Pizza: Finding Its Roots Then and Now

pizzaIf you are among those who think pizza has all the elements of a complete meal, you are a child of the 21st century. With the convenience that eating pizza offers and the limitless possibilities of toppings and flavors, it is not surprising that Italians lost it to the world, figuratively and literally. It has been embraced by all cultures all over the world; every place now has their own version of a delicious pizza.

Have you ever wondered about the humble beginnings of pizza? Maybe you’re not as eager in its history as in devouring slices upon slices of it, but make no mistake it is something that fascinates a lot of foodies and food historians. Since the publishing of the book Pizza: A Global History by Carol Helstosky, the grapevine has been all rife with how it hasn’t really started in Naples, Italy.

All These Flatbreads

There were forerunners to it.  There’s the flat bread from the Middle East and the unleavened flat bread of the Egyptians. It is said that as early as 500 B.C., Persian (Iranian) soldiers used their shields to bake flat bread, topped with cheese and dates. The Indians have baked naan cooked in hot Tandoori ovens.

The Greeks and Romans had flat breads too called plakountos and focaccia breads topped with olive oil, spices, and other seasonal harvests. All these and more (some food historians say they can write a very thick book about flat breads alone) make it hard to say where pizza rally originated.

Is Pizza from Naples?

Recently, an Italian historian by the name of Giuseppe Noca made a lot of eyebrows raise when he categorically said pizza is not from Naples at all. In brief, you can get some ideas from the Keith Miller’s post Was pizza not invented in Naples after all? for The Telegraph – Food Section.

“There’s never a dull moment in the world of pizza. The people of Naples take great pride in this street food classic, and have always claimed it as their own. But now, an Italian food historian has located the first use of the word “pizza” not in Naples, but Gaeta, some 80 kilometres to the north-west.

Giuseppe Nocca of the Istituto Alberghiero di Formia claims that the “codex diplomaticus cajtanus” of 997 CE contains the first ever written use of the word, in a list of food to be supplied annually as a tithe to the archbishops of Gaeta by the tenants of a mill on the nearby river Garigliano. The document is written in medieval Latin, but Nocca argues that the “duodecim  pizze” demanded every Christmas and Easter (“whether to us or our successors”) represent a double whammy: not just the first written use of the word “pizza”, but one of the first of any vernacular Italian word.”

The Neapolitan Flatbread: History Says…

The post explains that the word “pizza” is actually a Byzantine Greek word to mean “small loaf, cake or pie” though it is said to denote “little flatbreads.” Insofar as the Neapolitans (people of Naples), true credit for “pizza” was denied street vendors who used to make and sell flat breads during the in the 1700s and early 1800s when the city was full of poor, working people. The “pizza” used to be sold in the streets was looked down by the wealthy minority. Those “disgusting pizzas,” said Helstosky, have assorted toppings of cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, olive oil, and garlic so well-loved today.

Instead, the credit went to Naples. Books on food history say it started in Naples when a baker named Raffaele Esposito served that kind of pizza to then Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita in 1889 during their visit. Pizza Margherita, still a popular version to this day, was served with mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes and basil. It became an emblem of Italian unification.

Or Is It From Lazio?

Giuseppe Nocca (spelled with two Cs) said in a Michael Day post in The Independent –Lifestyle/Food and Drink Section, Pizza Did Not Originate in Naples, Claims Food Historian. There are church records written AD997 to prove that the word pizza was first used Gaeta, Lazio, as part of a rental agreement. It said that…

They say that “every year on Christmas Day of the Lord, you and your heirs must pay to us and our successors, by way of rent for the bishop… 12 pizzas, a shoulder [of] pork and a kidney, and likewise 12 pizzas and a couple of chickens in the day of Easter of Resurrection”.

Like pizza, its early history is a toss-up. Modern pizza is both Italian and American. As pizza history continues, and as it is embraced by the world, don’t be surprised if more “toss-up” is to come coming years.

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