Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24, 2009

Why pizza is still our favourite food

From its humble origins in Naples to the new Pizza Express version with a hole in the middle, the history of pizza

Margherita Pizza

Pizza is now the most globalised food of all. Last month, Kim Jong Il authorised the opening of the first pizza restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korea; Pizza Hut franchises flourish as far afield as Somalia and Cambodia; there are 6,000 pizzerias in São Paolo, Brazil.

But it was only quite recently that the whole world started snacking on wedges: until the 1960s, even Italians thought that the dish wasn't really digestible outside its home, Naples. In the 19th century, pizza was denounced as disgusting and unhealthy, fit only for the poorest people in Italy's poorest city.

“Do you want to know what pizza is?” asked Carlo Collodi, the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio and a Florentine, after a visit to Naples in the 1880s. “It is a focaccia made from leavened bread dough which is toasted in the oven. On top of it they put a sauce with a little bit of everything. When its colours are combined they make pizza look like a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonises perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it.”

Pizza still fires passions. This month Simone Falco, the manager of the London pizzeria chain Rossopomodoro, is running a “pizza amnesty”: anyone who brings in a travesty of a pizza from a supermarket will be given a free, authentic one. More than 100 people have come, bearing perversions that Falco has found hurtful to gastronomic decency: fish and chips pizza, baked beans pizza, “BBQ chicken pizza - barbecue sauce topped with bacon, roast chicken, onions and green peppers”.

I found these mild as sins against traditional pizza go: over the years I've encountered - though not necessarily tasted - Balti pizza (in Birmingham), chocolate Smarties pizza and “sushi pizza” in a branch of Pizza Hut (in Bangkok).

Next week Pizza Express - the chain that introduced pizza to the British in 1965 - will launch another innovation: pizza with a hole in it. The Leggera (light, in Italian) is a ring of pizza dough filled with salad. It will cost a wince-inducing £8; a proper Margherita pizza in a traditional pizzeria in Naples can still cost as little as €3.

But is it really so important what you put on a pizza? It is just toasted flatbread with a topping - as with a sandwich, the embellishment is your business.

The Italian Government would not agree, however. As far as it is concerned there are only two official Neapolitan pizzas: marinara, which is tomato, garlic, olive oil and oregano; and Margherita, which is tomato, basil, olive oil and mozzarella. That is named after Queen Margherita of Italy, who bravely requested a slice during a visit to cholera-stricken Naples in 1889. This was a moment that John Dickie, in his history of Italian food, Delizia!, compares with Diana, Princess of Wales's embracing of an Aids patient in 1987: it was the beginning of pizza's rise to respectability.

Now, of course, pizza has been deracinated and homogenised, it is a convenience food that sits alongside its brothers the burger and the chilled sushi roll in the 21st-century fast-food arcade. Pizza's genius has been in fitting into new cultures: deep-pan Chicago pizza was invented there by Italian exiles during the 1940s for the bigger American appetite. Hawaiian pizza (ham and pineapple) is apparently one of the most popular varieties globally, despite being an offence in Signor Falco's eyes. And there is the Pizza Hut “Cheesy Bites” pizza, the outer crust of which includes “28 cheesy heads with beautiful toupees of garlic butter”. It looks like a skin disease and has been denounced by health campaigners, who claim that the extra-large version contains a whopping 3,000 calories.

But I suspect that the real offence to pizza's integrity is not in the topping, but the cooking. Pizza should be cooked fast and very, very hot: ideally in a wood-fired, clay-walled oven at over 400C, so that the disc of gluten-laden dough comes out that particular combination of chewy and crisp. Domestic electric and gas ovens don't generally come hotter that 220C and, it should go without saying, you cannot make pizza in a microwave. Some things are just better not homemade.

Mary Contini may be the exception, however. A member of one of the southern Italian clans that settled in Scotland 100 years ago, transforming catering (and ice cream) in the country's cities, and the author of several cooking and history books, Contini admits to cooking pizza at home.

“We exiles had to do it - because you couldn't get pizza, and we missed it too much. The first pizzeria didn't open in Edinburgh until 1969. But it's possible at home, if you make the dough well. If you have an Aga you can get the oven pretty hot.” You could try putting a flat stone on the floor of the oven to cook the pizza on - or even build your own wood-fired oven. Orchard Ovens in Lancashire sell an Italian-made kit for this, but the prices start at £1,800 (see

I had my first pizza in 1978, in the Notting Hill branch of Pizza Express. It was one of the most exciting moments of my teenage years - the jazzy orange and red interior of the restaurant, and the romantic, exotic snack filled my heart with dreams of Italy. Now I seem to spend most weekends in Pizza Express, grumpily ordering my son's favourite: a Margherita without tomato sauce but with pepperoni (this does not make it cheaper).

The chain still provides the country's most reliably good pizza, but it does tend to annoy its patrons. Since Pizza Express was taken over by a private equity firm three years ago, its staff seem to have shrunk in number and efficiency. “Can't you see that we're busy?” one of them snarled at my children recently, as they asked to see how the pizza is made. I had a moan and was given the mobile number of the regional manager to talk to. I urge you all to try this - she sent me £40 in vouchers.

Pizza Express's dough and the tomato sauce are now made centrally, at the HQ outside London. Can that really be called fresh? And any regular you ask insists that, over the years, the pizzas have got smaller. Is this true? “No,” a spokeswoman told me. “But the plates have got bigger.”

Two nights ago I got a takeaway from my favourite pizza joint, La Favorita in Edinburgh, a traditional place with a proper Scots-Italian manager, Sante Esperamo. I ordered a Primavera (tomato, parma ham, rocket and fior di latte mozzarella) and a di Leone (bresaola cured beef with radicchio paste, lemon, radicchio leaves and mozzarella). While I waited for the oven to do its bit - in four minutes - I asked Sante what he thought of the produce of chain pizza restaurants. “Pah!” he snorted, adding: “It's cooking by numbers. All across the country, the same. A pizza must have individuality, it must have character.”

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