After world war two, burgers and pizzas became gastronomic shibboleths, symbols of stodgy American prosperity.
No matter that the Italians had a better claim to its invention: the Americans rolled the pizza from sea to shining sea and beyond. In Chicago it turned into the cakey, focaccia-like "deep-dish" you get in Pizza Hut, its base fried, its toppings thick. In Detroit they bake it twice. I was in New York last week, walking through what's left of Liddleiddally, and I passed Lombardi's, which opened in 1905 and claims to be the country's first pizzeria. I've had better "pies", as they call them there, at John's of Bleecker Street and at Motorino, but Lombardi's represents a piece of food history no matter how you slice it.
Pizza is very old, and even the Italians can't say with certainty that they invented it. Virgil describes bread being used as a trencher in the Aeneid, and the Persians ate flatbread covered with cheese and dates, which sounds pretty good. The word "pizza" appears at the end of the first millennium, and it has a clear lexical relationship with pitta and with pissaladière, that delicious Provençal white pizza with slow-cooked onions, black olives and anchovies. Even tartes flambées, Catalonian cocas, parathas and naans are arguably primitive or variant pizzas. So although Naples proclaims itself the home of the pizza, every part of Italy, and much of Europe, had something similar.
With typical parochialism, the Neapolitans are now committed to "protecting" pizza. Only this weekend it emerged that they're trying to have the dish listed by the UN as an "intangible" cultural icon. In 1984, the city's "pizzaioli" founded an association devoted to regulating the ingredients in pizza dough, still limited to water, yeast, salt and "00" flour. Ever keen on arbitrary gastronomic "rules", the Neapolitans allow just two possible combinations (pdf) of toppings, a nose-amputating policy if ever there was one. For the record, only marinara (a cheeseless pizza with oregano) and margheritas (named in the 1890s for an Austro-Sardinian queen) are acceptable. Happily, the Romans aren't as strict, and they developed such classics as the quattro stagioni, capricciosa and calzone.
Whatever its origins, pizza is now the most globalised and industrialised dish on the planet. 93% of Americans eat it at least once a month, and that country chugs back 350 slices a second. Barely a city in the world won't offer you some kind of interpretation of pizza. I once had a memorably awful one in Rabat, but the worst I've ever tasted was a 2am affair from a shop at Piccadilly Circus – you're right, what did I expect – which was a glimpse, if nothing else, of what it must be like to be an Italian exchange student and feel culturally superior.
Most of the world's pizzas are emphatically revolting: biscuity bases, metallic sauces, weeping factory cheese. Frozen pizzas are impressive if only for the scale on which they're made. With a couple of honourable exceptions, takeaway pizzas are generally pretty vile, and may well be a complete rip-off.
Good pizza is delicious, though. And, despite protestations to the contrary, nor is it difficult. The most important factor is the heat of the oven, which should be eyebrow-singeing. At the excellent mini-chain Franco Manca, which I first visited in 2009, the ovens roar at over 450C. New Yorkers make much of their coal-fired ovens, but I find that coal brings a sooty, industrial dryness to pizzas. A perfect char needs a brick oven fired with wood, ideally oak. At home, a pizza stone – just a slab of masonry heated in the oven – is a good idea for the committed amateur. The quality of the dough is paramount, as are the toppings, which should be sparse complements to the base, not the other way round. (Ham and pineapple, the so-called "Hawaiian", is likely a Canadian confection, and unsuitable for anyone over the age of 10.)
A number of food lovers assume a state of frothy obsession over pizzas, trading increasingly arcane, introverted advice on them. This man's "recipe" approaches 14,000 words, a messianic screed almost hysterical in its detail. It's a harmless hobby, of course, and no doubt these people derive some joy from pursuing what they believe to be perfection. But I can't help wondering whether such pizza fanaticism is actually a tragic case of diminishing returns: that no matter how good a pizza can be, the edible world is a wide place, with more to offer than a single dish. Treating pizza as a gourmet product defies the dish's own history, it defies logic and reason and a lifespan measured in years rather than millennia. It's only cheese on toast, after all.
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