RISE OF THE PIZZA

John Dickie fol­lows the crumbs to dis­cover the birth of Naples’ most fa­mous street food

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

TO the Ital­ian palate, the Bri­tish way of eat­ing is a cor­nu­copia of hor­rors. The gas­tro­nomic cul­ture clash be­gins at break­fast: the no­tion of fry­ing any­thing so early in the day is enough to make most Ital­ian stom­achs turn.

Ital­ians also find it dis­tress­ing that Bri­tish peo­ple snack on the move. In Italy, ice cream is the only thing that can be en­joyed le­git­i­mately while walk­ing, but even then the cone should be wrapped in a nap­kin.

Italy has many street-food tra­di­tions, rang­ing from Rome’s sim­ple and om­nipresent pizza squares and sup­pli (a deep­fried rice ball with a melt­ing heart of moz­zarella) to the more de­mand­ing Floren­tine lam­pre­dotto (a bread roll filled with suc­cu­lent strips of boiled gut topped with oily pars­ley and chilli dress­ings).

But con­sum­ing even th­ese ready-to-go de­lights is an ex­pe­ri­ence to be savoured, an ex­pe­ri­ence worth fram­ing with rules. Ital­ians eat things like panini and tramezzini (rolls and lit­tle crust­less sand­wiches) stand­ing at a counter or perched on a stool by a shelf. To do any­thing as pur­pose­ful as walk­ing at the same time would be dis­re­spect­ful to the un­der­stated artistry of the cook and would cross the line that dis­tin­guishes eat­ing from mere feed­ing.

When it comes to food, Ital­ians are as sed­u­lous in their dis­gust as they are dis­cern­ing about good eat­ing. Taste and dis­taste, gusto and dis­gusto, are in­sep­a­ra­ble part­ners in the Ital­ian civil­i­sa­tion of the ta­ble. When­ever Ital­ian gas­tron­omy has been strong, Ital­ians have had a fine sen­si­tiv­ity to what is re­pug­nant and a finely ar­tic­u­lated code of man­ners.

But the rules of re­pug­nance changed over time.

In the Mid­dle Ages and the Re­nais­sance, gar­lic stank of poverty. Yet many con­tem­po­rary dishes, from pesto gen­ovese to spaghetti alle von­gole (with clams), would be un­think­able with­out it.

Whereas me­dieval and Re­nais­sance chefs boiled their pasta un­til it was very soft, over­cooked spaghetti re­pels to­day’s Ital­ians more vi­o­lently than any other kitchen mis­de­meanour.

So it should not come as a sur­prise to dis­cover that early in its his­tory, in the 1800s, pizza was dis­gust­ing. Pizza is al­most cer­tainly the most widely eaten food on the planet, and across the planet it is a bla­zon of Ital­ian iden­tity. Yet only just over a cen­tury ago, in the city where it was born, pizza would just as likely have pro­voked a screwed-up nose as a sali­vat­ing mouth.

There are few hard facts in the his­tory of pizza. The word prob­a­bly shares its ori­gins with the Greek pitta and the Turk­ish pide,

have which tells us that it be­longs to a wide and an­cient Mediter­ranean fam­ily of flat­breads. Many dic­tio­nar­ies of Neapoli­tan di­alect from the late 18th cen­tury on­wards tell us that pizza, at its sim­plest, was merely a generic word for all kinds of pies and for what would be called fo­cac­cia or schi­ac­ciata else­where in Italy; that is, a flat piece of dough dap­pled with fat or oil and cooked quickly in a hot oven.

The ge­neal­ogy of pizza is made more tricky still by the fact that for a long time pizza napo­le­tana de­noted a sweet tart con­tain­ing al­monds. But there can be lit­tle doubt that, by the early 1800s, pizza had also come to re­fer to some­thing like the mod­ern form of the thing.

One of the ear­li­est pizza sight­ings was made by the au­thor of TheThree­Mus­ke­teers , Alexandre Du­mas, who vis­ited Naples in the 1830s and ob­served the poor eat­ing pizza, largely be­cause it was much cheaper even than maccheroni: ‘‘ The pizza is a kind of tal­mouse (tri­an­gu­lar cheese pas­try) like the ones they make in Saint-De­nis. It is round and kneaded from the same dough as bread . . . There are piz­zas with oil, piz­zas with dif­fer­ent kinds of lard, piz­zas with cheese, piz­zas with toma­toes and piz­zas with lit­tle fish.’’

Given the pizza’s sketchy his­tory, it is no won­der that Neapoli­tans in search of cer­tain­ties about their fa­mous con­tri­bu­tion to the way the world eats have latched on ea­gerly to one episode in June 1889. At that time Margherita of Savoy, the queen of Italy, was mak­ing a month-long visit to Naples. Al­though from Turin, she was ea­ger to try pizza and sent for the renowned lo­cal piz­zaiolo, Raf­faele Esposito, who worked in a pizze­ria tucked into a cor­ner be­tween the cramped al­leys of the Span­ish Quar­ter and the grand open space of pi­azza del Plebisc­ito.

Esposito was sent to work in the kitchens of the hill­top palace of Capodi­monte where the queen was re­sid­ing. He made three piz­zas: one with oil, one with white­bait and one with tomato, moz­zarella and a cou­ple of torn basil leaves. The queen pre­ferred the last and it was duly bap­tised ‘‘ pizza Margherita’’ in her hon­our.

Esposito’s shop, now called the Pizze­ria Brandi, still proudly dis­plays the let­ter of recog­ni­tion he re­ceived, signed by ‘‘ Galli Camillo, Head of Ta­ble Ser­vices to the Royal House­hold’’. There seems lit­tle rea­son to doubt the au­then­tic­ity of this doc­u­ment, al­though I can find no ref­er­ence to Queen Margherita’s pizza ex­per­i­ment in the press of the day.

Yet still the story sug­gests far too cosy a pic­ture of what pizza meant to 19th-cen­tury Naples. Un­der­stand­ably, many Neapoli­tans as­sume that their disc of baked dough flavoured with tomato sauce and cheese is so un­ques­tion­ably a good thing that it only needs to be dis­cov­ered to be loved. But in re­al­ity pizza trav­elled a much harder and slower road to pop­u­lar­ity.

One per­son who man­i­festly hated pizza was Carlo Col­lodi, the cook’s son from Florence who fin­ished writ­ing TheAd­ven­tures of Pinoc­chio six years be­fore the queen’s visit to Naples. In his next book, which did not meet with quite the same gal­lop­ing suc­cess, he writes about a young Tus­can boy’s jour­ney around Italy. On reach­ing Naples, the boy dis­cov­ers pizza:

‘‘ Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a fo­cac­cia made from leav­ened bread dough which is toasted in the oven. On top of it they put a sauce with a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing. When its colours are com­bined — the black of the toasted bread, the sickly white of the gar­lic and an­chovy, the greeny-yel­low of the oil and fried greens, and the bits of red here and there from the tomato — they make pizza look like a patch­work of greasy filth that har­monises per­fectly with the ap­pear­ance of the per­son sell­ing it.’’ This is an edited ex­tract from Delizia!The EpicHis­to­ry­oftheI­tal­iansandtheirFood by John Dickie (Scep­tre, $35).

Give­away

Cour­tesy of the pub­lisher we have six copies of Delizia! to give away to read­ers. On the back of an en­ve­lope, write your name, ad­dress and, in 25 words or less, why you would like to win a copy of the book. Send to: Delizia Give­away, PO Box 215, East­ern Sub­urbs MC, NSW 2004.

The peo­ple’s pie: Prob­a­bly the most widely eaten food on the planet, pizza feeds the mul­ti­tudes, as this com­mu­nal event in Naples demon­srates

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