There are not too many nations that can say their national dish has become an international phenomenon. Italy has two such dishes; pasta and, of course, pizza. Both are famous all over the world, both have made history, and both have a part in most modern cuisines all over the world.
In America, pizza usually falls into two categories; thick and cheesy Chicago style or thin and more traditional New York pizza. In Italy pizza also falls into two distinct categories; Italian pizza and the rest of the world. It might seem silly considering the basic ingredients, but one taste of a true Italian pizza and you’ll never go back to the imitators.
Pizza in its most basic form as a seasoned flatbread, has a long history in the Mediterranean. Several cultures including the Greeks and Phoenicians ate a flatbread made from flour and water. The dough would be cooked by placing on a hot stone and then seasoned with herbs. The Greeks called this early pizza “Plankuntos” and it was basically used as an edible plate when eating stews or thick broth. It was not yet what we would call pizza today but it was very much like modern focaccia. These early pizzas were eaten from Rome to Egypt to Babylon and were praised by the ancient historians Herodotus and Cato the Elder.
Interestingly, up until the mid 1700s there was no tomato on pizza – it would have been merely garlic, oregano and olive oil at best.
Back in southern Italy, our great grandparents used to have a communal oven in their ‘quarter’. These ‘quarters’ are mini-suburbs where most people are related, very similar to a family village. The heart of the village is the oven and it was used to make bread, usually twice per week.
In order to test the oven for evenness in cooking, the flat bread “pizza” was used. Not wanting to waste the sacrificial dough, they dressed it with a few tomatoes (if in season) and it was used primarily as a snack, but never considered a proper meal in Naples.
The word “pizza” is thought to have come from the Latin word pinsa, meaning flatbread (although there is much debate about the origin of the word). A legend suggests that Roman soldiers gained a taste for Jewish Matzoth while stationed in Roman occupied Palestine and developed a similar food after returning home. However a recent archeological discovery has found a preserved Bronze Age pizza in the Veneto region. By the Middle Ages these early pizzas started to take on a more modern look and taste.
The introduction of the Indian Water Buffalo gave pizza another dimension with the production of mozzarella cheese. Even today, the use of fresh mozzarella di buffalo in Italian pizza cannot be substituted. While other cheeses have made their way onto pizza (usually in conjunction with fresh mozzarella), no Italian Pizzeria would ever use the dried shredded type used on so many Australian pizzas.
The introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries finally gave us the true modern Italian pizza. Even though tomatoes reached Italy by the 1530’s it was widely thought that they were poisonous and were grown only for decoration. However the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas.
Since that fateful day the world of Italian cuisine would never be the same, however it took some time for the rest of society to accept this crude peasant food.
Once members of the local aristocracy tried pizza they couldn’t get enough of it, which by this time was being sold on the streets of Naples for every meal. As pizza popularity increased, street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with many different toppings. By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and this venerable institution is still producing masterpieces.
The popular pizza, Margherita, owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita who in 1889 visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples. The Pizzaioli (pizza maker) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito created a pizza for the Queen that contained the three colours of the new Italian flag. The red of tomato, white of the mozzarella and fresh green basil was a hit with the Queen and the rest of the world. Neapolitan style pizza had now spread throughout Italy and each region started designing their own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.
Italian Traditional Pizza
The Pizza Margherita may have set the standard, but there are numerous popular varieties of pizza made in Italy today. Pizza from a Pizzeria is the recognized round shape, made to order and always cooked in a wood fired oven. Regional varieties are always worth trying such as Pizza Marinara, a traditional Neapolitan pizza that has oregano, and lots of garlic (a classic vegan pizza). Other toppings are used including ‘chips’ – French fries on a pizza – as well as the ever-popular rocket, shaved parmesan and prosciutto. Other interesting toppings in Italy are canned artichoke hearts, olives, mushrooms, salami and local capers.
Newer types are emerging such as “Friarelle e salciccia” – Friarelle are a type of cooked Italian Broccoli purchased frozen or canned and the sausages are the Italian sausages that are broken up and spread around the pizza.
Grated Parmesan is now used extensively on just about every pizza and the mandatory ‘filo d’oilo’ (literally a line of oil) is added before cooking so that the olive oil can flavour the ingredients and compliment the flavours.
SACRILEGE!! – what have they done to my pizza?
The introduction of pineapple came about due to the Canadians that had created Pizza Hut in the late 60s.The idea of pineapple on pizza came about from Greek-Canadian Sam Panopoulos
The menu below shows one of the first Pizza Hut Menu’s from Belfield NSW around 1970 (note the reference to Twitter and Facebook meaning that time-travel is definitely possible). The exotic twist was the addition of ‘Delicious Sliced Pimento Filled Green Olives” which were presumably sliced stuffed olives that were still relatively new to the Australian public.
From this, the Hawaiian Pizza was inspired by the Chinese restaurant boom of the mid 60s and 70s.
Remember that Chinese Food came to Australia from the UK – not China. The concept of “Sweet and Sour” was used by combining sweet sauces with savoury items to cater for the Anglo-Saxon palate which was very much used to mixing the two flavours (think Mint Jelly on Lamb, Apple Sauce on Pork etc).
The Hawaiian became a huge hit until it was knocked off in the early 2000s when people were looking for better ingredients and health concerns were starting to emerge over the number of toppings used on a pizza.
Nutella and Dessert Pizza
The idea of the Nutella Pizza came about when the crepe stations emerged in tourist areas of Italy in the 1990s.
Nutella wanted to increase their exposure so they would set up crepe stations outside cafes and bars enticing tourists away from the mandatory gelato! They were presented similar to a street pizza in a ‘pocket’ format. Designed to be eaten on the run – with one hand – they became the new street food. Everyone knows that in Italy eating or drinking whilst standing is markedly cheaper than sitting down in a café – so it became a hit for afternoon tea and late night snacks!
Nutella Pizza borrowed from this idea and the invention of the Nutella Pizza added a new meal to the limited repertoire of the Pizzerie all over the world.
The idea of an additional pizza that could be taken home and enjoyed by the kids was providing extra income and flexibility to the changing Australian population.