Have you ever noticed the creepy guy hanging out in Neapolitan pizzerias? No, not Adam Kuban. I'm talking about Pulcinella. He's always wearing a puffy white getup, matching white hat, and a black mask with a long, pointy nose. Maybe you haven't noticed him, but Pulcinella is usually within ten feet of most wood-fired ovens in the form of paintings and figurines. Who is this guy and why is he associated with pizza? We'll have to go back a few centuries to find out.
Our story begins in 16th century Italy. Spain was running the show in the south, resulting in a considerable degree of political and economic unrest. As a way of dealing with the drama, a new genre of performance called Commedia dell'Arte emerged from Italy. Professional actors donned elaborate costumes and improvised simple plot formats on temporary open-air stages. Troupes would travel up and down the peninsula, performing simple stories of love, greed, and jealousy, modifying details to fit their locale. Since dialects were so varied, most of the action was physical. The format quickly spread throughout Europe and became popular for people of all ages and economic backgrounds.
Commedia used a series of basic character types to play out each story line. All the human flaws were covered, including greed (Pantalone), naiveté (Pedrolino) and dishonesty (Brighella). One of the brighter spots in Commedia dell'Arte is Pulcinella, the carefree court jester. He represents the most overt form of comedy in the entire production. Pulcinella is always playing tricks on other characters, yet he's oblivious to the negative impact of his tricks. He's basically Commedia's class clown.
The people of Naples have always associated themselves with Pulcinella because of his modest social status and casual attitude. He's a commoner, with no real attitude or pretense. He can often be seen eating pasta with his hands or baking a pizza over Mt Vesuvius. As a singular representation of the city's people, by the late 18th century, Pulcinella became the mask of Naples during Carnevale.
New York based Neapolitan pizzaiolo Giulio Adriani put it best. "The spirit of the Neapolitan people is Pulcinella. We are poor, we don't care we smile as long as we have a pizza or pasta in our hands." It's because of this close relationship that you'll find Pulcinella figurines and paintings adorning the walls of Neapolitan pizzerias. Adriani adds, "He's good luck!"
So keep your eyes peeled and you'll probably see Pulcinella poking his head around your favorite Neapolitan pizzeria. Just beware, he might snag your slice when you aren't looking.
About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour