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Pizza - Can I get a slice of that?

Pizza is something we all know and love. Many know pizza originated from Italy but how did it become the pizza that we know today? We explore pizza’s beginnings and its rise to fame. Just like humans, the pizza too has a rather interesting evolution process. The First Slice - Pizza’s Forefather

The modern-day pizza seem to have evolved from a kind of bread known as Focaccia (Liguria)  created before 600 B.C. Focaccia is a basic flat bread that is topped with common ingredients in Italian cuisine - olive oil, spices and other flavours.

The basic recipe of this bread seems to have links to the Ancient Greeks and is said to have essentially belonged to the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Other sources also suggest that this bread was popular among the he Greeks, Egyptians, Armenians, Israelis, and the Babylonians. Cooked in mud ovens, this bread was a favourite among the working class men and their families because it was cheap and convenient to produce. Today, this bread has numerous descendants, from the modern-day Pizza to regional specialities in Italy like the Fitascetta of Lombardy and the Schiacciata of Emilia - sweet or savoury versions of the original Focaccia.

Although the pizza is said to have evolved from this bread, its evolution process includes much more before becoming the pizza the world knows today.

More Slices - Where and When did pizza appear?

Pizza is said to have been founded in Naples, Italy. Starting off as a Greek settlement in 600 B.C., Naples became a thriving waterfront city in the 1700s and 1800s. Although it was known as a well-to-do city filled with businesses and merchants, there was a large population of the working poor whose diet consisted of cheap, accessible food.

The first pizza only became possible because bakers in early Naples (500 B.C. onwards), not wanting to waste the extra dough, or using the extra dough  keep the oven warm, sold the cooked extra dough to the poor people. This eventually started the development of what would now be known as one of the world's most popular food.

The poorer working class of Naples were often busy and did not have much time to eat. They needed food that was both convenient to eat and produce. Hence, the invention of the first simple pizza as we know of today was created. The recipe was simple too. Slices of fresh tomato were placed on a base of yeast dough to create a tasty pizza. From this early pizza that was created somewhere around 500 B.C, the modern-day pizza still had a long way to go before becoming a phenomenon.

The origin of the word 'pizza' reflects the influence of other cultures on it. Some authors suggest that ‘pizza’ spread through Mediterranean Europe in two stages . The term ‘pizza’ in Italy is tied to the Syrian stage of its spread, referring to plain bread, whereas ‘neapolitan pizza’ is linked to the Byzantine stage of pizza’s spread, referring to stuffed bread. (Social Sciences in Asia, vol 31, p.19)

During this period, Raffaele Esposito created the first pizza consisting of tomato, cheese, and other toppings and seasonings. He opened the first known pizza shop in Port'alba, Naples that still operates today. Esposito was also famous for creating the classic “Pizza Margherita”  named after Queen Margherita. The story goes that one day King Umberto and his Queen, Queen Margherita of Italy visited Esposito’s pizzeria in Naples during the late 1800s, after becoming very bored with their French diet. After trying the various pizzas that laid in front of her she seemed to take a special liking for the one with a tomato spread, mozzarella and basil. Esposito, being very pleased with this decided to name that pizza after the Queen herself and hence, the “Pizza Margherita” was created.

Fun Slices - Pizza trivia

The first pizza ovens were ceramic-decked, gas-fired ones that was invented by Ira Nevins who served as a GI in Naples during the World War II. He came home to the    US with a deep appreciation for pizza like other GIs. Since his family was part of the oven business in suburban New York, he decided to invent a more cleaner and efficient coal-fired oven to make the pizzas that he enjoyed. His new invention enabled more pizzerias to open in America as entrepreneurs saw the potential in selling pizza.

The earliest recorded pizzas did not have tomatoes in them, according to Carol Helstosky (link: Pizza: A Global History, p. 21-22) In fact, when tomatoes were first introduced to Italians in the 16th century, they did not eat them because they thought they were poisonous when many people died after eating tomatoes. The actual reason for these deaths was because pewter plates were commonly used among the rich. The acid in the tomato would react with the lead in pewter plates and many died of lead poisoning. Tomatoes only made their way into the Italians’ diet when the poor people started putting them on their yeast dough. Today, it’s hard to see any traditional Italian food without tomatoes. Tomatoes have certainly managed to buy their way into the hearts of the Italians, transforming from “poison” to “most delightful”.

How Pizza came to the US

Pizza’s rise to fame across the globe began when it first entered the US. Pizza was brought in by Italian immigrants who entered the US in the late 19th century. Eventually, after their arrival, small cafes and restaurants in ‘Little Italy’ started serving pizzas to significant numbers of Italian Americans living there.

Last Slice - Pizza Today

From America to Asia, Pizza has definitely made its mark worldwide. Take for example, New York style pizza, or the mochi pizza from Japan. Even in Italy,  the Pizza has been reinvented by chef Rossano Boscolo who created pizza cones. Everywhere the pizza goes, it becomes a part of the country’s identity and absorbs aspects of local culture. Pizza today has become an icon of modern cuisine.