It’s possible that the pizza is one of the most taken for granted of our modern food items. It’s only a pizza, after all, just one of those things you have after a few drinks or perhaps when you want something quick and easy to feed the kids. The truth of the pizza is that it is a historic dish that has so many variations that there is one for every taste – and they are great! Here’s celebrating National Pizza Day with a few inspirational ideas.
Like many of our dishes, no-one is really sure where the pizza was invented or when. The first use of the term dates from 997 AD in Italy and was a descendant of the focaccia, a flat bread that dated back to the Roman times, when it was known as the ‘panis focacius’. In truth, the basic idea of a flat bread with different toppings added is doubtless much older. Ancient Greece had a flat bread known as plakous that had herbs, onion and garlic added to it. Persian king Darius I had baked flatbreads with cheese and dates served to his soldiers in the 6th century, which they ate from their shields.
Nor is the idea a solely Mediterranean one. Flatbreads such as the Indian Paratha, the Naan and Roti from central and south Asia and the rieska from Finland all had the same basic idea as the pizza base. Making pies with toppings such as cheese, meat and vegetables can also be found in the quiche from France and the zweibelkuchen of Germany.
The big change in the world of flat bread was the use of tomato as a topping. Tomatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and at first, their family connection to the nightshade family meant people thought they were poisonous! By the 18th century it was realised that they were harmless and the poor people in the Naples area started to add them to their yeast-based flat bread. This was the birth of the pizza as we know it today.
By the 1870s, pizza purists were already arguing about ‘true’ pizzas with the Marinara and the Margherita said to be the only true pizzas. The Marinara uses tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil and gained its name as it was served by the wives of the Naples fishermen when they came home at night. The Margherita is the classic tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil pizza (often just called a cheese and tomato pizza today).
In modern times, the pizza moved to the Americas, where it was originally known as a Tomato Pie. Popular with Italian Americans, it was first created in New York City in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi. The famous Chicago style deep dish pizza evolved in the 1940s with a flaky crust and deep piles of toppings, created by Ike Sewell in his grill called Pizzeria Uno.
The world of pizzas
When it comes to picking your favourite pizza, I’m a bit boring. I love a good margherita or one with pepperoni or other spicy meats. I also am a huge cheese fan so those pizzas with a number of cheese on are always a good choice for me. Pizza has travelled around the world and there are some great variations available. Most of the really famous ones seem to come from Italy or America but everyone has their own ideas.
The Calzone is one example, always called a pizza pasty by my chef husband. It actually means ‘stocking’ in Italian and is a turnover style. It can be filled with any ingredients and the base is folded over before cooking, making a semi-circular pizza that does look like a big pasty!
The Langos is a dish from Hungary that uses the deep fried flat bread and is layered with meat, sour cream and garlic butter if you like. It is a street food that is found in neighbouring countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia too.
The New York pizza is a take from the classic Neapolitan pizza. It uses a hand-tossed, coal fired base that is topped with a light tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and lots of pepperoni, thinly sliced.
Both Turkey and Armenia claim the Lahmacun, a pizza-type snack whose name means ‘meat and dough’. It is a simple thin layer of baked dough topped with minced beef or lamp as well as onions, herbs and tomatoes.
If you like rich dishes, then the Khachapuri from Georgia may be one to add to your list. It uses a dough softened with a special local cheese called sulguni and looks a bit like a Calzone before it is topped with an egg and a lot of butter. Some of the US restaurants that serve the dish use a whole stick of butter on each – not one if you are watching your cholesterol!
The Okonomiyaki is pizza but not as most of us know it. The Japanese dish includes pork, squid, cabbage and noodles, with the toppings layered or mixed and fried in batter. It is then topped with an egg and okonomiyaki sauce, a bit like a sweet Worcestershire sauce. It is such a big deal in Hiroshima that there is even a theme park dedicated to the dish.
For those who eat cold pizza for breakfast (!) then the Lebanese dish of Manakish may be worth trying. This is a morning dish that uses dough spiced with thyme, sesame seeds and a type of sumac spice called za’atar. Cheese or meat can also be added depending on what you want for breakfast.