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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca De Franco

Pizza: The Global Culinary Icon


What better time to celebrate arguably the world's most universally recognised and popular dish than on National Pizza Day?

The history and evolution of pizza is long and complicated and there are many branches of its family tree. You could write an entire book on the subject! However, here's a very potted version. Like with most food history, certain points are contested, there are differing narratives and origins are multifaceted.

The birth of modern pizza

Adding toppings to flat breads such as focaccia has been a food concept since ancient times and there have been many precursors to the 'modern pizza.' However, the birthplace of what we universally recognise as pizza today is Naples in Italy. It became the cheap, fast food of the poorer inhabitants of the busy port city of the late 18th century, and was shunned by the more well-heeled. Even here though there'd been a rather different iteration referred to as pizza as far back as the 16th century. The exciting aspect of the 'new' pizza of the late 1700s was the addition of the tomato topping. Today tomatoes are synonymous with Italian cooking. However, these colourful orbs only made it from the Americas to the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily in the 16th century (way before the unification of Italy).

In 2017 Neapolitan pizza earned UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Status.

A pizza fit for a Queen

Pizza Brandi Pizzeria
Photo credit: Brandi

One of the most famous legends surrounding pizza involves Queen Margherita of Savoy. In 1889 she and her husband visited Naples. Allegedly tired of French gourmet cuisine, the queen asked to try a local dish. Raffaele Esposito a pizzaiolo (pizza maker) at Pizzeria Brandi created a pizza incorporating the three colours of the Italian flag - in honour of Italy's unification - as toppings: tomato sauce for the red, mozzarella cheese for the white and basil for the green.

This pizza was named Pizza Margherita as a tribute and was a catalyst for pizza's introduction to other parts of Italy and its eventual global domination.

The base and the crust

Before even thinking about the topping permutations, there's the base and the crust - technically known as the 'cornicione' (crust actually refers to the whole cooked dough as opposed to just the rim of the pizza) - to consider. Like with any dish in Italy, the recipe, name and method not only varies by region it can be different from village to village!

Neapolitan pizza dough has just four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. The quintessential Naples pizza has a very thin base and a well-risen puffy/airy crust.

In Rome they like to add olive oil to their dough (and cut back on the water), which makes for a much thinner crispier crust.

Liguria's Piscialandrea/Sardenaira is a style of pizza whose base much more resembles focaccia and so is much thicker. Again, there are a myriad of names and variations across this region.

The Sfincione of Sicily is a deep pan style of pizza, which is typically rectangular and spongy (in a good way!). Its base is more bready than a traditional Neapolitan.

The Italian diaspora brought pizza to America and with it another two major styles: the New York-style pizza with its thin, foldable slices and the very deep-dish pizza 'pie' of Chicago. The St. Louisstyle pizza with its ultra-thin, crisp, cracker-style crust is also worth mentioning as a distinct style.

Pizza Toppings

Nduja, fior di latte mozzarella and wild Friarielli broccoli pizza

Now where do we begin? This can be rather a contentious subject (and no, I would never deign to have pineapple on my pizza).

The original 'modern' pizza of Naples is Marinara, a simple yet deliciously complex combination of tomato, oil, oregano and garlic. The aforementioned Margherita saw the addition of mozzarella and basil.

In Rome they're a little more brazen when it comes to toppings. The infamous Pizza Capricciosa - meaning capricious - usually includes tomato, mozzarella, prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), mushrooms, olives and artichokes. The capricious nature is that some of these ingredients can be substituted or other items added. It's not uncommon for sliced hard-boiled egg to find its way onto a Capricciosa or even mussels!

When it comes to the Ligurian region's pizza, anchovies are the star of the show and are often accompanied by the native Taggiasca olives.

The Sicilian Sfincione is adorned with a tomatoey onion sauce, Sicilian Caciocavallo cheese, oregano, anchovies and breadcrumbs.

I will address the elephant in the room: the Hawaiian pizza. According to the BBC, this, ahem, variant originated in Canada as opposed to the island state.

I could devote pages to toppings and discuss everything from the types of tomatoes to use (San Marzano are the pinnacle) to Fior di latte versus bufala and the fusion varieties, which see everything from tikka chicken to BBQ beef and Peking duck added. I won't though 😄

Did you know? One theory about the origin of the word pizza is that it comes from the dialect word pinza, which was derived from the Latin 'pinsere', which means to beat or stretch. Indeed another pizza cousin exists in Italy's capital in the shape of Pinsa Romana.

Pizza variations

It's worth noting that alongside all the different bases and toppings there are also what I'd call sub-categories. Here are just a few:

  • Pizza bianca (or white pizza) - this doesn't include any tomato sauce and can have different types of cheese included. Potato and rosemary is a popular topping.

  • Pizza a taglio (pizza by the cut) - baked in large rectangular trays, this is the ultimate street food version. It's often sold by weight.

  • Pizza fritta (fried pizza) - Another Naples relative, which is the classic example of necessity being the mother of invention. Read more here.

  • Pinza Romana - a lighter pizza style, which is hand-pressed and is made with a mixture of wheat, soy and rice flours.


... and is a Calzone a type of pizza and is it the same as a stromboli? Like with everything Italian cuisine there are many questions and even more answers.

Anyway, happy National Pizza Day!

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