May 202016
 

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The third Friday in May is designated as National Pizza Party Day in the United States. I don’t know how this came about; sounds like a marketing ploy to me, although I’m not sure why pizzerias would need that.  No matter.  It’s as good a day as any to talk about pizza.

There’s a certain amount of doubt about the history and evolution of pizza, down to the etymology of the name. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba in Naples is generally credited as the world’s first pizzeria. It was opened in 1830 in the town center at Via Port’Alba 18. The restaurant replaced street vendors who made pizza in wood-fired ovens (starting around 1738) and brought it to the street for sale, keeping it warm in small tin stoves they balanced on their head. The pizzeria soon became a prominent meeting place for men. Most patrons were artists, students, or others with very little money, so the pizzas were generally simple. A payment system, called pizza a otto, was developed that allowed customers to pay up to eight days after their meal. A resulting local joke was that a meal from Port’Alba might be someone’s last free meal, if they died before they paid. Additionally, patrons created poetry to honor the pizzas. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba is still in business today.

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Ever since its establishment in 1830, the pizzeria’s ovens have been lined with lava rocks from nearby Mount Vesuvius. At the time of its creation, one popular pizza was the Mastunicola, topped with lard, sheep milk, cheese, and basil. Basil and oregano were the most common herbs, while other toppings included seafood, mozzarella di bufala, cured meats, and cecinielli (whitebait).

The word pizza was first documented in 997 CE in Gaeta and successively in different parts of Central and Southern Italy. The precursor of pizza was probably focaccia, a flat bread known to the Romans as panis focacius, to which toppings were then added. In this case, though, the bread is made first, then the toppings are added and cooked. With classic (modern) pizza the bread dough is spread out uncooked, toppings added, and then the whole is baked as one.

In 16th century Naples, a Galette flatbread was referred to as a pizza. It was known as the dish for poor people, sold in the street and not considered a kitchen recipe for a long time. This was later replaced by oil, tomatoes (after Europeans came into contact with the Americas) or fish.  An often recounted story holds that on 11 June 1889, to honor the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, the Neapolitan pizzamaker Raffaele Esposito created the “Pizza Margherita”, a pizza garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, to represent the national colors of Italy as on the Italian flag. It’s a good story, but probably not true. Nonetheless, Margherita and Marinara (tomato sauce and cheese) are still considered the classic types of Neapolitan pizzas.

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“Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”), which was founded in 1984, has set very specific rules that must be followed for an authentic Neapolitan pizza. These include that the pizza must be baked in a wood-fired, domed oven; that the base must be hand-kneaded and must not be rolled with a pin or prepared by any mechanical means (i pizzaioli — the pizza makers — make the pizza by rolling it with their fingers) and that the pizza must not exceed 35 cm in diameter or be more than one-third of a centimeter thick at the centre. Pizzerias in Naples sometimes go even further than the specified rules by, for example, only using San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and only drizzling the olive oil and adding tomato topping in a clockwise direction.

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The pizza bases in Naples are soft and pliable. In Rome they prefer a thin and crispy base. Another popular form of pizza in Italy is “pizza al taglio” which is pizza baked in rectangular trays with a wide variety of toppings and sold by weight. In December 2009, the pizza napoletana was granted Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status by the European Union.

All right – what’s the best pizza in the world? Really ??? Do you think I’m so stupid that I would answer that question? I live in Italy and I like a peaceful life. I’ve eaten pizza since I was a small boy, and since then have had it all over the world. There used to be a little mom and pop stall in the Adelaide market in the 1950s run by Italians that made pizzas, and my papa would take us there on occasion. That was the first pizza I ate (I believe). We were in Naples in 1957 and I may have had it there, but I don’t remember. The stall in Adelaide sold small pies that were deep, filled with tomato sauce and cheese, and topped with your choice. My papa usually had his own (they were small) topped with anchovies and olives, but he bought a plain one for the family to share. They were amazing.

Pizza was not popular in England when I lived there in the 1960s, but when I moved to the U.S. in 1974 you could find pizzerias but I did not frequent them. This was North Carolina, after all. The South was not pizza heaven there in the 1970s. In the 1980s I moved to New York, however, and pizza became a staple. My wife and I frequented a couple of local pizzerias (run by Italian immigrants) when we were first dating, and a longstanding custom developed over time. We each had our favorite toppings, but often experimented. My wife and I also made pizzas at home when we wanted to experiment.

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Wherever Italians have migrated you’ll find pizza – all different, all enjoyable. Besides Adelaide and New York I’ve had them in Santa Fe, Croatia, Salerno, Naples, Sicily, Kunming, Buenos Aires . . . you name it. I’ve not had one in Mantua yet, because I don’t eat out, but my first lunch in Verona when I arrived this time was pizza. Pretty good one too. Seemed fitting after a long haul from Beijing.

You can make pizza at home but I wouldn’t recommend it. The whole point of Pizza Party Day is to go out with friends to a local pizzeria. Besides, pizzerias have special ovens and expert cooks. Even if you make it at home I suggest buying the dough from a pizzeria (they’re good at making it). I also recommend using a pizza stone in the oven to bake it on.  I always used to keep one in the oven in New York. Preheat the oven as hot as you can, spread out the dough on a floured paddle, add a layer of tomato sauce, then cheese and your toppings of choice, a sprinkle of oregano, and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes until the crust is golden on the sides and bottom.

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