The Story of Pizza As We Know It

© Luciano Furia / www.lucianofuria.com

By Daniel Young Posted September 08, 2016

In this excerpt from Where to Eat Pizza—featuring 1,705 locations in 48 countries—editor Daniel Young digs into the history of one of the world's favorite foods. In partnership with Phaidon, F&W is sharing Young's research, including 20 Pizzas to Eat in Italy Before You Die.

The Neapolitans didn’t cook up the idea of pizza out of air, even if their crusts are sometimes so light they give that impression. Flat breads date back to Neolithic times. For millennia civilizations throughout the Mediterranean have developed their own versions. The ancient Greeks may have brought plakous, their flat and round cheese pie, to southern Italy when they colonized the region’s coastal areas between the eighth and fifth centuries bce. Pita (or pitta), which means “pie” in modern Greek and refers to a leavened flatbread, might be a precursor to “pizza” the word and “pizza” the food. In Calabria, pitta refers to various breads, cakes, and pies, including pitta pizzulata, a deep-dish tomato pie.

In the Mediterranean Basin the notion of a flat yeast bread covered with baked-in toppings is hardly unique to Italy. Across the French-Italian border Nice has pissaladière, garnished with caramelized onions, anchovies, olives, and garlic. Catalonia adorns its coca with the likes of red bell pepper, olives, tuna, sardines, and onions. The Turkish version of lahmacun, from the Arabic for “meat and bread,” is slathered with a lamb and tomato mixture and is often characterized as Turkish pizza.

But the story of pizza, as understood in this guide—and by much of the modern world—begins either in the sixteenth century, when the term was introduced in Naples, the eighteenth century, when Neapolitans tried it with tomato, or the nineteenth century, when a Neapolitan discovered the perfect pizza pairing of tomato and mozzarella.

Neapolitan peasants were among the first in this part of the world to take their chances with tomatoes. Many Europeans feared this exotic fruit, brought to the continent from the New World by the Spanish, was poisonous. According to University of Naples’s Professor Carlo Mangoni, tomatoes were introduced to pizza in 1760. It is said that Ferdinand IV, King of Naples from 1759 to 1825, was an early admirer of the red pizza all’olio e pomodoro—topped with “olive oil,” “tomato,” garlic, and oregano. This, the classic pizza better known as Marinara (in the mariner’s style, though there’s no fish), was sold during the period of Ferdinand’s reign by street vendors and peddlers who sourced their pizza from the city’s laboratori (workshops), as wholesale bakeries were known. It wasn’t until 1830 that one such laboratorio di pizza opened Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the first pizzeria in Naples, and probably the world, with tables, chairs, and, naturally, tomatoes. Port’Alba is still serving its pizza in the historic center of the city, both inside the pizzeria and outside to passersby on the busy Via Port’Alba.

On a royal tour of Naples in 1889 Queen Margherita of Savoy, consort of Umberto I, observed many peasants enjoying the local specialty, which they folded like a libretto (booklet) and ate with great relish. The street  scene was, in this respect, much as it is today, and so it is this part of this version of the story that casts the least doubt: you go to Naples. You see people eating pizza on the street. You want some. An official from the Royal Palace summoned Raffaele Esposito, certainly now, if not also then, the most famous pizzaiolo of the day, to make pizza for the Queen. Esposito seized the moment. He created a new pizza in the colors of the Italian flag: tomato red, mozzarella white, and basil green. She liked it. He christened this tricolore sensation the Margherita.

Apocryphal or not the tale holds important truths. If this was not the first tomato and mozzarella pizza ever made, by this pizzaiolo or another, so what? It is through the retelling of this story and the remaking of this humble culinary masterpiece that Esposito and his successors at Pizzeria Brandi, the “Antica Pizzeria Della Regina d’Italia,” changed history. The invention that made Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna an enduring first-name-only celebrity marks the inception of what the world recognizes and loves as pizza.

The Dough

The life of pizza begins with four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. A key variable with any flour, from the pizza baker’s point of view, is its quantity of gluten-producing protein. The sticky gluten that develops in the dough gives it its strength and elasticity. These structural properties are essential when stretching it into thin rounds for pizza. Many pizzaioli source flours with a gluten content of 12 percent or more. Too little gluten can yield a stubborn dough that’s not easy to handle. Too much gluten can make the dough too flexible and the resulting crust too chewy.

Italian pizza dough is traditionally made from type “00” flour, a highly refined bread flour from which virtually all the bran and germ found in wholewheat flours have been removed. “00” flours milled specially for pizza come from hard wheat, which has more protein than a soft flour better suited to cake flours. Long rising times at warm, ambient temperatures let the dough develop and help yield a lighter, chewier “crumb,” to use the baker’s term for the internal structure of a bread crust with the desired hole structure. This network of air pockets in varying sizes compresses under pressure. This crunch, whether in crisp fortissimo or yielding pianissimo, is one of the great pleasures of pizza eating.

Many artisan pizza bakers replace some, most, or all of the refined flour in their dough with stone-ground wholewheat flours and wholegrain flours. Heirloom wheat varieties and ancient grains, such as spelt, einkorn, and kamut, are increasingly in demand and in vogue, reflecting trends in artisanal bread baking. These give crusts more substance, fiber, and micronutrients, and a complex, nutty flavor. The challenge for pizza bakers is that these healthy and flavorful flours, especially those lower in gluten, can produce a less elastic, more fragile dough that is more difficult to stretch out and manipulate.

With pizza flours, the selection may only be as good as the purpose behind it. When pizzaiolo and baking guru Massimo Bosco enters a pizzeria for the first time he is curious to hear what the pizza maker has to say about his flour. “Many pizzaioli do not know what flour they’re using,” says the owner of Pizzeria Panetteria Bosco in the town of Tempio Pausania in northern Sardinia. “And if they do know they are unfamiliar with its characteristics.”

As a rising agent for pizza dough, a natural sourdough starter yeast is an artisanal alternative to a dry yeast or commercial baker’s yeast. A sourdough starter is itself a dough or, more precisely, a “mother dough”—madre lievito in Italian. It originates from a blend of wheat flour and water that is periodically fed more flour and water as it rises and ferments. When a small quantity of this mother dough is worked into the master pizza dough the bubbles get trapped and perform their levitation act, all the while delivering a unique flavor. The unused portion of the mother dough is continually refreshed and regenerated, to give life to more dough and more pizza.

The Tomatoes

When tomatoes are employed as the base layer of a pizza, which is not always but close enough to it, they are usually canned peeled tomatoes, often the elongated plum variety. Fresh tomatoes are used infrequently and applied more as a topping than a sauce or background color. The thinking goes if you are lucky enough to have really good, peak-season tomatoes you don’t want to lose their delicate character, or beautiful shape, to a sauce. Canned whole tomatoes, drained and then cut, chopped, or crushed, can go on the dough right away, as they typically do for a classic Margherita or Marinara.

The canning process involves heating and effectively par-cooks the tomatoes. Any pizza oven can finish the job, transforming the tomatoes, the olive oil, the seasonings, and any flavors rendered from various toppings into a sauce. Several pizza styles do call for tomato sauces, both cooked and uncooked, and these too are mostly made from canned tomatoes, either peeled whole tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato purée (passata) or tomato concentrate, also known as tomato paste.

The world’s most prized pizza tomato is the Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino or, more simply, the San Marzano. The tomato originates in the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, where it was cultivated in volcanic soil on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Today it is produced in the expanded Argo Sarnese-Nocerino area between Salerno and Naples. The warm terrain produces an exceptionally full-bodied and sweet plum tomato with low acidity. The tomato has many imitators, including “San Marzano” varieties grown in other parts of the world. But only San Marzanos from Argo Sarnese-Nocerino can carry the DOP seal. DOP stands for Denominazione Di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin).

Dozens of pizza places in this guide bear the extra expense of San Marzano tomatoes and make no secret about it. The name San Marzano evokes Naples and, printed on a menu hung in a pizzeria window, could be perceived as an indicator of high standard in any pizzeria. It’s a pizza snob’s buzzword: if your tomatoes are genuine San Marzano that can only mean that everything else is top-shelf quality, too. Other pizzerias don’t get too caught up about it. They manage to get good results with the best Roma tomatoes, a standard variety of plum tomato found in canned products.

Mozzarella

Mozzarella is hardly the only cheese used on pizza but it is the one most closely associated with it. The undisputed king of pizza cheeses can be made with buffalo milk or cow’s milk. In Italy the two have different names, at least officially. The cheese made with the milk of water buffalo is supposed to be called mozzarella or, more descriptively, mozzarella di bufala, which, like all dairy bovines, is in the feminine form. It’s bufala, not bufalo. The one made with cow’s milk is denominated in either three words, fior di latte, or one, fiordilatte, both meaning “flower of milk.” The reality is that when most  Italians say “mozzarella” they, like everyone else, mean the kind made with cow juice. To distinguish buffalo mozzarella they spell it out—mozzarella di bufala.

Fresh buffalo mozzarella, with a sweet, lightly tangy flavor and divine, milky core, is widely regarded as the superior of the two. It’s springy, not rubbery. Its higher fat content makes it creamier. And, crucially, it’s more expensive to buy and a lot harder to get. Cow’s milk mozzarella is almost too easy to find. Processed versions produced on an industrial scale and widely available in supermarkets taste mostly of nothing. It is not a cheese many eat on its own, at room temperature or lightly chilled, as a delicacy prized for its leaden blandness.

Certified buffalo mozzarella produced in the southern Italian provinces of Caserta and Salerno, near Naples, bears the trademark Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP. A rustic example of this beloved cheese from Campania, the heartland of pizza, was certainly the mozzarella laid on the first Margherita served to its namesake, the Italian queen, in 1889. A strict traditionalist will accept no other mozzarella on his pizza.

The irony is that fresh, high-quality cow’s milk mozzarella, with its supreme melting capacities, might now be the more appropriate cheese to cook on a pizza. Fresh buffalo mozzarella, hardly a peasant’s cheese anymore, gets leaky when it melts over a pizza in the oven, releasing milky juices that can run off its sides. Many will drain the cheese first, resolving the issue by removing a cherished characteristic. Cheese purists may prefer their buffalo mozzarella undrained and uncooked, eaten as a finger food, in a salad, or applied to a pizza only after it’s been baked. Several pizzaioli whose places are featured in this guide are suggesting exactly that.

Then there are the questions of availability and accessibility. The overwhelming majority of pizza bakers cannot get their hands on day-fresh buffalo mozzarella from Campania or other producing regions in Italy and other countries, including the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Argentina. Some who can get it can’t afford it. In most areas of the world cow’s milk is more accessible to cheese makers and therefore fresh mozzarella made with it is more readily available to pizza makers. Few should regard the “newer” mozzarella as somehow not genuine. The cow’s milk kind has been used by pizzaioli in the Naples area for over 65 years and has the blessing for use on Margheritas by the VPN association, the official arbiter of Neapolitan authenticity.

Pizza Ovens

The type of oven dictates the style of the pizza, which subsequently dictates the type of oven. Or something like that. It’s pretty much all one big circle, as it usually is with pizza, even when it’s square.

Most pizza ovens are first defined by their heating source—wood, coal, gas, and electric. The old-style brick ovens tend to be fired with wood or coal, although gas may be used, too. The newer commercial ovens—convection, deck, or conveyor—are powered by gas or electricity. In convection ovens heat is circulated by a fan. This blowing will cook the pizza evenly and may also dry it a bit, which may or may not be a desired effect. Deck ovens employ conduction, cooking the crust through direct contact between the pizza’s underskirt or undercarriage, to use the parlance for its bottom surface, and the stone or ceramic base of the oven chamber. Heat in a deck oven also radiates from gas or electric burners positioned either above or below the baking chamber. In conveyor ovens a conveyor belt carries the pizza from one end of the oven to the other, heating the pizza through forced-air convection, infrared heat, or radiation. In all ovens conduction heat can be applied directly to the crust from heat absorbed by a pan, as in the pan pizzas of Detroit, Rome, and Argentina.

Oven temperature affects the character and color of the pizza. A wood-fired oven heated above 900°F (482°C) can char and blacken a crust even before its crumb is fully dry and cooked through. The pizza is typically done in 90 seconds or fewer. A gas oven heated to 700°F (370°F) will brown more gradually, cooking in approximately 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crust and the desired crispness.

Coal is used primarily in the earliest pizzerias of New York and New Haven. Like wood, it is thought to impart a smoky char and old-world character, revealed in the leopard-spotting on both the cornicione and undercarriage of the crust. The high temperatures transform the flavors of the toppings in magical ways, too.

The Obsession

Today we eat in a world of food obsessions populated by food obsessives. In the twentieth century sharing a pizza meant dividing it among friends, not posting lascivious photos of it for strangers on social media. “Viral” meant dangerous, not desirable. Chefs were not so single-minded as the monogamous food geeks of today. Married to only one food, these zealots lock themselves in garages with only the essential ingredients and equipment required for their task and don’t see the light of the day until, eight months later, they’ve perfected the object of their obsession.

This is a hospitable environment for pizza and, in particular, the health and happiness of fanatics who stop thinking about pizza only when they’re eating it. That’s to be applauded. You don’t have to share their fixations to appreciate how these enhance the pizza landscape. The obsessives make this a better place to live, especially if you don’t have to share an apartment with one.

To celebrate, rather than hide, wonderful pizza obsessions my tributes to them are dispersed throughout the guide. The titles of these essays will give you some indication of their gist: The Art of the Pizza Box. The Original Pizza Truck Movement. Japan’s Neapolitan Pizza Obsession. Christian Puglisi Masters Mozzarella. The Secret of Detroit Pizza Gets Out. The Ways of the Pizza Fold.

You don’t have to be a pizza obsessive, or become one, to get a lot of pleasure from Where To Eat Pizza. If you only use this guide to discover new pizza places near you, or compare its contributor views to yours, or those you’ve seen or heard elsewhere, that’s already fabulous. But if you let the exhaustive range of the 1,705 recommendations and the persuasive opinions of the contributors sweep over you then get ready to hit the road.

Take this as a hint from the contributors: in our minds, the full title of this guide is….Where You Have To Go To Eat Pizza

To buy Where to Eat Pizza, go to phaidon.com, and be inspired to dedicate your life (or at least year) to delicious pizza.

Daniel Young: The culinary connector and writer behind the site Young & Foodish, he also organizes pizza marathons for between 10 to 750 fellow obsessives, from the London Pizza Festival to the Naples-Caiazzo Pizza Tour. Join the next one on October 25-26, 2016.

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