The origins of pizza

“Pizza is the noblest, most genial and most noteworthy of Naples’s institutions” – Pietro Mascagni (early 20th century composer)

One of the perils of living in the arse end of nowhere, at the end of the Northern Line, is the interminably long tube journey home.  When I’m not surreptitiously snapping #sleepclub shots, or documenting crimes against commuter fashion, invariably I fall prey to all manner of aural assaults: the loud footie bore, the slack-jawed gum-chewer, or the self-proclaimed font of all knowledge.

Recently, during an almost two hour trek home from Santa Maria pizzeria in Ealing, I suffered the misfortune of sitting right across from the latter. I watched with mild intrigue as he proudly showed his girlfriend the vast Iron Maiden badge collection on his jacket, and waxed lyrical on his various specialist subjects.  He was a bore.  And a loud one at that.

And then came the broadside: “I hate Italians”. My mind boggled at what could have caused such a vituperative declaration (but I remained calm), and then came the reason. “They think they invented pizza, but they didn’t, the New Yorkers did”.

And this got me thinking. Was he right? Being a half-breed mongrel Neapolitan, I’d always believed that pizza was invented in Naples, its spiritual home; but perhaps that was an urban myth.  Even several Twitterati reiterated the New York story.  Time to find out.

It transpires that the common consensus surrounding the arrival of pizza in the US coincides with the influx of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, debunking Tube-man’s myth. The first pizzeria in New York, Lombardi’s, was rumoured to open some years later in 1905.  So what of its real origins?

Back to the beginning

In terms of the bread part of pizza, these go back centuries and likely emanate from the Middle East where the Egyptians first discovered how to regulate yeast fermentation in order to produce leavened bread.  In ‘Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews’, it is suggested that the Jews then brought the flat bread concept to Italy in the 1st century, following the Roman conquest of Judea.  In fact, the first written reference to ‘pizza’ can be found in the Latin text of Gaeta’s[1] city charter as early as 997 AD, where it is documented that the tenant of a windmill was to give his landlord “duodecim pizze” (12 pizzas) every Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.

Pizza in its current-day, tomato-topped incarnation did not of course exist prior to the arrival of tomatoes in Italy following their South American discovery in 1492 by Cristopher Columbus (or was it Cortés who brought them to Europe?).  Professor Carlo Mangoni from the University of Naples believes that tomatoes were first used on pizza in 1760, and Ferdinand, King of Naples (who reigned from 1759 – 1825) so enjoyed this new pizza adorned with tomatoes, garlic, oil and oregano (the ‘Marinara’) that he commissioned an outdoor, purpose-built oven at his Capodimonte palace.  Henceforth, pizza parties became the fashionable way to entertain.  Even Alexandre Dumas in his 1843 work ‘Il Corricolo’ observed “…it is a complex dish.  Pizza flavoured with oil, lard, tallow, cheese, tomato, or anchovies”.

Around that time, the Port’Alba pizzeria opened in Naples in 1830 (having been established as a stall serving peddlars in 1738), and exists to this current day.  It is another Naples institution, however, that transformed pizza into the classic ‘Margherita’.  Following its unification in 1860, Queen Margherita, wife of King Umberto I, expressed an interest in Neapolitan pizza and summoned Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria di Pietro (now Brandi) to bring her one.  He decorated the traditional ‘Marinara’ with mozzarella and basil in homage to the new Kingdom of Italy and its ‘tricolore’ flag, and thus was born the ‘Margherita’.

Santa Bufalina

A Santa Bufalina pizza from Santa Maria pizzeria, Ealing

So there you have it: a potted history of the Neapolitan pizza.  There are of course variations on a theme, one such being the Roman ‘pizza al taglio’ where the topping reigns supreme, the base crisp and the pizza served from trays by the slice.  Or Chicago style pizza.  And of course, much derided incarnations such as Pizza Express and Domino’s. Whilst these bear no resemblance to Neapolitan pizza, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  And who am I to say what anyone should eat?  In fact, I must confess to the occasional dirty indulgence of a Domino’s, especially cold, for breakfast.

Neapolitans would of course shudder at that last suggestion, and in order to protect the ‘invention’ of which they remain fiercely proud, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana was created.

Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (“AVPN”)

In typical triumphalist Neapolitan style, this not-for-profit organisation was founded in 1984 with the aim of promoting and ‘protecting’ “La vera pizza Napoletana” (true Neapolitan pizza).   To achieve this, a set of exacting International regulations was drawn up governing the ingredients and production methods used in authentic Neapolitan pizza.  Should you so desire, you can get the full Monty here.

For ease, here is a summary of the key stipulations:

  • Limited to two types of pizza: ‘Marinara’ (tomato, oil, oregano, garlic) and ‘Margherita’ (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, basil)
  • Cooked in a wood-fired oven which has reached 485oC – cooking time not to exceed 60-90 seconds
  • Consistency should be “soft, elastic, easy to manipulate and fold” with a particularly soft centre
  • The crust (‘cornicione’) should deliver “the flavour of well-prepared, baked bread” and be no more than 1-2cm
  • The base should be no more than 0.4cm in thickness
  • Pizza base ingredients: ‘00’ wheat flour, sea salt and yeast (compressed, biologically produced saccharomices cervisiae – natural yeast may also be used)
  • Condiments:
    • Fresh tomatoes: San Marzano, Corbarino, or Pomodorino del piennolo del Vesuvio
    • Canned, peeled tomatoes: San Marzano
    • Mozzarella: buffalo mozzarella DOP
    • Fior di Latte: dell’appennino meridionale DOP
    • Oregano or basil
  • The dough should be left to rise for two hours, before being cut and shaped into balls (‘panetti’) by hand – the ‘staglio a mano’.  The panetti are then left to rise in special boxes (‘mattarelle’) for a further four to six hours – to be used in the next six hours.

Footnote – Santa Maria Pizzeria

I visited Santa Maria pizzeria in Ealing twice recently: once as a guest, and the second time as a paying customer. Apart from perhaps Franco Manca in Brixton, I had yet to find a pizzeria remotely resembling the kind I was used to in Naples; so needless to say, on my first visit, I was intrigued.

It’s been covered by far more eloquent bloggers elsewhere (see Tehbus, Rocket & Squash and Federilli’s Pasta Bites) so I’ll keep it briefer than brief.  From the moment I walked in I knew I was on to a winner: that unmistakeable aroma of tomatoes and pizza, and the decor (tiny space, white marble counter, glass fronted shelves stacked with condiments, domed oven and Napoli football team paraphernalia adorning the walls) instantly transported me back to the Trianon in Naples where my father took me as a child.

The pizzas were superlative: slightly charred base, puffy cornicione with floury to-the-touch feel, soft, molten interior and delightful aroma: just as you would expect a Neapolitan pizza to be.  Suffice to say, I was prepared to make the three hour roundtrip to eat there and plan on returning soon. I’d even wager that my ultra-fussy Neapolitan cousins would approve – and that’s saying something. Question is: would Tube-man?

[1] A city and commune in Lazio, 80km from Naples.


  1. Wow, what a great start!
    Welcome to blogging and woo hoo me for leaving the first comment.
    I skimmed that at great, excited speed so now I’m going back to read it at a more leisurely pace!

  2. We recently tried Chicago Deep Dish pizza, and I have to say – it’s foul. But Santa Maria sounds awesome from your description, and maybe even worth the trek we’d have to make, as it’s about as far away from us as from you?

  3. Excellent and incredibly informative first post, lovely. I must admit that though pizza has never been my go-to, thin, crispy crusted pizza loaded with tasty, fresh toppings is entirely up my alley. I think you should take me out for some real pizza sometime!

    A most excellent start to food blogging – I’ve long said that you should write, here’s the evidence 😉

    Jax x

  4. Congratulations on a beautifully written piece. Have a soft spot for good Chicago deep dish pizza- when done badly it’s horrific, but when done well, it’s a heartstopping (literally) revelation. Lou Malnatis in Chicago is a good bet in my book.

  5. Pingback: Soho Lunch to Walk – Pizza Pilgrims, Bahn Mi 11, Yoobi + Golden Gate Cake Shop | The Skinny Bib

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