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Pizza's Lengthy History Has Been a Filthy Lie

Pizza purists have long accredited Naples with being the birthplace of pizza (and ground zero for its finest form), but new research argues that it actually originated elsewhere.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US

You may think you're a pizza purist, shunning the delivery giants in favor of more authentic Neapolitan creations of simple dough, buffalo mozzarella, and San Marzano tomatoes, maybe with a restrained drift of basil leaves on top. You regard each ingredient with excruciating detail, tracing its origin with the crafting care of a master couturier.

Fanaticism surrounding the sanctity of the Neapolitan pizza has escalated to such a point that chefs have been spending tens of thousands of dollars on specialty pizza ovens and Vera Pizza Napoletana, or "VPN," certification. In 2008, two Naples food organizations—Real Pizza and the Association of Neapolitan Pizza-Makers—demanded that the EU create formal standards for the claim of "Neapolitan pizza," adding the type of regulation to it that is seen in other region-specific products such as Champagne and Scotch whisky. The specifications include number of calories, ratios of tomato, cheese, and salt, and oven temperature (485 degrees Celsius, if you're counting).


Like the cupcake craze or the Great Bacon Hysteria of 2008, things got a little out of hand. Last year, Phoenix chef Justin Piazza bragged to the Wall Street Journal that he had dropped $25,000 on a wood-burning pizza oven that had bricks made from the ashes of Mount Vesuvius. In Los Angeles, zealots have been paying $1,650 for three-day courses on how to "slap" dough and grind plum tomatoes.

Well, as is to be expected any time people become far too cocky and sure of anything, the other shoe has dropped right on the heads of these ash-snorting, mozzarella-bathing Naples-worshippers. This Thursday, Italian food historian Giuseppe Nocca plans to present research indicating that the first appearances of our beloved, circular carb-load of choice, i.e. "pizza" as we know it, were not in Naples, but about 60 miles northwest in the smaller village of Gaeta.

Nocca has discovered the oldest known reference to pizza on a Latin church record document (a "Dark Ages rent agreement," according to UK's Independent) dating back to 997 AD. Even more fun: pizza was something of a holiday-related currency. The document decreed that 12 pizzas—in addition to a pork shoulder and a couple of chickens—were supposed to be provided (perhaps by some Medieval stoner delivery people?) as rent payment to the church bishop on Christmas and Easter in exchange for use of local land for a mill.

In 2012, Margherita pizza's naming origins were also accused of being potentially dubious. Though it's commonly said to have been named for the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, when she paid a visit to Naples in 1889, Italian food scholar Zachary Nowak did a thorough investigation and found some fishy name changes and a peculiar paper trail that didn't wholly support the tale.

Does it all sound kind of Monty Python? Certainly. But pizza, though riddled with a strange history of lies and bishops and Christmas, may be true enough in deliciousness for us to forgive.

As for whether you want to drop 25 G's on a pizza oven made of an Italian volcano—well, that's up to you.