Pizza has a typically Mediterranean history, although Americans are convinced they invented it (and it must be admitted that the most comprehensive publication on this gastronomic object is American: Modernist Pizza by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya, 2021). A subtle variant of bread, it originated to support and carry companion. These are the ancient “canteens,” the ones Virgil mentions when he tells that Aeneas’s companions, having reached the mouth of the Tiber, found themselves so hungry that they devoured even those; and that is why, according to the prophecy, Rome was founded in that place.
A very ancient food spread in many countries, pizza meets with particular fortune in Italy. The name is found in medieval documents: in 997 certain peasants of Gaeta undertook to deliver, as a gift to their lords, pizzas at Christmas and Easter. Perhaps, at that time they are still discs of bread to be used as holders. In Renaissance cookbooks, the meaning of the word has changed: pizza is almost synonymous with pie, a preparation that does not “support” but rather “contains” the ingredients. So it is in Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera (1570), a masterpiece of 16th-century Italian cuisine. Much space he devotes to cakes, the ways in which they are made in various localities. One attracts our attention: the cake “with different matters, by Neapolitans called pizza.” When representing the gastronomic traditions of the whole country, Scappi assimilates Neapolitan pizza to pies; but with a distinctive feature, that of not being closed but open: “Without being covered facciasi bake in the oven.”
This Neapolitan pizza is not the one we know: its flavor is sweet, the ingredients are almonds, pine nuts, dates, dried figs, zibibbo, all pounded and enriched with egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, mostaccioli, and rose water. It is a kind of preparation that we still find in the late 19th century: Pellegrino Artusi’s “pizza alla napoletana” is a cream of ricotta cheese, almonds, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, with which a short pastry “arranged in the guise of a cake” is filled. Meanwhile, however, the other pizza had been born. Which is no longer an “open pie,” but recovers the ancient sense of “canteen.” The place of attention is the same: Naples, where, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the specific “craft” of pizza-making is already documented. This popular variant of pizza, which will find its privileged companions in tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies and little else, still in the early twentieth century will be looked upon with detachment and contempt by the people of the North. But the model will not be long in establishing itself, in Italy and around the world. In this as in other cases, it will be the “poor” flavors that will prevail.