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The History of Neapolitan Pizza

Slices of freshly made bread, flavored with olive oil and whatever fresh ingredients are available is one of the characteristics of traditional Italian cooking. The origins of the Neapolitan pizza goes back to the ancient period when various cultures produced flatbreads with toppings, a process that improved as new ingredients became available.

Neapolitan pizza
Neapolitan pizza
In this article, we explore the history of the Neapolitan pizza, its different varieties and the influence of the tomato which came to Europe from the Andes, in creating this delicious pizza in Naples, Italy.

An Introduction to Neapolitan Pizza

Neapolitan pizza originated in Naples Italy and its two main ingredients are the tomato and mozzarella cheese. San Marzano tomatoes which grow on the volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius are the preferred tomatoes for making a traditional Neapolitan pizza. These tomatoes are known for their tart flavor, firm pulp, red color, low seed count and easy to remove skin.

San Marzano tomatoes used in Neapolitan Pizza
San Marzano tomatoes used in Neapolitan Pizza
The characteristics of a traditional Neapolitan pizza are its crust, that presents the flavors of well-prepared baked bread, the mixed flavors of the tomatoes, the aromas of the oregano, the garlic and the basil, and the flavors of the cooked mozzarella.

Specification for Neapolitan Pizza

According to specifications proposed by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, Neapolitan pizza must be made from a base of risen dough. After the rising process, the dough must be formed by hand without the help of a rolling pin or mechanical presses, and may be no more than 3 millimeters thick. The cooking time must not exceed 60-90 seconds and must be cooked in a wood fire oven which has reached the cooking temperature of 485C (905F).

The following variations of fresh tomatoes can be used: San Marzano, Corbarino from the town of Corbara in the Campania region and piennolo tomatoes grown around Mount Vesuvius.

The pizza should be soft, elastic, and tender when cooked and should be consumed immediately, straight out of the oven, at the pizzeria.

The Different Neapolitan Pizza Variations

Based on the ingredients, there are three different variants of the Neapolitan pizza.

Pizza Margherita: The ingredients include tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil.

Pizza Marinara: The ingredients include tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.

Pizza Margherita Extra: The ingredients include tomato, buffalo mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil.

History of Neapolitan Pizza

The history of the Neapolitan pizza represents the gradual evolution of the pizza over many centuries from its original form of a flatbread with different toppings produced by many ancient cultures. The toppings were based on available ingredients and personal preferences and as new ingredients were discovered, the pizza constantly evolved along with improvements in baking techniques.

Il pizzaiuolo (the pizza-maker) 1858
Il pizzaiuolo (pizza maker) 1858
The evolution of the pizza can be noticed by comparing the recipes from the 19th century and 16th century. The pizzas described by Bartolomeo Scappi in his book ' L'arte Et Prudenza D'un Maestro Cuoco' published in 1570, which includes a recipe for sweet pizza are completely different from the pizza recipes found in the 19th century.

It must also be noted that the word pizza in Italian has a broader meaning than it does in English and refers to both savory as well as sweet confections that are called 'pies' in English. Some of the early Italian pizza recipes refer to sweet confections made by mixing different ingredients in dough.

The Neapolitan pizza uses tomatoes as one of its main ingredients, and therefore its history is related to the introduction of the tomato to European cuisine during the 16th century.

Introduction of the Tomato to Italian Cuisine

Neapolitan Pizza was born in Naples after the introduction of the tomato to Europe, following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Spanish brought the tomato to Europe, where it was first used as an ornamental plant and gradually over a period of time started being used in the Spanish and Italian cuisines, as people got past their initial fear of the foreign fruit and started adapting to its taste.

Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Though the first recipe for tomato salsa appears in late 17th century in Antonio Latini's cookbook 'Lo scalco alla moderna' (The Modern Steward), (Naples, vol. I 1692, vol. II 1694), there is no recipe for any pizza using tomatoes. Antonio Latini was a steward to Don Stefano Carillo y Salcedo, first minister to the Spanish viceroy of Naples.

The adoption of tomatoes in Italian cuisine increased in the 18th century, as evident by the different tomato sauces listed in Vincenzo Corrado's recipe book published in 1773 in Naples and Ippolito Cavalcanti's book 'Cucina teorico-pratica' (Theory and Practice of Cooking) in 1837 and Cucina casareccia (Home-style Cooking) in 1839 which listed pasta with tomatoes.

Pizza Becomes Popular with Street Vendors

Tomato based pizzas started gaining popularity with street side vendors and smaller informal restaurants in Naples as the food of the common people. A reference to the street pizza using tomatoes can be found in the work of Matilde Serao, an Italian journalist whose book 'Il ventre di Napoli' published in 1884, is a summary chronicle of that period.

Il ventre di Napoli photographed by Giorgio Sommer
Il ventre di Napoli photographed by Giorgio Sommer
According to Matilde Serao, different types of pizzas including with tomatoes, were popular among a very large number of poor people in Naples, where it would be consumed for lunch or dinner. During the night the pizza maker would produce a great many of these rounds of thin, flat, dense dough topped with tomato, garlic, pepper and oregano or with mozzarella and with salted anchovies. These pizzas would be cut into slices, to be sold for one soldo (one coin) along the street corners and were very popular with the poor due to their low cost and wide variety of different toppings.

French author Alexandre Dumas, well known for his novel 'The Three Musketeers ' also notes in his book 'Le coricollo' published in 1843, based on his trip to Naples, that pizza was a food of the lazzarone (poor people). He notes the popularity of the tomato and fish based pizzas sold in the streets of Naples as the food of the poor people who would eat watermelons in the summer and pizza during the winter. (Tout le reste du temps, le lazzarone mange, comme nous l’avons dit, des pizze et du cocomero; du cocomero l’été, des pizze l’hiver.)

Additional references to the tomato pizza sold in the Naples marketplace can be found in Carlo Collodi book 'Il viaggio per l'Italia di Giannettino', written in the 1880s about the travel of Giannettino through Italy. He notes that the pizza with its different scattered toppings is as messy as the person selling it. Carlo Collodi is the author of the world-renowned fairy tale novel 'The Adventures of Pinocchio'.

A type of fried pizza made with different fillings was also common among the poor in Naples as it provided a cheaper alternative to the baked pizza. The street vendors would sell them as 'a ogge a otto', a Neapolitan expression meaning 'eat today and pay in eight days', hence making pizza one of the few foods accessible to the poor who had large debts.

Pizza Margherita Named after the First Queen of Unified Italy

Pizza Margherita whose toppings resemble the colors of the Italian flag, red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) has an interesting story behind its name. It was created by Raffaele Esposito a well-known pizza maker from Naples who owned a tavern called Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi. Tomato based pizza was then considered a food of the poor people of Naples and mainly sold by the street vendors.

Authetica Pizza Margherita by Valerio Capello
Authetica Pizza Margherita by Valerio Capello
According to the legend, Esposito was invited to the royal palace to prepare a pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy, who had traveled to Naples with King Umberto I. Esposito prepared three different pizzas, one of which used a combination of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil to emulate the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. The Queen found the pizza delicious, and is said to have send a note of appreciation to Esposito, who then named the pizza in honor of the Queen.

Though the authenticity of the story has been questioned by some, it helped Neapolitan Pizza gain enduring popularity and the presentation and fine taste of Esposito's Pizza Margherita, made it one of the most recognizable symbol of Italian food culture in the world.

Some Historic Pizzerias in Naples

Some of the old traditional pizzerias still exist in Naples, and a trip to this capital city of the Campania region must certainly include a visit to its historic pizzerias, for both pizza and history lovers.

L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele founded in 1870 by Salvatore Condurro offers a choice of pizza Marinara or pizza Margherita and is considered as one of the best pizzerias in Naples.

Pizzeria Port'Alba by Alexandra Hamer
Pizzeria Port'Alba by Alexandra Hamer
Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba which was opened in 1830 in the town center at Via Port'Alba is believed to be the world's first pizzeria. Prior to that it was a stand where the street vendors sold their pizzas. The pizzeria is known for cooking pizzas in ovens lined with volcanic lava from Mount Vesuvius.

Pizzeria di Brandi is Raffaele Esposito's old pizzeria where the famous Margherita pizza was once made. It was earlier known as 'Pietro e Basta Cosi' and the current name Brandi comes from the name of Esposito's wife Maria Giovanna Brandi. The pizzeria was passed on to its pizzaiolo (pizza maker), Vincenzo Pagnan in the 1970s, as the heirs of Maria Giovanna Brandi did not intend to continue the activity.

Other pizzerias that are very popular in Naples are Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, Pizzeria Di Matteo and Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro. Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo is known for its famous large, soft-crust, incredibly light Neapolitan pizza topped with high-quality ingredients while Pizzeria Di Matteo is particularly known for its fried pizza (pizza fritta) and Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro is known for its delicious Margherita pizza.

Recommended Reading

Tomato History : From the Andes to Europe and America

The History of Buffalo Mozzarella


Lo scalco alla moderna by Antonio Latini

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L'arte Et Prudenza D'un Maestro Cuoco

Il ventre di Napoli by Matilde Serao (Translated by Jon R. Snyder)

Le coricollo by Alexandre Dumas

Il viaggio per l'Italia di Giannettino by Carlo Collodi

Italian Cook Book by Pellegrino Artusi

Article Category:
Food History

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