Middle Eastern by origin, but perfected in Naples, the Italian classic has kept the city running for centuries
The world’s favourite food, and there’s no point denying it, is pizza. Even the scent of a steaming pie, promising taste buds the pure satisfaction of bread, tomato and melted cheese, is enough to strike longing into the mouth of everyone. There’s no getting around the siren call of a gently steaming circle of cheese-covered dough, sitting invitingly in a square box, becoming more like Pac-Man with every slice teased from it, each bite more moreish than the last. Its majesty as a meal we can be certain of, its origins less so.
On the etymology of ‘pizza’, it is the Italian word for ‘pie’, but whether that came from the Latin ‘pix’ for ‘pitch’ or the Greek ‘pitta’ is not clear. But the commonly held belief is that despite being regarded as a staple of Italian cuisine, pizza likely comes from the Middle East. Before the Romans built their egocentric road network, every major civilisation on the Med’ was producing some sort of proto pizza, including the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Armenians, the Israelites, and the Babylonians – though it would take a couple of millennia for dipping sauce to come into its own.
These variants of leavened and unleavened flatbreads were baked in mud ovens, becoming a staple in the diets of families all over the region. Quick and cheap – essentially fast food before such a concept existed – the plain dough was flavoured with the addition of spices, herbs, and olive oils, similar to what we expect with focaccia bread today.
The addition of the tomato would take a while, with the red fruit not brought to Europe from the Americas until 1522 – where it was grown for decorative purposes only, its relation to the deadly nightshade leading to wealthy Europeans cultivating them as ‘love apples’ instead. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the poorer people of Naples are believed to be the first to add tomatoes to their dough bases, creating the first incarnations of the pizza we know and love today. These earliest pies proved hugely popular with labourers in the city, whose limited wealth only allowed them to buy basic ingredients like flour, lard, cheese, olive oil, and herbs and spices to feed their entire household.
Naples truly is the city that put the pizza on the map. Founded by the Greeks in 600 BC (before crust?), the city has always been a thriving coastal town. Commerce and trade has always flowed through Naples, but Campania, of which Naples is the capital, has also been home to the working poor, living in tightly packed tenements. With labourers on the go all day, pizzas and flavoured flatbreads, sold by street vendors and at restaurants, kept Naples moving.
The legend, almost certainly apocryphal, is that the Neapolitans invented pizza after needing a solution for using up their excess dough. Another is that they needed to put something in their basic ovens to keep them warm. But it is true the bakers of Naples were among the very first to combine the various toppings we casually add when ordering delivery over the phone or on an app, experimenting with garnishes like tomatoes, cheese, and anchovies from the bay.
Pizza Margherita, the basic mozzarella and basil pizza that most palates come to terms with on their first encounter with pizza, owes its name to a visiting monarch, the wife of King Umberto, who paid a visit to Naples in the 19th century. Raffaele Esposito, the baker in the first recognised pizza restaurant in Port Alba, created it especially for her. She allegedly like it so much, he honoured her by naming the dish after her.
Pizza made its way from Italy to western Europe after British and American soldiers stationed there during the Second World War brought it back with them. Its first mention in Ireland, according to the Come Here to Me social history blog, comes from April 7th, 1956, with The Irish Times’ Monica Sheridan describing it as “a sort of open tart made with tomatoes and cheese on a base of yeast dough,” adding that it was becoming “frightfully fashionable all over Europe.” Sixty years later, and it’s conquered the world.