Long before there was pizza, ancient cultures baked flatbreads on heated stones which they ate with whatever toppings were available to them.
In Sardinia, archaeologists have found leavened bread that was baked more than 7 000 years ago. The ancient Greeks made a flatbread called plakous which was flavoured with toppings like herbs, onion, cheese and garlic. In the 6th century BC, soldiers in the armies of the Persian king, Darius I, baked flat breads on their battle shields, which they ate with cheese and dates. More than 2 000 years ago Roman soldiers added cheese and olive oil to unleavened flatbreads.
Flatbreads that survive to this day from the ancient Mediterranean world are the Greek pita and the Italian focaccia.
The earliest pizzas in Naples, Italy
In the 16th century in Naples, flatbread was referred to as pizza. It was regarded as the food of the poor and was sold and eaten on the streets.
The innovation of adding the newly introduced tomato from the recently discovered Americas as a topping, kick started the food revolution that became the modern pizza.
The tomato was initially believed to be poisonous, as some fruits of the nightshade family are, but by the late 18th century, it was common for the poor of Naples and surrounds to add tomato to their yeast-based flat bread and the pizza was born.
When Allied troops stationed in Italy during the Second World War discovered the pleasures of the pizza it was introduced to the rest of the world.
In 1889 King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples. Legend has it that the queen asked to try a few varieties of pizza. Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi (now Pizzeria Brandi), considered by some the father of modern pizza, made a simple pizza for her topped with a tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. The red, white and green ingredients represented the colours of the Italian flag. The queen loved the pizza and it became known as Pizza Margherita.
Only two true pizzas
Purists, like the famous Pizzeria da Michele in Via Cesare Sersale in Naples, consider there to be only two true pizzas – the marinara and the margherita – and that is all they serve. This is the pizzeria where Julia Roberts ate her pizza in Eat, Pray, Love. These two “pure” pizzas are also preferred by many Italians.
The marinara is the older of the two pizzas and is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil. It is named “marinara” not because it contains seafood but because it was traditionally the food prepared by “la marinara”, the wives of fishermen, for when their husbands returned home from fishing in the Bay of Naples.
Rules for an authentic Neapolitan pizza
The True Neapolitan Pizza Association which was founded in 1984, has set very specific rules that must be followed for an authentic Neapolitan pizza. These include that the pizza must be baked in a wood-fired, domed oven; that the base must be hand-kneaded and must not be rolled with a pin or prepared by any mechanical means (Neapolitan pizza makers make the pizza by rolling it with their fingers); and that the pizza must not exceed 35 centimetres in diameter or be more than one-third of a centimetre thick at the centre.