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Why is pizza so popular?

Pizza Caprese

Pizza Caprese

How is it that a doughy disc topped with pretty much any food you can imagine has so completely captured the world’s appetite? John Irving surveys the popularity of pizza.

At the 2015 Expo in Milan, Italy nominated pizza for a place on the UNESCO lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Which is ironic, since pizza is anything but intangible for the national economy. Its sales in Italy total 10 billion euros a year and more than a quarter of the country's restaurants are pizzerias. There are 63,000 of these establishments and they employ 150,000 people.

See some of our favourite pizza recipes here.

The doughy disc has certainly come a long way since classical antiquity, when it first appeared on the scene. Picture the moment in Virgil's Aeneid when Aeneas and his men first touch Italian shores in Latium, now Lazio, the Italian region in which Rome is located. In Cecil Day-Lewis's translation, "They laid the viands on flat cakes of meal about the grass / Using those cereal mats to heap the fruits of the earth on." What he means is that they ate flatbread with a topping, a food archetype with variants all over the Mediterranean. Pide in Turkey, pissaladière in Provence. Or, in Italy, puccia in Puglia, sardenaira in Liguria, pinsa in Rome or piadina in Romagna. And, most notably of all, pizza itself in Naples.

Virgil relates legend, not hard fact, so I wouldn't suggest for a moment that a few blokes in pastelcoloured tunics were lounging about picnicking on pizza alla Napoletana - they wouldn't have had the essential pomodoro for a start - but in the two lines cited we do have the makings of something resembling it. We also know that the Greeks and Etruscans ate similar fare, while the Roman statesman Cato "the Censor" later wrote of "flat rounds of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey, baked on stones".

Antonio Mattozzi, pizza historian extraordinaire, author of the recently published Inventing the Pizzeria (Bloomsbury), belongs to a dynasty of pizza chefs, called pizzaiuoli ("spelt strictly with a 'u' in the middle", he tells me) active in Naples since the first half of the 19th century. That, roughly, is when pizza as we know it today came into being. Mattozzi cites Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame, who visited the city in 1835. He described pizza as "round and kneaded from the same dough as bread", and went on to explain the toppings. "There are pizze with oil," he wrote, "pizze with different kinds of lard, pizze with cheese, pizze with tomatoes and pizze with little fish."

With almost half a million inhabitants, Naples was easily the biggest city in Italy at the time and one of the most crowded in Europe, and pizza was the staple food of the poor in its teeming back alleys. It had the virtue of being, as Mattozzi, says, "Easy to make, tasty and filling. It held hunger at bay." The everyday diet of the most desperate families consisted of cornicioni, pizza crusts, invariably burnt, left over by punters in the newborn pizzerias.

The word "pizza" itself was still exclusively Neapolitan and writers from other Italian regions had to explain it to their fellow countrymen. "It is a focaccia made from leavened bread dough which is toasted in the oven," wrote Carlo Collodi, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio. "On top of it they put a sauce with a little bit of everything. When its colours are combined - the black of the toasted bread, the sickly white of the garlic and anchovy, the greenyyellow of the oil and fried greens, and the bits of red here and there from the tomato - they make pizza look like a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonises perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it." Collodi, who was a Tuscan, betrays more than a hint of anti-Neapolitan bias, but he may have had a point about hygiene.

Pizza wasn't eschewed by people of breeding, but mingling with hoi polloi in the dodgy pizzerias of the old city was another matter. That's why, in June 1889, almost two decades after the unification of Italy, visiting monarchs King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, natives of Piedmont keen to taste the local delicacy, had pizzaiuolo Raffaele Esposito come to bake pizza for them in the ovens of the royal palace at Capodimonte. The queen's favourite, so the story goes, was a version topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil leaves: red, white and green, the colors of the new nation's flag. Pizza Margherita had been born. At Esposito's shop, now Pizzeria Brandi, just off Piazza del Plebiscito, you can still see a letter of recognition signed by one Camillo Galli, "Head of Table Services to the Royal Household".

Neapolitans jealously guard their invention. An Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana has even been formed to codify the rules on how the true Neapolitan pizza should be made - ingredients, composition, how to twirl and stretch the dough by hand, baking time and so on - and the Gazzetta Ufficiale, the official journal of the Italian government, has designated pizza as an STG, or Specialità Tradizionale Garantita.

The trouble is that today pizza is likely the world's most eaten food not only because it's so versatile - it can be eaten with a knife and fork or with the hands, at home, at the office, on the street, at the pizzeria itself - but also because it can be reproduced anywhere. There's no limit to what you can put on top of a round of dough: ham and pineapple, caviar, egg and chips, you name it. I remember a pizzeria in Pesaro in the Marche region of Italy whose specialty was pizza alla Nutella, and that was 30 years ago. Then there's the paradox of the "all-American frozen pepperoni pizza pie" I see in the fridge cabinet at my local supermarket.

Whatever they may say, Americans didn't invent the pizza, but their promotion of it has spawned adulterated, inauthentic versions in fast-food chains across all five continents. More than a blazon of Neapolitan identity, pizza now has identity where it has no roots.

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