Monday, March 01, 2010

What's a pizza mean?


Pizza has been a dominant theme of late at Jamfaced HQ. A recent trip to Franco Manca in Brixton Market resulted in a frankly garbled post on how authentic the experience had been. Last week's trip to Pizza Metro Pizza on Battersea Rise revisited the notion of a perfectly authentic pizza experience in London. The meals have served as culinary bookends to a little personal journey of discovery regarding this most popular of global fast foods. That fact, that pizza is the planet's favourite junk food is at odds with most of its modern history and its story is a lovely illustration of the fact that we love a creation myth with our dinner.

Pick up a rock, better still, an amphora or handy urn and throw it in the general direction of the Mediterranean and chances are you'll bounce it off the head of a culture that ate something akin to pizza in its ancient history. From the Middle East to North Africa and Greece into the Roman Empire via the Etruscans and onto the Persians and Turks we've been happily topping fast cooked leavened bread with all manner of cheeses, herbs and meats for a couple of thousand years and calling it something a bit like pizza, pide, pitta, petta or pizzette. Do any sort of reading around the subject and pretty much everyone in Europe say they invented it. Even the Scots. However, it's safe to say that pizza in its modern form is from Naples and like so much in Italian life is a result of urban poverty, dodgy politics and the Italians unique capacity for divisiveness.

Italians are, as far as I can tell, the most fastidious eaters in the world. The slightest infraction of any one of a myriad of gastronomic rules results in a crinkled nose and palpable disgust. Of course, the irony is that no two Italians would ever agree on what those rules were. Italy is only a real place when viewed from afar. It took mass immigration to the US to truly define what Italy meant. Nobody back on the peninsula seems to have taken the Risorgimento and unification of the country as anything other than another way of gathering taxes until Italians in the US started telling them otherwise. It comes as no surprise then that for most of pizzas history in the overcrowded, cholera ridden Naples of its birth it was viewed with snobbish disgust as food only fit for the poorest of the poor, people too poor even to eat macaroni. Even the hoary old tale of how the Margherita pizza won its name in an aristocratic version of Masterchef has been spun. The actual letter from the palace on display at the Pizzeria Brandi detailing how the pizza was "found to be delicious" is from some powdered kitchen flunkey, not Queen Margherita and reeks of a sneering derision.

How did it conquer the world? The story goes that homeward bound GI's having fought in Italy brought back a love of the pizza pie and sought out pizzerias amongst the large immigrant Italian communities. London's first restaurant with a pizza on the menu seems to have been Olivelli's on Store Street which opened in 1934. I'd be interested if anyone can confirm this web gleaned fact or offer an alternative. The sole pizza Margherita on the menu may well represent the first time a pizza was eaten in a fashionable London restaurant, though I don't imagine that people weren't selling it and eating it amongst the 10,000 Italians living and working in London at the time.

Pizza is city food. It was codified in a city, transported toother cities where it spread and evolved and it's in cities that it has found its truest expression. Fast, portable food that can be shared. The Italian's, in their way, have codified it further, tried to capture what a pizza means through a protected designation and hoops to jump through for the sake of authenticity. Whilst  it's good to know that they are looking to preserve something that was once so maligned, it's all a bit silly and the result often not what any sane person would think of as a pizza; sloppy, charred and thin. Tasty, but a struggle to eat quickly enough. I for one think pizza has found its spiritual home in the big cities of the East Coast, particularly in the five boroughs. I can't really think of anywhere else in the world that pizza makes so much sense.

Creation myths are important for religions, superheroes and dishes. Like all myths they tell us a great deal about how we would like to see the universe. The stories behind food often tell us more about our own aspirations and hopes than the truth of their origins. Pizza, the most urban of meals harks to something more bucolic; freshly baked bread, tomatoes off the vine and freshly made cheese, a channelling of a olive groves and lemon trees, of soft summer sun and sun flowers waving in the breeze.