[thechat] Pizza (was: "Eight Miles High")

Erik Mattheis gozz at gozz.com
Tue Dec 9 16:00:55 CST 2003

I say the best answer is "Italy": a pizza without tomato sauce is not 
pizza to be, and tomato sauce originated n Italy:


Dear Straight Dope:

Who really invented pizza? The Greeks, Italians, or Mexicans? --Yours 
in food, Chris & Blair , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

SDSTAFF Dex replies:

Pizza is one of those foods for which we will never know a specific 
origin. For one thing, the definitions of pizza are many and varied. 
Putting stuff on flat bread as a meal certainly goes back as far as 
ancient Rome. The word "pizza" itself appears just before 1000 AD, in 
the area between Naples and Rome, meaning "pie."

There are traditional pizza-like dishes in Provence where bread (or 
sometimes a pastry) is topped with onion, tomato, anchovies, and 
olives. In the Middle East, lahma bi ajeen is a pizza base with minced 
onions, meat, and flavorings.

So we need to start with some definitions. Shall we confine our 
attention to American pizza, now found throughout the world? If so, no 
problem--it was invented in America in the 1950s. That's probably not 
the answer you were looking for, although the New World did make 
possible pizza as we know it today. 

Instead let's define modern pizza as the tasty conjunction of flat 
bread, tomato sauce, and cheese.  Most food historians point to Naples 
as the area of origin, and to Napoletana , the pizza of Naples, as the 
archetype of this type of pizza.

The word "pizza" itself is probably related to pitta (bread) so let's 
start with the crust. In ancient times, all bread was basically flat, 
and treated as a food in and of itself. The idea of bread as a carrier 
or holder of other food pretty much started in the Middle Ages, what we 
today might call an open face sandwich.  It wasn't originally a new way 
of eating--the bread was a sort of place mat, to help keep the table 
clean during meals. Only the rich could afford plates, so a flat piece 
of (say) hard barley bread on the table was used to hold the meal, 
mostly meat and drippings. Bread was specially baked for that purpose. 
After the meal, sometimes the bread was consumed, and sometimes given 
to the dogs.

The closed sandwich has its origins in the 18th century, but that's a 
different story.

Next ingredient: cheese. Cheese itself dates back to prehistoric times 
and was probably discovered by accidental fermentation. Mozzarella, a 
soft, fresh cheese traditionally made from the milk of water buffalo, 
originated in 15th century Naples. Mozzarella nowadays is made from 
cow's milk. You can still find buffalo-cheese (or a blend of buffalo 
and cow cheese) in Salerno, but it's too expensive and delicate for 
pizza topping, we're told.

That brings us to tomato sauce--the New World's contribution to pizza, 
since the tomato was a New World plant. Initially Europeans regarded 
the tomato with suspicion and fear. It had a strange texture, was too 
acidic to eat green, and looked spoiled when ripe. It disintegrated 
when cooked, and was even suspected of being poisonous.

But eventually it caught on.  New plants from America arrived in Iberia 
and spread throughout the Mediterranean. Italy probably got the tomato 
shortly after Spain--its soil and climate, similar to that of Central 
Mexico, helped the import thrive. The first written mention of the 
tomato in Italy is 1544; it was fried and eaten with salt and pepper.

By 1692, we have the first recipe for Italian tomato sauce, with chile 
peppers, so the modern pizza was just around the corner.

Alas, we shall never know the genius who first put together the bread, 
tomato sauce, and cheese. But that's how pizza (as I've defined it) 
came to be.

There are a many types of pizza, of course. Even in Naples, there is no 
consensus on what exactly constitutes a Neapolitan pizza. Burton 
Anderson writes that the most basic pizza is marinara --flat bread with 
oil, tomato, garlic, and oregano. It was stored on voyages so that 
sailors ( marinai ) could make pizza away from home. The pizza 
Margherita is just over a century old, named after the first queen of 
the united Italy, using toppings of tomato, mozzarella cheese, and 
fresh basil--the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. We also 
have calzone (pizza with an enclosed filling), pizza maniata (kneaded), 
pizzette (miniature) and pizza bianca (no toppings).

Italian immigrants brought pizza to the United States, in the early 
1900s. However, it was the 1950s when pizza caught on outside the 
Italian-American community, and quickly spread throughout the U.S. and 
became an international food, now found in every country.

Straight Dope Science Advisory Board 

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