Pizza is an early street food. Street food is all the rage at the moment with markets popping up all over London, even well-established restaurants taking a stall, and offering the kind of wonderful food that’s only been seen before in places flung very wide of London. Street food when I was a kid was chips from a fish & chip shop, wrapped in newspaper, over which you’d shake a generous serving of salt and vinegar (malt, nothing posh). Now, like at the wonderful market near the Festival Hall I went to a week ago (click here), street food is a world event with Middle Eastern wraps, Asian curries, French cheeses, Spanish paella and pretty much any great dish you can name. But pizza … now that’s been around for ever. Well, maybe not ever, but probably longer than you’ve ever thought.
It was William at Tastes of Italy, when we met last week, who told me the story of a kind of pizza appearing in Virgil’s Aeneid. And Virgil lived between 70-19BC. In the Aeneid, Virgil’s hero Aeneas, who is sailing the seas with some mates, having escaped Troy, washes up on the shores of Italy near Naples. Having only some crusts of stale loaves left, they collect some ‘fruits of the field’ and lay then on top. A modern translation says: ‘setting out a feast upon the grass on broad flat bread, topped with their foragings’ (Virgil’s AENEID in Modern Verse by Howard Felperin). Interesting to see ‘foraging’ too; another fashionable thing today.
Going further back, however, Cato the Elder (234-149BC), who wrote the first history of Rome, talked of ‘flat rounds of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs and honey baked on stones’. The first record of the word ‘pizza’ actually being used goes back to 997AD at Gaeta, a port between Rome and Naples. This is an interesting point as probably the greatest pizza rivalry that has persisted through the centuries right up until today is that between Rome and Naples: the thin crust of Rome or the thick crust of Naples? For the non-aficionado pizza lover, it generally comes down to a personal preference. Though it may be an argument best avoided with an Italian. There is no one who can argue their regional corner like an Italian. There’s even talk of pizza coming from the Greeks who ate flat round bread (plakous) baked with toppings, and cooking flat bread on hot stones is thought to go back to the Stone Age.
Versions of ‘pizza’ may be found all over the world but there’s no denying that when we say ‘pizza’ we think ‘Italian’. And really, if you want a real pizza, don’t you want an Italian one? Yes, I’m biased, but then you know how much I love Italy! So, on our (very) little world tour let’s start in the pizza capital: Naples. I know I risk upsetting my Roman friends with that statement, but it’s generally accepted that The Pizza comes from Naples and UNESCO are considering adding the Neapolitan pizza to their cultural heritage list.
When you go to Naples, eating pizza is not just about which kind to choose but where to eat it. Walk down the via dei Tribunali and you’ll find yourself in pizza heaven. Many favour Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo while my family’s favourite for many years has been Pizzeria di Matteo. When I first went there what struck me was the simplicity of the pizzas on offer. The two most popular pizzas in Naples are Margherita and Marinara. Margherita was the kind favoured by Queen Margherita, wife to King Umberto I (1844-1900). Promoting the Italian flag it contains the colours red, white and green: tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves. Even more simple though is the Marinara. Although its name suggests something fishy, it actually doesn’t contain any fish but just tomatoes, garlic and oregano and is said to have been a favourite for breakfast with local fisherman (hence the reason for its name). An authentic Neapolitan pizza must use San Marzano tomatoes, which are grown on the plains of Mount Vesuvius; the cheese should be local buffalo mozzarella. Pizzas in Naples are quite thick but also light, soft and fluffy; an absolute delight. The first time I went to Matteo I couldn’t believe that a pizza that looked so simple could taste so amazing. Luckily, I don’t have to rely on going to Naples to enjoy some great Neapolitan pizza but instead can go to my local Masaniello or Arte Chef.
Head chef and co-owner of both restaurants, Livio, comes from Naples where his family run a pizzeria and he’s brought those skills to south-west London. (He also makes the most wonderful baba – another speciality of Naples, learned from his pastry chef mother.)
I was last in Rome in March 2012, staying with my friends Robert (he’s half Roman and has family there) and Jenny in their flat near San Giovanni. One night we went to Robert’s favourite local pizzeria for some genuine Roman pizza. Roman pizza is much thinner and more crispy than its Neapolitan cousin, and tends to be bigger – more rolling out of the dough!
Back at home, I have the choice of either one of Livio’s Neapolitan pizzas or one from Ruben’s Refettorio. The owner of Ruben’s, Igor, comes from Tuscany. His pizza perhaps fits somewhere between the ones from Naples and Rome: thicker than a Roman but more crispy than those from Naples.
What’s really special about this is the glorious sourdough base which gives it a wonderful flavour. I can only say I like all these Italian pizzas I’ve mentioned and for me, the pleasure in eating comes not so much from where the pizza originates from, but the skill of the pizzaiolo – the pizza maker.
Pizza available by the slice – al taglio – is popular in Milan, where they’re often eaten in self-service restaurants or as a takeaway. I don’t think I ate pizza last time I was in Milan – back in around 2004 – but I’ve had the Milan experience at Princi in Soho’s Wardour Street in London (click here), which I was introduced to by my friend Lucia.
Like most other Italian dishes, each region has its own variation; a variation the people of the region will be fiercely loyal to. In Liguria (home of focaccia), you’ll find pesto (which also originates from Liguria) used instead of tomato sauce. In Sicily they make a deep-dish pizza derived from sfincione, which is more like focaccia with a topping. Wherever you’re eating your pizza, you’ll find that Italians prefer to drink white rather than red wine with it or even beer.
We don’t usually connect France and pizza but their pissaladière is a popular and well-known dish that is made with bread dough – just like pizza. A dish that originates in Nice, the bread dough is typically topped with caramelised onions, garlic and anchovies, but sometimes tomatoes too. The photo above is of one I bought in a baker’s in Deauville for lunch last year. I have to say I feel it’s more of a tart than a pizza, but Claudia Roden classifies it as pizza in her Mediterranean Cookery book, and I guess with the bread dough that makes sense. The name is close to pizza too: ‘pissa – ladiere’. Whatever one calls it, it’s a wonderful, incredibly tasty dish.
This Turkish version of pizza is served on a very thin dough – sometimes more like a cracker – and has no cheese but a meat topping (usually lamb), often spiced up with chilli and served with salad. It’s usually sold as a street food and is sometimes rolled up to make it easier to eat on the go. It originates from the south-east province of Gaziantep; the photo above was taken at the entrance to Istanbul’s spice bazaar last year (click here).
Well, maybe a world tour was a bit ambitious, but I’m sure you’ve got the idea that pizza – or perhaps more precisely, bread dough with toppings – is not just something we find in Italy. Though for me, pizza really does equal Italy! But it’s true of so many things, that what seems a speciality of one region pops up in all kinds of other places in a slightly different form.