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What’s Italy Got To Do With Pizza?

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What does Italy have to do with pizza?

There are some foods that become so popular, so universal, that any ties they had with their native country are as tangled as a bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese. Italy seems to have more than its share of these types of dishes: veal parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, Italian salad dressing, a meatball hero sandwich smothered in a red sauce with some sort of melted cheese-like substance. Nope. Nope. And Nope. You won’t find any of that in Italy.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of central Italy. Parmesan cheese in a can is to Parmigiano Reggiano what sparkling wine is to champagne. The red sauce that people associate with Italy comes from the South, probably around Naples, and it’s too hot there to keep an aged cheese like Parmigiano, so you would only use a fresh cheese like mozzarella. See, it gets complicated.

You could have tagliatelle pasta with a Bolognese sauce because tagliatelle is a fresh pasta made with eggs and the tender wheat found in central and northern Italy. Dried spaghetti is made with hard wheat and comes from the south, so there goes Spaghetti Bolognese.

A meatball is a "polpetta" and is served as a separate course, never on top of spaghetti.

Pre-made salad dressing is a foreign concept in Italy. Here you get a bottle of good olive oil, some vinegar and you are invited to mix your own.

A meatball hero? Fuhgeddaboudit!

So, where does that leave pizza? The inhabitants of Naples (or Napoli) want to take full credit for pizza, but its roots as a seasoned flat bread extend far back into the shadows of history. A peasant staple, the flatbread became a lowly street food seasoned with herbs and olive oil. It's not until sometime in the mid-18th century that tomatoes became an accepted part of the Mediterranean diet and wound up on the flat bread being served to fisherman returning to shore with their catch. And that’s the reason a simple tomato sauce is called a marinara sauce.

Eventually the Neapolitans wanted to codify their most famous food, so the "Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana" was founded in 1984. It decrees that all official Napoletana style pizza must be made with natural yeast, and the pizza must be kneaded by hand or with a mixer that does not produce heat. It must be baked in a domed oven at no less than 400C—430C (752F-806F), directly on the floor of the oven, for no more than 60-90 seconds. It cannot exceed 35 cm in diameter and 1/3 of a centimeter in thickness at the center. Oh, and the only officially sanctioned toppings are San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and buffala mozzarella.

Makes you wonder how Domino's ever called its creation "pizza," doesn’t it?

Fortunately for all of us who love a few other toppings on our pizza, it has morphed into being one of the most international of foods.

What fun would the world be without people arguing about who makes the best pizza? Should pineapple ever be allowed on top of the sacred pie? How about french fries? Where is the best place in New York City for a pizza? Did Rafaele Esposito really invent the Margherita pizza? If all these chaotic questions keep you up at night, you might try reading the freewheeling Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Pizza Guide and Companion by Serious Eats creator, Ed Levine. It has contributions by Calvin Trillin, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Ruth Reichl, among other food-world heavies weighing in on the simple slice of pizza.

Here in my rural part of Umbria, the rules are as follows: pizza is served only for dinner, unless it’s in a restaurant that caters to tourists; eating with hands or forks is acceptable; and under most circumstances, do not order the house red wine. Other than that, I’ll take the pizza with Gorgonzola and salami picante, and not worry about what they are eating in Naples!

P.S. Just in case you are in Italy ordering pizza, pepperoni mean ‘pepper’ in Italian. If you want the spicy dry sausage, you need to ask for salami picante.

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About JudithKlinger

  • I’m curious – why not order the house red? In my travels in other parts of Europe, the house red is usually a good bet… but I haven’t been to Italy yet.