The Invention of Modern Italian Pizza
Question: What does Christopher Columbus have to do with the modern pizza?
The obvious answer: Columbus came from Genoa, in Italy, which is also home to focaccia, the northern Italian bread that may be a precursor to the modern pizza.
But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. The answer is: Tomatoes!
Tomatoes came to Italy from the New World in the post-Columbus 16th Century. Technically speaking, it wasn’t Columbus who brought tomatoes to Europe. The first tomatoes to reach European shores came from Peru, which was conquered by Francisco Pizzaro of Spain in 1531.
Honestly though – if I had asked “What does Francisco Pizzaro have to do with modern pizza?” wouldn’t you have answered, “Who cares?”
Most Europeans feared that tomatoes were poisonous (they are members of the Nightshade family), but the adventurous (and hungry) poor of Naples found that tomatoes were not only NOT deadly, they were delicious.
And they tasted mighty fine on a hot baked flatbread. With cheese. The first pizza, as-we-know-it.
Pizza popularity grows
For the rest of the 16th and through the 17th Century, pizza grew to be a very popular dish — first with the local peasants and as time went on, with travelers who had heard of this exotic dish. Travelers would visit the poorer neighborhoods to taste the wares of the men known as “pizzaioli.”
Generally regarded as the first Italian pizza restaurant is Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba in Naples (of course). They baked pizzas for vendors as early as 1738, but became a pizzeria in 1830 and are still in operation today.
It wasn’t just the poor and the tourists who loved pizza. By the middle of the eighteenth century, pizza in Italy had achieved royal status. Maria Carolina d’Asburgo Lorena, Queen of Naples and wife of King Ferdinando IV, was such a big fan that she had a special oven built at Capodimonte so their chef could prepare and serve pizza.
But the modern pizza, the one that was the prototype for both Italian and American pizza was first prepared in 1889. The King and Queen of Italy, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia, were vacationing in Naples and had heard about the excellent pizzas made by a pizzaiolo (pizza maker) named Raffaele Esposito, of Pizzeria Brandi (which is still open and selling pizza today).
As Peter Reinhard tells it in his excellent book, American Pie,
Esposito was invited to prepare the pizza and made, or so it goes, a marinara pizza with anchovies; abianca, or white pizza, with lard, provolone or creamy caciocavallo cheese, and basil; and a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil — red, white, and green in honor of the Italian flag. The queen flipped for the latter, and when Esposito received a note of thanks from the monarch, he dedicated the pizza to her, calling it pizza Margherita.
Pizza makes a move
During the Great Migration to the United States around the beginning of the twentieth century, Pizzaioli from Naples crossed the ocean, hoping along with everyone else that the streets of New York were paved with gold. Upon arrival, they discovered that not only were they not paved with gold, most of the streets weren’t paved at all. And so pizza came to America.