The Neapolitans didn’t cook up the idea of pizza out of air, even if their crusts are sometimes so light they give that impression. Flat breads date back to Neolithic times. For millennia civilizations throughout the Mediterranean have developed their own versions. The ancient Greeks may have brought plakous, their flat and round cheese pie, to southern Italy when they colonized the region’s coastal areas between the eighth and fifth centuries bce. Pita (or pitta), which means “pie” in modern Greek and refers to a leavened flatbread, might be a precursor to “pizza” the word and “pizza” the food. In Calabria, pitta refers to various breads, cakes, and pies, including pitta pizzulata, a deep-dish tomato pie.
In the Mediterranean Basin the notion of a flat yeast bread covered with baked-in toppings is hardly unique to Italy. Across the French-Italian border Nice has pissaladière, garnished with caramelized onions, anchovies, olives, and garlic. Catalonia adorns its coca with the likes of red bell pepper, olives, tuna, sardines, and onions. The Turkish version of lahmacun, from the Arabic for “meat and bread,” is slathered with a lamb and tomato mixture and is often characterized as Turkish pizza.
But the story of pizza, as understood in this guide—and by much of the modern world—begins either in the sixteenth century, when the term was introduced in Naples, the eighteenth century, when Neapolitans tried it with tomato, or the nineteenth century, when a Neapolitan discovered the perfect pizza pairing of tomato and mozzarella.
Neapolitan peasants were among the first in this part of the world to take their chances with tomatoes. Many Europeans feared this exotic fruit, brought to the continent from the New World by the Spanish, was poisonous. According to University of Naples’s Professor Carlo Mangoni, tomatoes were introduced to pizza in 1760. It is said that Ferdinand IV, King of Naples from 1759 to 1825, was an early admirer of the red pizza all’olio e pomodoro—topped with “olive oil,” “tomato,” garlic, and oregano. This, the classic pizza better known as Marinara (in the mariner’s style, though there’s no fish), was sold during the period of Ferdinand’s reign by street vendors and peddlers who sourced their pizza from the city’s laboratori (workshops), as wholesale bakeries were known. It wasn’t until 1830 that one such laboratorio di pizza opened Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the first pizzeria in Naples, and probably the world, with tables, chairs, and, naturally, tomatoes. Port’Alba is still serving its pizza in the historic center of the city, both inside the pizzeria and outside to passersby on the busy Via Port’Alba.
On a royal tour of Naples in 1889 Queen Margherita of Savoy, consort of Umberto I, observed many peasants enjoying the local specialty, which they folded like a libretto (booklet) and ate with great relish. The street scene was, in this respect, much as it is today, and so it is this part of this version of the story that casts the least doubt: you go to Naples. You see people eating pizza on the street. You want some. An official from the Royal Palace summoned Raffaele Esposito, certainly now, if not also then, the most famous pizzaiolo of the day, to make pizza for the Queen. Esposito seized the moment. He created a new pizza in the colors of the Italian flag: tomato red, mozzarella white, and basil green. She liked it. He christened this tricolore sensation the Margherita.
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