the name of Rafaele Esposito, owner of another Neapolitan pizzeria called Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi. It was he who conceived a special “patriotic” red-white-and-green pizza that he served to Queen Margherita of Savoy (wife of the Italian King Umberto I) upon her visit to Naples in 1889. It was a simple preparation topped with tomatoes, pieces of cheese and basil leaves, but the Queen pronounced it good (she also sampled two more of Esposito’s pizzas that day, one with pork fat and basil and another with tomatoes, garlic and oil). Her thank you note still hangs on the wall of Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi (now called Pizzeria Bandi) in Naples.”I assure you that the three kinds of pizza you have prepared were very delicious”, it reads.

The tri-color pizza, which Esposito dubbed “Pizza Margherita” has since become one of Italy’s most famous dishes. “Margherita”, by the way, is the Italian word for “daisy”, which I think is about the best name for a Queen (or a pizza) I’ve ever heard.

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