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All About Food: Pizza from ancient to modern times

For those of you who don’t keep track of these important milestones, January was National Pizza Month and Feb. 9 is International Pizza Day. So, put these on your calendar for next year before you forget again. Americans eat an average of 18 acres of pizza every day and spend about $32 billion a year indulging this pleasure. The average American consumes 23 pounds of pizza per year. Pepperoni and cheese is the most popular combination and pizza’s second only to the hamburger as this continent’s favorite food.

Although most of us think of pizza as Italian, its origins are most likely in Greece. As far as 8000 B.C.E., men knew how to mix flour with water into dough, season it with herbs and heat it on a hot stone to create a flat bread. The earliest cheese making began about 5500 B.C. but tomatoes didn’t appear on the scene until the Conquistadors brought them to Europe from the New World.

Food historians credit the Greeks with the idea of using a flat bread as a plate for an assortment of toppings. It might be called the first true convenience food. With the constant traffic between the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, these flatbreads made their way to what is now known as Italy, where they became known as pizza. The word was probably derived from the Latin word “pinsa," which means “flatbread."

Pizza became a popular street food, not topped with anything, just eaten au natural. Typically young boys would walk around the city with small tin stoves on their heads, hawking their wares. The next step was brushing them with olive oil and fresh herbs and occasionally some cheese was added. But the big leap that turned into what we know as pizza was the introduction of the tomato in the 16th century.

At first thought to be poisonous, it was used as a decorative houseplant. Then during a famine in the 18th century, poor people who were starving took a chance and ate it. Thus, a new delicious foodstuff was found. Also, cheese known as mozzarella, made from the milk of the water buffalo who grazed on the pastures of Campania, was limited to a regional specialty due to its perishable nature.

The story goes that in Naples about 1889, Queen Margherita took an inspection tour of her Italian kingdom and saw many people, especially peasants, eating this large flatbread. Curious, she ordered her guards to obtain one for her and she fell in love with it. She would eat it every time she was out among the people, which caused some consternation in court circles for it was not seemly for a queen to dine on peasant’s food.

Nevertheless, she summoned Rafaelle Esposito from his pizzeria to the royal palace to bake a selection of these delicious doughy treats. He invented a special one for her topped with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, which represented the colors of the Italian flag (red, white and green). It instantly became her favorite and started a culinary tradition, the pizza Margherita, which lasts to this very day in Naples and has spread around the world.

About this time, the idea of baking the pizza in special brick ovens also came into existence and variations in the toppings began to appear in different parts of the country; for example, the Bolognese added meat.

It wasn’t until after World War II that this marvelous manna became popular in United States and Western Europe. Soldiers occupying Italian territories tasted it for the first time and were hooked. They came home to seek out the unfamiliar Italian neighborhoods that had been preparing this saucy delight for generations.

Pizza today, especially since the advent of Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck in 1982, is as varied as there are ingredients to top it, ranging from Puck’s smoked salmon pizza with crème fraiche to Canadian bacon and pineapple.

Laguna offers a variety of styles from traditional Neapolitan (New York style), Chicago deep dish, gourmet flatbread, thin crust, whole-grain crust and gluten-free crust. Toppings abound.

Romeo Cucina has the most authentically Italian pizza in town with a real wood-burning brick oven. They serve a classic Margherita that the queen would surely love and a meat-loaded pizza with pepperoni, salami and sausage called al gusto forte. On the other hand, keeping up with contemporary trends, they have a vegetarian with a mélange of vegetables (and mozzarella on request) and a pollo orientale with grilled chicken, tomato mozzarella and teriyaki sauce.

Gina’s began serving very traditional style pizzas but keeps expanding their menu with flatbreads; for example, one topped with pancetta and sweet potatoes and now they also offer a whole-grain crust.

BJ’s serves Chicago style pizza, a deep dish bowl-like pie filled with lots of “stuff." Their most popular has meatballs, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives, white onions, seasoned tomatoes and cheese. This is not a pizza for wimps. They also have calzones "” a pizza turnover. The traditional is filled with ricotta, mozzarella and marinara sauce, topped with Parmesan and served with extra marinara sauce.

The most inventive pizzeria in town has always been Zpizza. In addition to the Italian American standards like pepperoni, their creations include: Thai, Greek, Mexican, vegan, Santa Fe and Casablanca to name a few. The Santa Fe has chipotle pesto, mozzarella, chicken sausage, corn, Serrano chilies, red onion tomatoes and cilantro. Their pizza Rusticas feature a thinner free form crust with toppings like pear and Gorgonzola or curried chicken, yam and mango chutney. Their newest innovation is a gluten-free crust with vegan cheese. This could be the healthiest pizza in all of Orange County.

We know that you don’t need a special designated month or an internationally ordained day of observance to partake of the holy pie. In fact, judging by the statistics we quoted above, it would seem that every day is pizza day in America. Bon appetit!



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