Pizza is popular culture’s prevailing symbol of Italy, known with affection in every corner of the world.
Yet outside its home city of Naples Italians only really started eating pizza in the 1950s – before then, if it was known at all, it was for the wrong reasons.
It was in America that pizza became hugely popular and it was America that used its loud cultural voice to tell the world THIS IS ITALIAN.
Pizza is born in Naples
Flatbreads, with toppings, go back millennia, but the cheese and tomato topped flatbread that the world knows as pizza started life with a royal nod in Naples in 1889 when Italy’s Queen Margherita was presented with a red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) pizza in honour of the still-new Italian flag.
But pizza was still not going to be accepted by Italians, according to John Dickie’s Delizia: The Epic History of Italians and their Food: “Understandably, many Neapolitans assume that their disc of baked dough flavoured with tomato sauce and cheese is so unquestionably a good thing it only needs to be discovered to be loved. But in reality… Italians had to learn to like pizza. Not only that: they had to learn not to loathe it.”
This is because pizza’s image was entangled with that of Naples – then a squalid, overcrowded hellhole rife with cholera where poverty and early death were the norm. And pizza was its cheapest of cheap street foods.
The Adventures of Pinocchio author Carlo Collodi described pizza as “a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonises perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it.”
Queen Margherita’s endorsement boosted Neapolitan pride, but the rest of Italy didn’t pick up on it.
Pizza moves to America
In America, Neapolitan immigrants introduced pizza, without the dirty baggage of cholera-infested squalor. Ingredients were cheap and plentiful, municipal water was clean.
The first pizzeria was set up in 1905 in New York, and by the 1930s any city with an Italian neighbourhood had a pizza place.
By the 1950s most Americans had been introduced to pizza as a casual meal. Second generation Italian-Americans Dean Martin and Harry Warren sung about “pizza pie” in “That’s Amore,” while film and TV began to feature stereotyped Italian characters and their food. Take-out pizza and their ubiquitous flat boxes decorated with smiling mustachioed Italians were introduced, and pizza soon slotted into the omnipresent American suite of fast food, along with burgers, hot dogs and French fries.
Of course, it wasn’t quite the same as what you’d get in Naples. John F. Mariani’s How Italian Food Conquered the World describes its divergence: “The single-serving, thin, eight-inch pizza on a plate as served in Naples had grown over time into a thick, 14-inch pizza on a pan.” In the land of oversized portions, dough would often be an inch thick and laden with toppings.
Back in Italy
Pizza ricocheted back to Italy in the postwar period when eating out became more popular and regional foods spread. The American endorsement of pizza helped as American culture was highly aspirational to some young Italians (“That’s Amore” was a huge hit in Italy too…).
Elena Kostiouvich in Why Italians Love to talk About Food says: “In postwar Italy pizza caught on as a festive food, a cheerful collective meal, and an alternative to pasta, which is so distinctly domestic.”
She says for young people, pasta meant home and family and pizza meant going out with friends.
Now pizzerias are found everywhere, and the standards are high. The role of the pizza-maker is taken seriously, as they rapidly spin out thin flat bases while controlling the wood-fired oven (which should be up to 485 degrees C to achieve blistering crispy dough). Italians expect that although there may be some novel/local pizza options, any pizzeria menu in Italy will share ten or so classic choices – starting with Margherita of course.
Where to buy good pizza in Auckland
For New York style pizza, whole or by the slice try Sals. It is a sort-of cousin to an established New York pizzeria. It has three branches in Auckland, the original is at 8 Commerce St.
Ph (09) 379 5257
For Neapolitan wood-fired pizza, Non Solo Pizza has classic Italian flavours and contemporary variations. 259 Parnell Rd, Parnell.
Ph (09) 379 5358