Sometime around the 12th century B.C. BC Troy fell to the Greeks. As the Roman poet Virgil relates, the mythical hero Aeneas then fled his devastated city aboard an uncooperative ship with a motley crew. The son of a goddess and a prince, he bore the ancestral burden of begetting a line of rulers in a foreign land. After many days at sea, Aeneas and his band landed on the shores of Latium (where Rome was founded many generations later). Exhausted and famished, they hastily prepared a meal. So hungry the crew even ate their plates.
Admittedly, these records would have pleased trenchers, stable supports made of baked dough. When dry, they still presented a significant dental challenge – much like these salt dough ornaments. In theory, they were edible, but eating your dishes was still considered uncouth. Aeneas watched in disbelief as his men gnawed insatiably at their plates like dogs with a rawhide bone, when suddenly he remembered the prophecy his father had predicted: When you find yourself in a foreign country and are so hungry you eat your own plates, there is hope for home. They had found the “Promised Land”.
Linking this myth to the origin of pizza is bold to say the least, but some enterprising entrepreneurs have dared to do just that. Why go so far? Pizza has a long history in Italy, but its dominance on the international gastronomic scene hinges less on a glorious past rooted in antiquity than on an anthropological phenomenon that has come to be known as the “pizza effect”.
this expression was coined in 1970 by the anthropologist Agehananda Bharati. It captures the pattern that unfolds when a minor cultural asset or practice is exported to another country, whereupon it achieves unprecedented success at home. The homeland then looks with stunned amazement at the value they attach to a matter of course. The object in question is then re-evaluated and wrapped in romance. From the new perspective, a potentially lucrative tradition is born. The history of Italian pizza is the prime example of this phenomenon, but it extends beyond food into all aspects of culture, from yoga to salsa music.
The word “pizza” appears in Medieval Latin, but by the 16th century, throughout the Italian peninsula, the term referred primarily to rich, leavened bread. Often loaded with butter and sweetened with dried fruit or compote, they weren’t the flattened discs of tomato sauce and cheese we’re familiar with (although most culinary traditions in Italy featured some form of focaccia, or flatbread). However, we do not see the first until the late 18th century notice on pizza as an established commodity, in a plea registered with the police by a pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, facing debtor’s jail.
The Neapolitan pizza as we know it had no inventor per se. Rather, it was a socio-economic phenomenon that developed out of conditions that made the court not only possible but also necessary. It was originally a street food – although in the 19th century this term lacked any trace of romanticism that it carries today. For many of Naples’ poverty-stricken hordes, street food was the only way to get a meal. Most apartments lacked a kitchen, let alone cutlery, so the ready-to-eat, flat, foldable disc with some tasty bits on it was ideal. Pizza quickly became associated with those who ate it and was branded with poverty, filth and disease from the start.
“Made with a dense dough that burns but does not boil, and covered with almost raw tomatoes, garlic, oregano and pepper: these pizzas, in many pieces that cost a soldo, are entrusted to a boy who walks around them for sale on the street, on a moving table,” writes Matilde Serao in 1884 The bowels of Naples. “He stays there all day with those slices of pizza that freeze in the cold, turn yellow in the sun and get eaten by flies.”
According to legend, in 1889 Queen Margherita (wife of Umberto I, the second king of Italy) granted the request for royal imprimatur on Neapolitan cheese pizza with basil, thus bearing her name. Thereafter, the tricolor pizza (red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag) would be known as “la margherita” – a Cinderella tale ennobling a hitherto unworthy meal. However, state archives keep no records of it. The letter of approval, said to have been issued by the Queen’s secretary, Camillo Galli, was recently ruled a forgery Work of culinary history detective work. In fact, the Queen is unlikely to have ever seen, let alone tasted, pizza. But like the Aeneas myth, some stories are so good that they render reality obsolete. The Margherita later became Italy’s favorite pizza. But not quite yet.
The 54 pizzerias registered in Naples in the early 19th century grew to 121 by 1900. Finally, in 1905, the word “pizza” as we understand it today ended up in an Italian dictionary as “the common name of a very popular Neapolitan food. It’s essentially a type of sourdough sfoglia. Smeared with tomatoes, cream cheese, anchovies, etc… and baked in the oven where it puffs up and cooks then and there. Popular maybe, but only in Naples. Even with the fabricated blessing of a queen – considered the embodiment of grace and health – and local enthusiasm, any attempt to open a pizzeria in other parts of Italy ended in failure. Neapolitan pizza tentatively appeared as a novelty in local cookbooks, but it still hasn’t gotten over its murky past.
By the turn of the century, pizza was being exported to the United States along with Italian emigrants. It slowly became a thing as word of it got around in areas with a high concentration of immigrants from southern Italy, especially New York. But even in 1931 there were critics. In New Jersey Bergen evening shot, writes journalist Simon Stylites: “As far as I can tell, a pizza is made by topping a slab of reinforced asphalt with slime, whale blubber and the skeletons of small fish, and baking it to the consistency of a rubber heel, and piping hot with a dressing served from molten lava.”
After World War II, however, Italy experienced mass south-to-north migration, with many leaving poor rural areas and the cramped conditions of urban environments to enjoy the security and promise of industrial cities. As tourism increased in Italy, foreigners expected to find pizza everywhere, unaware that it was a culinary tradition restricted to Naples. Suddenly there was money to be made in the pizza trade. A lot of money indeed.
The post-war decades in Italy were a period of unprecedented growth, described as “economic miracle.” More and more Italians were able to partake in the leisure economy, and the dictates of the dolce vita were often derived from perceptions of the American lifestyle. As tourists from all over the world continued to profess their love for pizza, many Italians began to associate the pizza dish with good times and money well spent with family and friends, from visiting the beach to dating. Young or old, suddenly everyone loved pizza.
Indeed when I interviewed Italian women in their 90s for my book about italian foodways, none of them had eaten pizza before 1960. For her it was like a strange meal. While they obviously still had misconceptions rooted in the dish’s classic history (even raising concerns about whether those who made the pizza washed their hands), once they tried it, they liked it.
Such a journey has the once humble court made. the Association Verace Pizza Napoletana, founded in 1984, works with the mission to protect “real” Neapolitan pizza. Authorities of the AVPN travel the world certifying pizzerias with their seal of approval – if and only if the pizza lives up to the gold standard of quality of this great historical tradition. Their strict criteria dictate that the pizza must be formed by hand, without the aid of a rolling pin, and then quickly baked in a 905°F wood-burning oven for no more than 90 seconds. In 2010, Neapolitan pizza received one of its highest accolades: the coveted EU and UK Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) certification, which protects the right to use the product’s name only if it conforms to the registered production method holds. In 2017, the art of making pizza was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Neapolitan pizza doesn’t need to be buoyed by legends surrounding Aeneas and his plate-eating crew: it stands on its own and has a glorious and colorful past.