A pizza fit for a queen
On Sunday I wrote about our recent trip to Naples to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In that post I discussed the food of Pompeii’s ancient residents and the sense of continuity with the dining habits of Naples today. Of course, the development of food in the region moved beyond the classical, even if Naples is best known for its skill with traditional favourites like pasta and pizza. It’s the latter that I’m interested in this week, possibly Naples’ greatest culinary creation of them all.
Since 1889 when Neapolitan baker Raffaele Esposito from the Pizzeria di Pietro popularised the pizza with his patriotic Pizza Margherita, this simple flat bread with cheese and tomato topping has become a globally loved favourite. Italian immigrants to the United States brought pizza with them and the first American pizzeria was opened in New York in 1905 by immigrant Gennaro Lombardi. During the war, soldiers from around the world returning home after being stationed in Italy wanted more of the food they’d loved there. From that point pizza really took off to the point where it’s one of the most popular and beloved foods in the world.
Just on our York street there are three separate places where you can buy pizza, representing the different ways that they are available and consumed today. One is a traditional Italian place quite similar to where we ate in Naples, not fancy or upmarket looking but probably the best Italian food in town, full of the waiters from other Italian restaurants watching the football. Another is a new trendy bar and music venue that does a decent line in stone baked pizza. The third is a greasy takeaway that only starts to become appealing after a night of heavy drinking. That, though, is a large amount of the appeal of pizza, it’s versatility and appropriateness in any situation.
That might be pizza’s recent history, but where did it come from at first? Esposito has often been cited as the “inventor of pizza“, but could he really be when he already worked in a “Pizzeria”?
Appropriately enough, the history of the pizza begins with the same thing that you begin with when making one: bread dough. People in the Mediterranean have been baking dough from flour and water since ancient times and flat breads topped with cheese or vegetables were probably part of the Roman diet. I mentioned on Sunday the bakeries that we had seen in the ruins of Pompeii. The baking process involved heating up the stones inside the brick oven and then putting the bread dough inside to bake, much in the way stonebaked pizza is produced today. According to De re coquinaria, the classical Roman cookbook, cheese, garlic, oil, mint, pepper, and chicken were among the ingredients that Romans used to put on a bread base.
The result of these ancient flat breads was the focaccia, still a popular form of oil coated flat bread occasionally topped with herbs and cheeses. So, for making my own pizza that was where I started, with making a simple dough from strong flour, yeast, water, salt and olive oil. Really, this process has barely changed in over a century and, indeed, the only change throughout history has been the isolation and separation of yeast molecules in the mid 1800s. Of course you get mechanical mixers and bread makers these days, but I like to do all my mixing and kneading the old fashioned way. It’s much more appealing to get a feel for these things by hand.
Variants on the name “pizza” started being used in Naples for these topping covered flat breads around 1000 years ago. Informed by the slightly strange American phraseology “pizza pie”, this article makes the erroneous claim that “pizza is actually modern Italian for pie“ (for the record, Italy doesn’t have a direct translation for “pie”, but torta and pasticcio are more appropriate). It does, however, go on to propose the most popular potential etymology for the name, that it originates from the old Italian pizzicare meaning “to pinch or pluck”. However, there is equally a suggestion that the term relates to Greek pita bread whose origin is the mediaeval Greek pitta meaning “cake” and back to the ancient pitta meaning “pitch”. A third possibility is that its origins are German, via the old German word bizzo or “mouthful”, from which we also get our word bite.
Whatever the origin of the term, Neapolitans were making plenty of what they called pizzas by the Renaissance era, which was when the next key element of what we call pizza came about: tomato. Pomodoro, as it’s called there, is a key element of Neapolitan cuisine (what with pizza and pasta, the people of Naples are big on the “p” foods) and has been now for centuries, but it is not, of course, native to Italy or to Europe. By the 1500s Naples had become part of the Spanish Empire, an empire that was beginning to expand across the Atlantic and into the so-called New World. Naturally a large part of the motivation for this colonial expansion was culinary, with early explorers like Columbus looking for better spice routes. The main food that all of this introduced to the European diet was a variety of solanums, a variety of plant that includes potato, chilli pepper and, yes, tomato.
Solanums are perhaps better known as “nightshades”, another famous species of which is Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade. When you consider that, it should perhaps come as no surprise that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous. This meant that many people were somewhat slow on the tomato uptake after the Spanish brought them back from their colonial conquests. Amongst the poorer classes in Italy, however, people were much quicker to embrace tomato’s appeal. The earliest kinds were probably small, acidic and yellow (hence pomo d’ori or “yellow apples”). By the 16th century, then, tomato topped pizza breads became a commonplace Neapolitan peasant food.
Down the years tomatoes have been selected to be sweeter, juicier and tastier than when they first arrived in Europe, not to mention redder, but they remain a staple element of a pizza. Having said that, in Naples itself there are many toppings that you get without tomato, while the rest of the world perceives the tomato as a core element. Following on from this I made a tomato sauce from onion, garlic, mixed herbs, chopped tomatoes and passata (sieved tomatoes) and spread it on my pizza dough.
In Naples we visited Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba (a review will follow on Sunday), a pizzeria in what is now a kind of hipster student part of the city on a street full of second hand booksellers. Pizzeria Port’Alba lays claim to being the world’s oldest pizzeria and gives an insight into the way that pizza making and consuming developed from the 1700s onwards. Pizzeria Port’Alba began life as a street vendor in 1738, peddling pizzas from a street stand where pizza traders would keep the wood fired oven pizzas warm in tin stoves that they kept on their heads. By 1830 they were doing well enough to open the restaurant that still functions today. This was the era in which the area became known for students and artists, essentially people without much money, so the cheap peasant food of pizza was perfect for them. According to wikipedia, people could pay by a system known as pizza a otto, where people could pay for their pizzas eight days later.
Because their clientele was not well off, pizzas at Pizzeria Port’Alba, and the other pizzerias of 19th century Naples, were made with pretty simple toppings. These days pizza toppings are wildly variable and really just limited by your imagination, hence my previous recipe for crocodile and peach pizza. For Pizzeria Port’Alba, though, things were very different. A topping of lard, sheep’s cheese and basil – a Pizza Mastunicola – was the diners’ favourite. An additional option, though, added the new favourite of the 19th century: buffalo mozzarella. The ingredients were all in place, then, for Raffaele Esposito and the “invention” of the Pizza Margherita.
The middle of the 19th century found the proud Neapolitan population struggling to adjust to their new place in the unified Kingdom of Italy after Giuseppe Garibaldi’s arrival in 1861. The quality of their food allowed them to assert their significance and yet, at the same time, suck up to their new rulers in Rome: King Umberto I and his wife, Queen Margherita.
With the Italian government struggling to solve the “Southern question” of Neapolitan resistance to their rule, the king and queen holidayed in Naples in 1889 with the aim of ingratiating themselves with their Calabrian subjects. The popular legend is that the queen, bored with having to eat French food all the time, ordered Esposito to prepare three of his best pizzas. He served her the Mastunicola loved by Port’Alba’s students, a Pizza Marinara made with tomato, garlic and oil, and a third dish of his own creation made with basil, mozzarella and tomato. Charmed by the patriotic three colours of the Italian flag on this last option, the queen apparently sent Esposito a glowing endorsement of his cooking. Esposito, for his part, was pleased to honour the queen by naming his creation after her.
Esposito’s family still runs the restaurant where he apparently created this definitive pizza, now known as Pizzeria Brandi and still displays the letter with the royal seal in which the queen’s representative endorses both Esposito and the pizza. The only thing is that there’s no record of such a letter being sent. More than that, the royal seal on the Pizzeria Brandi letter is not the same as the one used by the royal family, the handwriting does not match the royal representative’s writing on other letters. Finally the letter at Pizzeria Brandi refers to Esposito as Raffaele Esposito Brandi, given that the Brandis are his wife’s family, it’s unlikely that he would have used that name for himself. The Brandis, however, with no name connection to the famous Esposito would have good reason to put that in the letter.
The legend of the Pizza Margherita may be nothing more than a legend, then, and basil, mozzarella and tomato nothing more than the increasingly popular pizza toppings of the time, but there is no doubt that the relation between the pizza’s patriotic colour scheme, its regal name and this appealing story did a lot to push pizza from being peasant food to something more in the public eye. Indeed, for many pizza purists in Naples its either this, the cheese free Marinara, or nothing.
In order to honour Esposito, therefore, along with the hundreds of other Neapoliton pizzaiolos who were also making the same thing, I added nothing to the top of my pizza but slices of green basil, white mozzarella and a few more red tomatoes. It was tasty, of course, but when isn’t a pizza? What was more noteworthy, though, was the parallels between the building up of my pizza’s elements and the journey that the dish as a whole has taken through time.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: One thing that was quite noticeable in Naples was that most pizzas weren’t “bread, tomato sauce, cheese, toppings”; they were just “bread, toppings”, of which tomatoes and cheese occasionally featured. My first pizza in Naples was topped with cheese, aoili, oil and basil (one leaf). The second was a Margherita, but again, no layers – just bread with tomatoes, cheese and basil scattered on top. I really like Colonel Mustard’s pizzas, but it’s very obvious they’re not Italian pizzas, and I was a little surprised he didn’t absorb the Italian influence and try and make them more so. Not that I minded – I went back for seconds, after all!