RISE OF THE PIZZA
John Dickie follows the crumbs to discover the birth of Naples’ most famous street food
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).
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