From popular food to global icon. In these two words lies the story of pizza,the flag of Italian food worldwide. Since the 1700s this masterpiece of gastronomy and popular art de vivre has irresistibly risen to success, from the narrow streets of Naples to the four corners of the world, becoming an emblem of the “Belpaese” and specifically of Naples, a double concentrate of Italianness. In fact, the art of the Neapolitan “Pizzaiuoli”, for which the Italian Agricultural Ministry has requested the enlisting in the Unesco World Heritage, comes from far away and is deeply rooted in the Mediterranean community life. According to some food and nutrition historians, pizza would date back to the preparation of the mensae: wheat oven-baked flatbreads, used by ancient populations to lay food on. The Aeneid, written by the most renowned Roman poet, Virgil, includes a famous episode in which the hero and forefather of Rome, Aeneas, is forced to eat his own mensa in order not to starve to death. In the ruins of Pompeii and those of ancient Neapolis, the 5th century B.C. Naples, ovens have been found resembling the exact shape of those currently built by Neapolitan artisan oven-makers; following a traditional technique, considered indispensable in order to build an oven capable of cooking the pizza in the traditional way.
Closely related to Indian nan bread, to Greek, Israeli or Arabic pita bread, to the Spanish tortilla, the margherita ad marinara belongs to the ancient family of “containers” that are transformed in food because of necessity. Nevertheless, Neapolitan pizza has trashed the competition. It is already famous in 1835, when Alexander Dumas visits Naples. A refined gourmet, the father of d’Artagnan understands that behind the apparent simplicity of the dish hides an extreme complexity. Crunchy on the outside, very soft on the inside, elastic and resistant, not to deep, nor too thin, not moist, not dry, not raw, not cooked. It squares the culinary circle, a structuralist delicacy worthy of Léi-Strauss, a coincidence of opposites embodying an entire chapter of taste philology in a few centimetres. Moreover, the great French writer understands that behind the success of the pizza lies the true art of community life, an “emergency room for the stomach”, a democratic and sustainable solution to hunger. Few foods, in fact, are as environmentally friendly as pizza, able to satisfy taste and health needs, while remaining accessible to all and not demanding excessive resources. A perfect example of social gastronomy. Throughout the centuries, the art of the pizzaiuoli has produced something, which has become a global dish and is integrated in the food habit of many cultures. Surely, the more one is far from Vesuvius, the more pizza loses accuracy; 6 often the name is the only thing that is left of the original. But aside from all the crimes committed in its good name, the reasons for its success remain. From Caracas to Kiev, Abu Dhabi to Houston, pizza retains its nature of being a democratic, economical, easy food. In fact, even in Pizza Hut’s multi-flavoured slices, if not the flavour, the spirit of the oregano or mozzarella pizzas, sold to the people in the streets for one coin a piece, is still present. This is an indication that pizza is a gastronomic “hard disk” compatible with a variety of software. A musical score that can be executed in many different ways by anyone. The difference being that Neapolitan pizzaiuoli execute it in a very distinctive and unmistakable way, taking inspiration from a traditional savoir faire. It should be noted that, although being proud of having invented pizza, Neapolitans do not claim intellectual property over it, but rather a creative leadership or birth right at the most. And the fact that it became a global food makes the pizza maestros proud; coming from the lower classes, their art has become an instrument of personal social promotion, as well as a significant driving force for local economy. Far from being a mere commodity, a product separated from the social and cultural dynamics of its production, pizza is food at the centre of a social ritual. It is at the centre of a koinè at the centre of which are the oven and the pizzaiuolo’s worktable. It is no coincidence that in traditional Neapolitan pizzerias ovens are not hidden; they are in the centre of the room, like an ancient fireplace. The pizza maestro does not have his back to the customers; he faces them and interacts with them at all times; there is a constant collective feedback. This initiates forms of community credit, such as the “today and eight” pizza, bought and consumed immediately, paid eight days later, or the “suspended” pizza, following the ancient Neapolitan tradition of the suspended coffee, which involves consuming one espresso and paying for two, leaving one in for less fortuned strangers. This form of generosity towards strangers, based on the assumption that “a pizza is denied to no one”, elects pizza, already the global emblem of street food, as the food of solidarity.
This is one more piece of evidence suggesting we need to come up with new ideas, in order to face the crisis. Curiously the most innovative ideas are the ones born in the heart of tradition, from community welfare, with no bureaucracy or added costs. Typical of the people who smile in the face of adversity. Some might call it fair-trade margherita. Maybe it is just Neapolitan altruism.
Marino Niola

buy the book