Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Origins of Pizza

If you come to Italy and order pizza you will find atop every menu the words “Pizza Margherita”. This traditional variety, with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, remains the most popular – despite a myriad of variations that are available today. The story behind this classic pizza has historic origins.

The name “pizza” derives from the Latin word “pinsa” which means to flatten or crush, and its existence as an unleavened flat bread dates back nearly 3,000 years. Over the centuries this staple bread evolved, first by adding yeast and then by including different types of condiments.

In Italy, two important historic events led to the use of mozzarella and tomato – the arrival of the Longobards in central and southern Italy who brought with them Buffalos, whose milk would be used to make this famous cheese, and the importation of tomatoes from Peru after the discovery of the New World. These two ingredients grew to be staples in the culinary tradition of Naples and during the 18th century, pizza as we know it today became a local specialty. Baked in wood burning ovens, it was often sold on the streets and delivered directly to people’s homes. (So much for thinking we invented  something new with “take out” and home delivery!) By the late 1700s, these bakeries began offering table service and soon the pizzeria was born.

In 1889, Raffaele Esposito was considered the best pizzaiolo (pizza maker) in Naples. He was invited to the court at the Reggia di Capodimonte where King Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita were staying as guests of the King of Naples, Ferdinando di Borbone. The master chef prepared three varieties of his acclaimed pizza: one with lard, cheese and basil; another with tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil and oregano; and the third with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil (conceived also in honor of the tricolor flag). The Queen so enjoyed this third variety that she later sent a letter to Esposito thanking him for introducing her to such a delicacy. As a sign of gratitude for this high honor, the pizzaiolo dedicated his specialty to the Queen by calling it Pizza Margherita. 

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