Italian cuisine is one of the most popular on the face of the planet. It’s everywhere. Chances are, if you live in an urban area in the western world, you’re no more than a few minutes' drive from a restaurant or takeaway that serves up some form of Italian food. Traditional dishes often involve no more than four to eight ingredients, and chefs focus more on the quality of ingredients and preparation than complexity of the recipe. Olive oil, pasta, tomatoes, garlic, parmesan, basil, pesto, mascarpone, mozzarella – the list of seminal Italian ingredients is long, so here’s a (brief) history of two of Italy’s culinary heavyweights.
Pizza – which is thought to have got its name from the Latin word “pinsa” (flatbread) - has a long and somewhat hazy history. It has been suggested that Roman soldiers tasted Jewish Matzo (unleavened bread) while stationed in Roman occupied Palestine and, upon returning home, developed their own version. By the middle ages, pizza had become popular among peasants, who would top the bread with basic ingredients such as olive oil and herbs.
When mozzarella and tomatoes entered Italian cuisine (by the 18th century), the modern pizza was born. Tomatoes had made their way to Italy by around 1530, but natives initially thought the fruit was poisonous. It took some plucky peasants to use these new, “deadly” fruits in their food and, if you’ll excuse the cliché, the rest is history.
The Margherita pizza was conceived in Naples in 1889. When Queen Margherita visited the Pizzeria Brandi, the Pizzaioli (pizza chef) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito, took it upon himself to create a pizza that resembled the Italian flag. And so the simplistic tomato, mozzarella and basil pizza was born. Authentic Italian pizza is always thin and cooked in a wood oven, and fresh, local ingredients are of the utmost importance. You can’t argue with that.
It’s almost impossible to pin down the origins of pasta (which translates to “paste” in Italian – a reference to the dough). It’s thought that in spite of it now being a global Italian success story, pasta as we know it is actually a descendent of Chinese Shang Dynasty noodles (gasp). Marco Polo was later said to have introduced some kind of noodle to Italy in the 13th century on a return trip from China, but archaeological evidence suggests some form of pasta existed in Italy from as early as the fourth century BC.
Wherever it came from, Italian pasta must be made from ground durum wheat – that’s what sets it apart from other noodle-like dishes from around the world. Originally eaten plain by peasants (who would eat it with their hands), the addition of tomato sauce was seen as revolutionary, and the reason why utensils became necessary.
Dried pasta’s long shelf-life saw the food surge in popularity between the 14th and 15th century, and made it the ideal choice to take on ships during exploration voyages into the New World, which is how the food is thought to have been introduced into other countries. In a 2011 survey conducted by Oxfam, pasta took the crown as the world’s most popular food due to it being inexpensive and versatile. You can’t argue with that either.