The Pizza Effect: Naples to Manhattan & Back

Garibaldi departing on the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860The Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed on March 17, 1861, although linguistic and economic characteristics differed from one region to another. When in that same year statesman Massimo d’Azeglio published his memoirs, he began his narrative with a warning: “Pur troppo s’è fatta l’Italia, ma non si fanno gl’Italiani” (Unfortunately, Italy was created, but Italians are not being created).

The country might have become a political entity, but its population was far from cohesive. Not rooted in ancestry, national identity was a political and socio-cultural construction.

In 1911, Italians celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of unification (Cinquantenario). Marked by expositions in Turin, Florence and Rome, the festivities aimed at showing the world that a vigorous young nation was ready to join the Great Powers of Europe. The jubilee aspired to embrace modernity by challenging stereotypes of backwardness and indolence.

At the same time, organizers paid tribute to seventeenth century architecture. Baroque was presented as the peninsula’s first genuine national style and therefore proof of a cultural sense of self that anticipated political unity.

Tension between Italy’s fragmented past and its centralized present was a feature of identity formation. Food traditions were part of a troublesome process that was further complicated by the input of Italian-Americans.

Sprig of a tomato plant from an album of medicinal plants, Rome ca 1610 (Royal Collection Trust)Belly of Naples

Soon after Christopher Columbus completed his first voyage to the Americas, crops were taken to the port of Seville and presented to the Royal Iberian gardens. Seeds of maize, marigold and chili peppers attracted the interest of European scholars – and so did the tomato. Spanish colonizers reported that the Aztecs cultivated the fruit in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors.

The Kingdom of Naples was a vital part of the Spanish global Empire which spanned from South and Central America to the Philippines. Many Neapolitans served on ships sailing under Portuguese and Spanish flags. It did not take long for the tomato to reach its local gardens. Tomatoes or “pomi d’oro” (golden apples) were studied by botanists in the 1540s.

Naples in the late seventeenth century was one of Europe’s most populous cities (with three million inhabitants in 1600) and a center of architecture, art and music pulling visitors from far and wide. Mount Vesuvius added a thrill to those who had traveled to see the city.

The quality of its cuisine was another attraction. The San Marzano tomato came to symbolize local cooking and the Mediterranean diet. Campania’s potassium-rich volcanic soil was perfect for the fruit’s cultivation.

Antonio Latini was a self-made man who had started his career in the household of Cardinal Antonio Barberini in Rome, before settling in Naples in 1682 to become steward to Don Stefano Carillo Salcedo, first minister to the Spanish Viceroy. In this role he was responsible for the management of all staff, provisions, meals and entertainments.

In 1692/4 he published a cookbook in two volumes entitled Lo scalco alla moderna (The Modern Steward). It was the last great book of Italian Renaissance and Baroque cuisine, a flamboyant tradition that had dominated elite European dining. The French style of cooking was beginning to emerge.

At the same time Latini looked forward. With a keen interest in local ingredients, he closely inspected the region and listed specialties such as oil, olives, vegetables and fruits. He was the first author to publish recipes using tomatoes and chili peppers. The American tomato was about to conquer Naples.

Following unification, Naples lost its leading position and suffered serious economic decline. Street vendors began selling pizzas in the poorest parts of the city. As Matilde Serao observed in Il ventre di Napoli (The Belly of Naples, written in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic of September 1884) large sections of the population lived on the street.

They survived on flatbread, fritters of cabbage stalk, fragments of anchovy, or boiled chestnuts. Street fare was the only way of procuring a meal.

One of the earliest accounts of “lazzaroni” (poor people) consuming pizza was recorded by French novelist Alexandre Dumas during a visit to Naples in 1835. Street vendors baked pies in wood-fired ovens and kept them warm in tin “stoves” which they balanced on their head.

Judgmental Italians treated the pie with disgust. Carlo Collodi, son of a Florentine chef and author of Pinocchio, referred to it as a “patchwork of greasy filth.” Pizza was associated with poverty, malnutrition and disease.

Cooking & Politics

Lombardy-born chef and author Bartolomeo Scappi made his career at the Vatican. In 1570, he published his monumental Opera dell’arte del cucinare, listing about 1,000 recipes of Renaissance cuisine which included a “pizza alla Napoletana,” described as a baked dessert pie stuffed with almond custard.

Three centuries later the same dish featured in a cookbook that has been hailed as an iconic contribution to culinary history.

Third corrected edition of Artusi’s La scienza in cucinaPublished in Florence in 1891, Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) was the first attempt at creating a comprehensive Italian cookbook.

Unable to find a publisher, he printed the first 1,000 copies at his own expense. The original volume contained 475 recipes which had grown to 790 by the fourteenth edition (published in 1911, the year of the author’s death). Since then the book has never been out of print.

Pizza alla napoletana (dessert) according to Pellegrino ArtusiRecipe 609 in the collection is a “pizza alla Napoletana,” presented as a shortcrust filled with a cream of ricotta, almonds and lemon peel (Artusi included two more “pizze,” both of them desserts).

Living in Florence, Pellegrino was a prosperous silk merchant with literary ambitions and a passion for food. A taste traveler, he had enjoyed all Tuscan delicacies, macaroni in Naples, saltimbocca in Rome and risotto in Milan.

Recreating these dishes at home, supported by his assistants Marietta Sabatini and Francesco Ruffilli, he transcribed them in the form of recipes. Artusi was a gourmet, not a chef. A noted host and raconteur, his flowing narrative is a mixture of directions interspersed with anecdotes and asides. But his book was more than just an entertaining manual.

The author had been a member of Giuseppe Mazzini’s “La Giovine Italia” (Young Italy). He would have been aware of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s statement that the force of macaroni would unite Italy as it reflected the rich variety of its culture.

Artusi’s cookbook was a political document. He argued that presenting gastronomic delights in a common language would benefit unification. An inclusive society embraces regional practices and values difference. Sharing a table bridges cultural divides. Food is a unifier.

1989 commemorative plaque in Naples marking the 100th anniversary of pizza Margherita.Not only did Artusi turn against the ingrained Italian habit of speaking in dialect, he also attacked the French dominated terminology of “haute cuisine.”

When lexicographer Alfredo Panzini published his Dizionario moderno delle parole che non si trovano nei dizionari comuni (A Modern Dictionary of Words Not Found in Ordinary Dictionaries’) in 1905, he praised the author for his determination to create a vocabulary free of Gallicisms. Artusi became the nation’s food ambassador.

In 1889, at the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples, Raffaele Esposito was said to have baked a pie with a topping of basil, mozzarella and tomato representing the nation’s flag. He named his creation “pizza Margherita” in honor of Margherita of Savoy, wife of King Umberto I. The story was an invention.

Pizza as we know it today did not exist at the time. Its “modern” definition first appeared in an Italian dictionary in 1905.

Naples to Manhattan

Thomas Jefferson served as US Minister to France from 1785 to 1789 and during his stay he developed a passion for Mediterranean cuisine. He studied farming techniques, researched cooking utensils, and had his own chef trained in the French culinary arts.

Thomas Jefferson description and sketch of a macaroni machine (Library of Congress)In 1787 he wrote a short treatise on the delight of Neapolitan pasta and produced a sketch of a “maccaroni” (a generic term for pasta) machine, a version of which he later shipped back to Monticello.

Once installed as President, he served such delicacies as ice cream or peach flambé to his dinner guests, but also surprised them with a plate of macaroni and cheese at a time that the American diet was dominated by heavy English-style boiled, baked or stewed meats. It would take several decades before Italian food became embedded in American culture.

During the late nineteenth century, peasants and the urban poor in the Italian South suffered severe hardship and food insecurity. They survived on stale bread and soup. Wholesome food was mainly memory.

Italians left in droves, arriving in America through Ellis Island. In spite of long hours of hard labor and living in squalid quarters, families were able to afford flour, eggs and meat. Olive oil, pasta and cheese were imported from Italy itself or via the Italian diaspora in Argentina.

The stereotypical Italian-American red sauce cuisine was a fusion of ‘rich’ ingredients (cheese, meat and fish) and tomatoes, whilst retaining the simplicity that characterized Neapolitan or Sicilian meals.

Until the 1960s few Italian-American cookbooks were published as recipes were passed down orally. Neapolitans had come to work in factories, not to make culinary statements.

Gennaro Lombardi arrived in New York from Naples in 1897 and started a small grocery story in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Located at 32 Spring Street, he began selling slices of Neapolitan “tomato pies” wrapped in paper to local laborers.

In 1905 he was licensed by the New York City government to make and sell pizzas. Named Lombardi’s, the business thrived. Tenor Enrico Caruso, himself born and raised in Naples, was a client.

Adapting to new conditions, New York-style pies were baked in coal rather than wood-fired ovens. The hand-tossed thin crust was topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. Neapolitan poor man’s pie made an appeal as it corresponded to the American pace of life. It became New York’s fast food icon.

Always keen to identify a starting point in time, historians have nominated Lombardi as pizza’s “Founding Father.” Inevitably, the suggestion has been challenged. The idea that in the midst of an influx of immigrants there would be a single pioneer is unlikely.

Pizza slices were produced before Lombardi had settled in Manhattan. Filippo Milone was an immigrant who had arrived in New York in the early 1890s and he apparently ran a successful pizza business in the city. There would have been others.

Pizza Effect

Artusi’s personal bias was towards the cooking of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. Other regions were represented with few dishes, whilst some parts such as Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Basilicata or Calabria are not mentioned at all. These omissions highlight the limitations of our notion of a “national cuisine.”

Dishes such as German “sauerkraut,” Hungarian “goulash” or Ukrainian “borshch” have become a means of ethnic identification, both positively and negatively. The Racial Slur Database lists hundreds of insults based on what people eat.

Pizza Hut opens its 11,000th international restaurant in Dubai in 2019Once the economic concept of World Fairs had taken root, nations created pavilions to present themselves to the outside world. Authenticity was staged;
tradition invented; cooking standardized. Tourism contributed to the process of simplification. National cuisine became a stereotype.

The pizza boom started after the Second World War. Most new outlets were owned by independent operators of various nationalities. The simple Neapolitan pie was turned into a New York, Chicago or Detroit-style pizza with mozzarella, tomatoes and a variety of “gourmet” toppings. The pizza habit
spread quickly to workers on their lunch hour and families looking for an affordable meal out.

The American pizza-scape changed with the proliferation of chains. Pizza Hut made a successful start in Kansas in 1958 and was followed in rapid succession by a range of others (Little Caesar’s in 1959 and Domino’s in 1960, both in Michigan). Pizza became a commodity and a lesson. By sharing slices,
its consumption promotes cooperation. As a metaphor, pizza has entered the domain of politics and enterprise.

The “Pizza Meter” is a theory that postulates that an uptick in takeaway orders in Washington, DC, signals international conflict. The delivery record of Domino’s pizzas at the CIA offices occurred on August 1, 1990, the day before Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The rush may have inspired Jeff Bezos when, four years later, he founded Amazon from his garage in Bellevue, Washington. To achieve maximum efficiency, he divided the company into groupings and introduced the “Two Pizza Rule,” stipulating that every internal team should be small enough to subsist on two pizzas.

Such was its popular impact that Yankee pizzas invaded Europe. Pizza may have been invented in Naples as cheap food consumed by the poor, it remained unknown outside the region until migrants arrived in Manhattan.

After the Second World War many Italian-Americans traveled to Europe to reconnect with their ancestors and make a pilgrimage to the “home” of pizza. In Naples, they were served their familiar Americanized versions.

In a globalized world, cultures tend to influence each other in a loop. Elements of a national or regional culture are embraced elsewhere, transformed, and then re-exported to their domain of origin. Sociologists have named this phenomenon the “Pizza Effect.”

Read more about New York’s culinary history.

Illustrations, from above: Garibaldi departing on the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860; Sprig of a tomato plant from an album of medicinal plants, Rome ca 1610 (Royal Collection Trust); Third corrected edition of Artusi’s La scienza in cucina; Pizza alla napoletana (dessert) according to Pellegrino Artusi; 1989 commemorative plaque in Naples marking the 100th anniversary of pizza Margherita; Thomas Jefferson description and sketch of a macaroni machine (Library of Congress); and Pizza Hut opens its 11,000th international restaurant in Dubai in 2019.

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