It might seem difficult to believe, but food similar to pizza has been prepared since ancient times, especially if one is liberal with the definition of pizza. There are numerous accounts of people adding ingredients to pieces of bread in order to make their meals tastier.
In Ancient Greece, people would add oil, herbs, or cheese to their bread. In Persia, King Darius I’s soldiers would allegedly bake flatbread with cheese and date palm on their battle shields.
An early reference to a pizza-like food can be found in the Latin epic Aeneid by Virgil. In one episode, the Queen of the Harpies, Celaeno, foretells that the Trojans would find no peace until they ate their tables out of hunger.
In a later episode, Aeneas and his men are served a meal that includes something like pita bread coated with cooked vegetables. Only as they finish eating the bread do they realize that these are in fact the “tables” as prophesied by Celaeno.
Modern pizza most likely evolved from the flatbread dishes in Naples that were eaten throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Even before that time, flatbread was often topped with various ingredients, including garlic, cheese, lard, salt and basil. It remains uncertain, though, when ingredients such as tomatoes were introduced as a regular pizza component. Up to the 1830s, this precursor to the pizza we know today was sold out of the many bakeries. These bakeries would also sell from open-air stands placed elsewhere downtown. Some present day pizza makers keep this tradition alive.
So it was most likely here, in Naples, that the first true pizzeria opened. Many consider that the honor goes to the Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba. Initially established in 1738 but only as a stand for peddlers, the Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba was opened as a real pizzeria in Naples in 1830. Located in the heart of the city, at Via Port’Alba 18, this eatery took the place of street vendors who traditionally prepared the pizza in wood-fired ovens before bringing to the streets.
The Pizzeria Port’Alba rapidly became a vibrant meeting point. Merchants and travelers entering the city through the gate at Port’Alba would stop at the pizzeria to take a break or do some business.
Overall, the pizzas were simple with toppings such as oil and garlic. The venue would be visited by artist patrons and students but also poor people who had little money. Reportedly, there was even a credit system, known as “pizza a otto,” which allowed customers to pay up to eight days after enjoying their pizza. A local joke had it that a meal from Port’Alba might be somebody’s last free meal if they were to die before making payment.
Amazingly, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba is still in business. A favorite pizza in the old days here would be the Mastunicola, which was topped with sheep’s cheese, lard, and some basil. As well as basil and oregano, which have long been two of the most common herbs used in a pizza, other toppings from this eatery include buffalo mozzarella, seafood, cured meats, and the tiny white fish known as cucinelli.
Since it first opened in 1830, the pizzeria’s ovens have been lined with lava rock brought from Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that looms over Naples. From its formation, the business has been run traditionally by the Luciano family.
Over the years the family has had plenty of time to collect more than enough anecdotes. In one of them, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, king of the Two Sicilies during the mid-1800s, secretly came to the pizzeria to survey the mood of his own people. Famed locals also stopped by, such as Giuseppe Moscati, a scientist who had pioneered work in biochemistry and was later canonized by the Catholic Church.
The long history of Pizzeria Port’Alba certainly shows that Italy, and Naples in particular, are important centers to modern-day pizza making. And don’t forget that it was here in Naples that the Margherita pizza was invented.
In the United States, pizza arrived once Italian immigrants started to come in numbers during the late 19th century. Lombardi’s, the first pizzeria in the States, started in 1905.
The real pizza boom, though, happened following WWII, when veterans coming back from Italy were able to introduce the many delicacies of Italy. The era was marked by the rise of the pizza chain, including Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut.
Now, after so much talk about pizza, it is high time that we made some orders!