How far back does pizza go? A long way, more than a thousand years. According to Ed Behr in his Art of Eating newsletter, "The written record of the word pizza, in the sense of focaccia, goes back to the Codex Cajetanus of the year 997." Evelyne Slomon in The Pizza Book says even before that Plato gave an account of pizza in his Republic: "They will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat and kneading and cook these ... they [the cakes] will also have relishessalt ... and of olives and cheese; and onions and greens." It's a bit of a stretch, but the idea of Plato waxing philosophical about pizza is a delicious notion. Behr goes on to say that "pizza is an alternation of the Greek word pitta, which was introduced to southern Italy during the Byzantine conquest of the sixth century." Slomon says, "The name [pizza] comes from a southern Italian corruption of the Latin adjective picea (peechia), which described the black tarlike coating underneath the placenta, a pie made of the finest flours, a topping of cheese mixed with honey, and a seasoning of bay leaves and oil." The first pizzas, as we would recognize them today, were white pies, made with lard.
Rocca goes on to say, "The most ordinary pizzas, called coll'aglio e l'oglio, have for condiments oil, a scattering of salt, oregano, and finely cut up cloves of garlic. Others are covered with grated cheese and seasoned with lard and then some leaves of basil. To the first, tiny fish are often added; to the second, thin slices of mozzarella. Sometimes slices of ham are used or else tomato, mussels, etc." The tomato, called a golden apple, or pomodoro in Italian, was brought back from the new world in the midsixteenth century. Sloman says that Neapolitans were initially scared of the supposedly poisonous tomato, but by the eighteenth century they were putting it on pizza and pasta.
Maybe the most prescient pizza observer was nineteenth-century French author Alexandre Dumas. In a travel essay, he wrote that "the pizza is a kind of schiacciata which is made in St. Denis; it is round in shape and made with bread dough. At first glance it looks like a simple food, but examined more closely, it seems complicated."
Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the New York Times Dining section and is author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. He also maintains a blog: Ed Levine Eats. This entry is an excerpt from his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, published on Slice through special arrangement.
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