Pizza, an Italian fairytale

Lingua del cibo

Today, pizza, is the best-known Italian word in the world and most representative dish of Italian cuisine. Its story is truly unusual and, in some ways, mysterious.

Today's meaning of pizza, i.e. that of a 'round focaccia of leavened dough, cooked in the oven and seasoned in variety of ways', was created, without any doubt, in Naples, but not before the 19th century, or a few decades earlier. The most eaten version today was also created in Naples: pizza margherita. According to popular history, the margherita, or pizza topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil, appeared for the first time in 1889, on the intuition of a Neapolitan pizza chef, Raffaele Esposito, who created it in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Naples. Others, however, have argued that this condiment was present in Neapolitan custom even before Her Majesty's visit, and that the name comes from the arrangement of the mozzarella slices on the base, which bring to mind the petals of a flower. According to this second hypothesis, the name was not coined to honour the queen, but simply reinterpreted. The fact remains though - from that moment on, the success of the pizza was definitively established.

Although it does not refer to the modern meaning, initial proof of the word does date back millennia: the first testimony of pizza known so far dates back to 966, traced by Francesco Sabatini in a Neapolitan document. Further proof refers to a few decades later, mostly in Latin documents from the central-southern area. The origins of the word are far from clear, and have long been debated. Regarding its etymology, one of the most accredited hypotheses is that which traces the word pizza back to the Gothic and/or Lombard *pizzo, which in turn came from the ancient High German bĭzzo, pĭzzo or 'bite' and by metonymy 'piece of bread', 'focaccia'. A more recent study made based on various hypotheses that have gradually emerged, traces the word back to the Pictish form 'focaccia', from the Mediterranean area, which later became pizza due to the influence of Lombard pronunciation. This fact is recorded in the lands of the Duchy of Spoleto and of Benevento, the area to which the first traces of the word date back, as we’ve already seen.

Subsequently, pizza radiated into various vernaculars. Over the course of history it took on a plurality of gastronomic meanings, mostly referring to focaccia, flatbreads and cakes, both sweet and savoury. This is what has emerged from a number of testimonies - primarily in gastronomic literature. One simply needs to think of the Renaissance and works of authors such as Cristoforo Messi Sbugo and Bartolomeo Scappi

Furthermore, at the end of the 19th century, Pellegrino Artusi chose to include another version of pizza in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating well, namely a shortcrust pastry and cream pie, less known today, but still present in southern Italy. The choice of the father of Italian domestic cuisine should not surprise and Artusi made no error of assessment: Neapolitan pizza, understood in the modern sense of the word, created as street food, was initially considered a dish for the poor and was not easy to digest, either. Its limited diffusion, moreover, is reflected in language. Indeed, as late as 1905, in the first edition of Alfredo Panzini’s Dizionario moderno, pizza is considered to be dialect.

Having overcome all prejudice, success arrived and became unstoppable. As of the 20th century, pizza entered Italian homes, conquered foreign ones thanks to our emigrants, and quickly became the symbol of national gastronomic culture

Monica Alba, Università per Stranieri di Siena