Pizza in Naples is almost as holy as the pope in the Vatican. So when Italian food historian Giuseppe Nocca found out that the first reference of the world famous dish wasn’t used in Naples but in Gaeta, the world was shocked. We had the chance to ask him about his discovery and the pizza-culture in Italy, so we did.
Last year your discovery was big news. Even international newspapers picked it up. Can you tell us something about the research you did?
“I owned a copy of the document where I found the word ‘pizze’ used in Gaeta since the eighties. My interest in the origins of pizza arose in order to connect the old documents and the nutritional strategies of the past. Behind the words and the documents the people in ancient communities choose the ingredients that satisfy their nutritional needs. The food must balance the nutritional needs. The “pizza” word has a root in a double letter: “p” and “z”, but the “z” is a mix of a dental letter, as “t”, or “d” and the “s”. Along the Italian boot we can eat a ‘piada’, a ‘piadina’, a ‘pittula’, a ‘pinsa’ or a ‘pitta’. They are all flat doughs, very similar to ‘pizza’, but without tomato.”
Was it your goal to find the origins of the pizza?
“The discovery was not by chance, but it’s an outcome of a longtime research about the origin of the Italian food.”
Are there any references to what the first pizza’s looked like and what ingredients they used?
“In my book I did an overview about the ingredients required for original flat bread; in the Iron Age the flat loaf was made out of the proso millet flour, cooked on hot stone. The cereal’s proteins, gluten free, gelled with the fire. After the introduction of the einkorn flour, the protein net was made rolling out the water and the flour often mixed with milk. In the Renaissance the text of Scappi, the pope’s chef, tells us about a sweet ‘pizza’, made with sugar. So an important Italian writer in the XIX century confirms the pizza as being sweet. This means that the words often don’t change but the meaning or the substance can over long periods of time.”
I’ve read that tomatoes weren’t around in 997 AD. Nowadays you can’t imagine pizza without tomato sauce. When and how did the modern pizza, as we know it, originate?
“The official date of the modern pizza with tomato sauce is the last decade of the nineteenth century when Italy’s queen, Margherita, visited Naples and a handicraftsman (Pasquale Esposito, following an official tradition) planned to create a food with the colors of the new united kingdom: red from the tomatoes, green from the basil and the white from the water buffalo fresh cheese (mozzarella).”
Italian people take a lot of pride in their cooking and their dishes. What does the pizza mean to Italian people?
“The pizza firstly is the symbol of Naples and secondly of Southern Italy. This symbol is linked to the long migration from Italians to places all over the world. All the people who migrated saved something of their own tradition, but the symbol was an inner symbol. Forty years ago the first pizza shop was opened in Milan and it has been closed a few years after. So this symbol is shared today but it’s a recent symbol.” – Story continues below.
The Napolitano are very proud, from what I understand, about the fact that pizza originated there, before your discovery. What kind of reaction did your findings cause in Naples?
“Any reaction arose because the document written in Gaeta we have an evidence of the word’s outset; the recipe and the ingredients are an evolution. But there wasn’t any kind of negative backlash, because Gaeta was historically part of the Naples kingdom. ”
The news even made international newspapers. What kind of responses did you receive personally after your findings?
“Not one, because the Italian academic world already knew this information. The rest of the world I think felt stunned.”
Does your discovery have any kind of consequences for the way we look at pizzas now?
“The word ‘pizza’ is a symbol of the globalization, like sushi, and I think the new horizon is the ‘street food’ and the pizza was and is the forerunner. This is the start of its success. The world is all mobile and the pizza is a fast food, but healthy and nutrient, if you use the original ingredients.
Nowadays pizza is one of the most popular foods in the world. Why do you think pizza is so beloved worldwide?
Few people can afford ‘slow food’, because restaurants are often expensive. The pizza was born as a ‘street food’. It’s not expensive and quick to eat, so it became a symbol of a running civilization.”
What do you think of pizza chains who exploit the pizza concept and make ridiculous topping combinations like ‘shoarma pizza’ or pizza with sausage in the crust?
“In globalization words are often empty boxes. It’s just a word that you can give any meaning you want. For me a dish is meant to represent a past, thinking about a different life or an ancestral taste, but I can imagine many people could eat pizza only following a ‘trend’ or because it sounds Italian.
What makes an original Italian pizza better than copies from other countries? (Take note Dominos.)
“The ‘Italian sounding’ name leads ‘pizza’ lovers to eat all ordinary pizzas. In Italy we’re aware that the olives must come from Gaeta, the “mozzarella” must be made of water buffalo cheese, etcetera. That’s what makes it better.”
About Giuseppe Nocca:
Nocca started his long career as an agriculture teacher and consultant for farmers. Later he started teaching nutrition in a vocational tourism school. He always has had a passion for the ‘classical written word’. That’s no coincidence, since he is from a town called Formia, ‘not so far from Gaeta, both lie in the first region of the roman conquest, along the old Appian way, the first way eastward’. He lived near the Cicerone tomb and nowadays he lives close to Mamurra’ villa. Mamurra was Cesar’s sponsor in conquest of Gallia. “My first breathe in the morning is the history”, he says.
In the last twenty years in Italy a renewed interest arose about their food and the origins and the roots of their civilization, because big firms branded Italian foods worldwide. That motivated Giuseppe to get to the roots of the famous Italian dishes.
Giuseppe Nocca: “At the moment I’m intrigued by the old food. Modern food like spaghetti or meat balls are the result of an evolution. It’s development is slow and constant, derived from the old recipes created by our ancestors. They used the food to survive and had to exploit the food sources in their environment. Step by step I’m discovering old cooking methods and old recipes giving new flavors their taste. All historical research coming from Italy will be an important key to understand and break down the European traditions.”