The history of pizza is long, complex and uncertain. The earliest written records of the word “pizza” date back to Vulgar Latin in Gaeta in 997, as compensation for a lease of a mill located in the territory of the present municipality of Castelforte and in a lease with date on the back January 31, 1201 in Sulmona, and later in that of other Italian cities such as Rome, L’Aquila, Pesaro, Penne, etc. The meaning was not the current one, however, since still between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in Neapolitan cookbooks the word “pizza” indicated rustic and sweet preparations by cooks rather than pizzaiuoli.
In 16th century Naples a flattened bread was given the name pizza, which comes from the mispronunciation of the Greek word πιττα (pitta), meaning “flatbread” .
Before the 17th century pizza was covered with white topping. It was later enriched with olive oil, cheese, tomatoes or fish: in 1843, Alexandre Dumas described the diversity of pizza toppings.
The appearance of seafood pizza (different from today’s pizza) dates back to 1734. A universally popular narrative says that in June 1889, to honor Italy’s Queen Margherita of Savoy, chef Raffaele Esposito prepared “Pizza Margherita,” topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to represent the colors of the Italian flag.
Having invented bread, the step-by-step journey of pizza continues in ancient Rome. Here, peasants, after learning to cross the different known types of spelt creating flour (its name comes from “far,” which in Latin means precisely spelt), knead flour from ground wheat grains with water, herbs and salt. Then they place this round flatbread to bake on the hearth, in the heat of the ashes. Well: the Neapolitans may not take it in the best of ways, but it was the Romans who used real discs of bread to hold juicy dishes. Round pizzas, more or less. But with degrees of kinship far, far removed from the pizzas that can be enjoyed today in the shadow of Vesuvius. There are, in fact, still so many ingredients missing, many of them unknown until centuries and centuries later. In the 7th AD, with the arrival of the Lombards in Italy, a new Gothic-Longobard word began to circulate: “bizzo,” sometimes called “pizzo.” In German “bizzen.” That is, bite. Almost there.
The term pizza in early historical documents
From bite to bite, from piece of bread to flatbread the chain synecdoche is served. So much so that around the year 1000 the first official documents with the term “pizza” are found. As in one dated 1195 and drafted in Penne, Abruzzo. Or those of the Roman Curia of 1300, where “pizis” and “pissas” are mentioned referring to some typical baked goods, of that period, in the center-south of the peninsula. Abruzzo and Molise above all. Naples, we are getting closer.
It comes to Naples
In 1535, finally, in his “Description of the Ancient Places of Naples,” the poet and essayist Benedetto Di Falco says that the “focaccia, in Napoletano is called pizza.” So it becomes official: even in Campania, the evolution of pizza has never stopped. Neither has the tradition. As that of the typical wheat flour flatbread kneaded and seasoned with garlic, lard and coarse salt continued to meet with favor among the people of the South. Before long, however, olive oil took the place of lard, cheese was added, and herbs were found again. And so, at the dawn of the 17th century, a recipe with a majestic scent of basil made its appearance, pizza “alla Mastunicola” (in dialect, by Master Nicola).
Here is the tomato
In the 1600s we are really at the beginning of the modern history of pizza. Bread dough baked in wood-fired ovens, topped with garlic, lard and coarse salt, or, in the “richer” version, with caciocavallo cheese and basil. Then, with the discovery of America, the tomato arrived in Italy as well and everything took on a different flavor. Tomato was first used in cooking as a cooked sauce with a little salt and basil, while later someone had the intuition to use it, thus unintentionally inventing pizza as we know it today. Albeit without mozzarella, which instead completes this story only in 1800. The same century in which, by now, pizza is widespread in the populace, but not only. Barons, princes and rulers are also fond of it, so much so that it ends up on tables during the receptions of the Bourbons, while Ferdinand IV has it baked in the ovens of Capodimonte.
The true Neapolitan pizza
The first recipe for pizza as we know it today can be found in a treatise given to print in Naples in 1858, which describes how the “true Neapolitan pizza” was prepared in those years. When the city was still the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Francesco De Bourcard in “Usi e costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti” even goes so far as to mention a kind of pizza Margherita ante litteram, with mozzarella and basil. Tomatoes, then, are still optional, while for toppings, one reads, one can use “what comes into your head.” But towards the end of the nineteenth century, pizza with tomato and mozzarella even arrived in America thanks to Italians who emigrated to New York and was made exactly as it was in the Neapolitan capital.
After the Neapolitan pizza makers had spread various qualities of pizza among the population, we come to its official approval in 1889, on the occasion of the visit to Naples of the then sovereigns of Italy King Umberto I and Queen Margherita. And this is indeed a valuable chapter in the history of pizza. During their walk through the Campanian city, the rulers were welcomed by Raffaele Esposito, the best pizza maker of the time, who made three classic pizzas for them: pizza alla Mastunicola (lard, cheese, basil), pizza alla Marinara (tomato, garlic, oil, oregano) and pizza pomodoro e mozzarella (tomato, oil, mozzarella, oregano), made in honor of Queen Margherita and whose colors intentionally recalled the Italian tricolor. The sovereign appreciated the latter so much that she wanted to thank and praise its maker in writing. And the only way for the pizza maker to reciprocate the gesture was to name his culinary creation after the queen: “Pizza Margherita.”
From the South to the conquest of the world
Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, talking about pizza became a very normal thing to do. And over time, variations of it of all kinds were born, for all tastes. The second wave of spread, at any rate, comes after World War II. Pizza leaves the borders of southern Italy to land in the north, and with the industrial boom in the triangle of Milan, Turin and Genoa thousands of emigrants move with their families with the ways, customs and traditions pertinent to them. They slowly began to make the first pizzas for the villagers and gradually with the success they achieved for the locals as well. Then in the 1960s, pizzerias arrive practically all over the country. And within a few years, all over the world. From China to the Middle East, from Eastern Europe to South America. Everyone can’t do without it anymore. And, rightly so, the candidacy of the art of Neapolitan pizza makers as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has been in the field for no small amount of time. Hard to imagine a different recognition for a dish with such a history.
Pizza in North America
Pizza made its first appearance in the United States with the arrival of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. This was certainly the case in cities with large Italian populations, such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, New Haven, and Philadelphia where pizza was initially sold on the streets of Italian neighborhoods. In late 19th century Chicago, for example, pizza was introduced by a street vendor walking up and down Taylor Street with a tub of pizzas on his head. This was the traditional way pizza was sold in Naples, in copper cylinders with handles on the sides and a lid on top to keep the pizzas hot. It was not long before small cafes and grocery stores began offering pizzas to their Italian American communities. Among the various types of pizzas invented by Italian immigrants to the U.S. were the rolled pizza of Philadelphia and the so-called deep-dish pizza of Chicago, characterized by a very high edge.
Similarly, other variants of the Italian dish have spread in Canada. In addition to the Hawaiian pizza, which contains pineapple and ham and has become world-famous, mention may be made of Toronto’s margherita pizza, which has a medium-thick crust and is topped with garlic and basil oil. This recipe, which has become a specialty of Canada’s capital city, combines Italian pizza with the Vietnamese tradition of using oil-based toppings in food. The fast food chain Boston Pizza has also invented the pizza cake, a series of pizzas stacked on top of each other and joined by the outer crust, while various restaurants in Quebec have popularized the so-called pizza-ghetti, a portion of spaghetti with tomato sauce served alongside two slices of pizza.
The etymology of the name “pizza” (which is not necessarily related to the origin of the product) would derive, according to some, from pinsa (from the Neapolitan language), past participle of the Latin verb pinsere or from the verb “pansere,” meaning to pound, crush, pigiare which would derive from Mediterranean and Balkan pita, in Greek πίττα, derived from πεπττος meaning “baked.” according to the latter hypothesis, the word would derive from Hebrew פִּתָּה or פיתה, from Arabic كماج which belongs to the same category as bread or focaccia. The first use of the word “pizza” dates back to 997 and is attested in a Latin text from the city of Gaeta. Other hypotheses about it are as follows:
The ancient Germanic word “bizzo” or “pizzo,” meaning “bite,” “flatbread” (also related to the English words “bit” and “bite”) was imported to Italy in the mid-6th century during the invasion of the Lombards. This is the most credited origin according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although it has not been definitively confirmed.