The history of pizza does not begin with margherita. It begins with the mastunicola pizza. Well, yes, few people know that pizza in Naples was already a popular and consumed food for at least a couple of centuries before the codified history of pizza cu ‘a pummarola ‘ncoppa began in the eighteenth century.
Its ancestor is called mastunicola and seems to date back to the sixteenth century, although, being a food of the people, few historical sources describe it: a disc of dough topped with lard, pepper, grated cheese and basil. It is what we now call a white pizza, without tomato or mozzarella, also suitable for lactose intolerant people, since sheep’s milk cheese aged more than six months is used.
Tomato pizza, on the other hand, appears in the earliest records in the 18th century, the combination with mozzarella would be even later. The attribution of the name Margherita, dedicated to Queen Margherita of Savoy, would date back to 1889, but even here there are those who speak of legend. Certainly, a great marketing operation, which has contributed worldwide to the spread of one of the symbols of Italian cuisine: pizza.
Pizza mastunicola: the legend
It is called mastunicola and its name, unlike that of margherita, has nothing regal about it: for some it would be the name of Mastro Nicola, legendary inventor of pizza. No written text confirms this, but a long chain of handed-down memories, to be taken with the benefit of fairy tales told to children in the alleys of Naples.
Let’s tell the tale: Mastro Nicola, in the late 1400s, thus before Christopher Columbus discovered America and brought the tomato to the old continent, was one of the city’s best bakers, whose store according to legend was located near Rua Catalana, the ancient Neapolitan street a few meters from the Maschio Angioino where iron craftsmen were concentrated. In short, it seems that it was this Mastro Nicola who devised in the early 16th century this disk of seasoned bread dough, the forerunner of pizza.
The origins and ingredients
And the topping? Strutto, or rather as they say in Naples, ‘nzogna, pepe (doesn’t this remind you of taralli ‘nzogna e pepe?), a generous sprinkling of grated cheese and plenty of basil. Given the assonance with the Neapolitan way of calling this fragrant herb, namely vasinicola, some argue that the name mastunicola was rather a mispronunciation of the Neapolitan dialect term for basil. Less fascinating explanation than Mastro Nicola’s story, but possible.
The sprinkling of cheese to season pizza in ancient times was more of a “gourmet” touch for the wealthy. Today in Neapolitan pizzerias, pizza mastunicola generally includes pecorino cheese. In the old days, they used to put a little of what was available. Franco Pepe is the pizzaiolo from Caiazzo (province of Caserta) who recently starred in one of the episodes of Chef’s Table Pizza with his Pepe in Grani, in his personal (but rather philological) interpretation he uses Conciato Romano. A Slow Food Presidium, it is produced by a company in his area, the Lombardi family’s Le Campestre farm, which has recovered this ancient recipe. A 2,000-year-old technique involves aging from a minimum of 7 months to a maximum of 24 months in terracotta amphorae, with the addition of herbs that give this sheep’s milk cheese a unique flavor.
Pepe’s Pinsa Conciata del Cinquecento
“In interpreting this pizza, I set myself two goals: to balance a cheese that is difficult to put on pizza and to rediscover a very ancient recipe with a modern mentality.” A revisited tradition, as Pepe calls it, that takes care to respect the ingredients starting with “a reasoning about cooking.”
The choice of local ingredients is one of the prerogatives of the rediscovery work done by the Caiazzo-based pizzaiolo, who uses for his Pinsa Conciata del Cinquecento, as he calls his version of the Mastunicola, sugna di suino nero casertano, a product with an exceptional aroma. Pepper and oregano from the Matese region in the oven to release their aroma, then to finish strictly out of the oven basil and a generous grating of 10-month aged Conciato Romano.
The “gourmet” touch
Franco Pepe felt the need to add an ingredient that would dampen the power of this cheese, so in deference to the old adage “don’t tell the farmer” he initially tried pears. “From a meeting with Alfonso Iaccarino, who had the idea of substituting pears for ripe figs, I started serving my tanned pizza with this combination. When figs are in season I put them from fresh, the rest of the year I use a white fig jam from Cilento.” The result is an almost meal-ending pizza. “Many choose it to finish the tasting, others love it so much that they come to me on purpose to eat precisely my pizza Conciata, which in its ancient simplicity expresses all its fragrances.”