Pizza is always present at the frontlines of diplomacy.
Here's how Italy claimed its culinary heritage back in the era of Dominos and Pizza Hut.
BY VIOLA SERENA STEFANELLO
PICTURES BY VIOLA & SIÔN MARSHALL-WATERS
Once upon a time, in a young country shaped like an old-fashioned boot, there lived a gracious queen. She was named for a simple, delicate flower and her elegance inspired poetry and art throughout the realm. Tales of her wisdom and grace reached every corner of the land, uniting the people around a royal family that was just beginning to assert itself.
One bright day, in one sunny city in the kingdom, a cook dreamed up a strikingly simple recipe in honour of the Queen. Although Mr Esposito didn’t know it yet, his dish was destined to spread to the four corners of the world, bringing joy wherever it went. Using nothing but pure flour, the juicy tomatoes that grew in the sleepy paddocks around the city, thin slices of local mozzarella and a few fresh basil leaves, he had created the first Pizza Margherita. And everyone’s taste buds lived happily ever after.
Every Italian child is bound to hear the legend of how our national dish was first conceived. Historians have debunked this pizza myth thousands of times. But in spite of their best efforts, the story of how, Raffaele Esposito invented pizza in a small Naples pizzeria in honour of Queen Margherita di Savoia, remains a cornerstone of Italian common knowledge.
Today, the tale is more relevant than ever. The UNESCO Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage has just officially named the ancient art of Neapolitan pizza-making an intangible heritage of humanity. It seems like years of intense lobbying from different Italian ministries, as well as local associations, finally paid off.
On December 7th, the city of Naples celebrated the pizza’s new status with relish. Famous pizzuaiolis dished up free slices, locals and tourists sang together in the streets. Something that was passed on from generation to generation - and the social ritual that accompanies serving a good old pizza – was now an institution.
Italy has always loved to brag that it holds more UNESCO world heritage sites that any other country on the planet. But this wasn’t just another trophy in the cabinet: the country takes its pizza seriously. After all, its centrality to Italian identity is indisputable. So is its billion-euro contribution to the country’s economy, and the employment status of millions of Italians.
The love for pizza, though, doesn’t stop at the Italian border. The dish has conquered the world. It’s the ultimate symbol of the kind of Italian soft power that has made the country one of the most culturally influential of the world: this month there was a pizza party at the International Space Station, because an Italian astronaut said he missed pizza.
Before it took over the world, pizza was nothing but a peasant’s dish. Created with the most accessible ingredients the Mediterranean diet has to offer – even though the £15 one I once ordered in London begs to differ – pizza was indeed the best way to bring a taste of Italian cuisine, wherever immigrants made their new homes. Less than 20 years after Esposito dedicated his Margherita to the Queen, the United States’ first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, opened its doors in Manhattan.
But it wasn’t until after the Second World War that pizza truly began its rise to world domination. When tired American soldiers came back home from Europe with an appetite for the warm doughy delight they’d discovered in Southern Italy, demand for accessible pizzerias started to increase dramatically. Easy to get delivered to your front door, or to buy frozen in your closest supermarket; perfect to share with your friends and family on a cheap night out or to squeeze in during an oh-so-short lunch break, this dish simply had everything it takes to punch through to the people’s hearts. And it did.
Of course, decades later, some Americans might now have the cheek to say that the pizza culture they developed on their side of the ocean – be it Chicago deep dish, the squared Detroit style or that abomination that is Hawaiian Pizza – has long overtaken the candid simplicity of the traditional Italian recipe. But UNESCO’s recent recognition of the pizzaiuoli’s skill refocuses the attention away from Pizza Hut and Domino’s and towards an art that’s heavily interwoven with higher, millennial culture, and relies quintessentially on local produce.
Is pizza really that big of a deal, someone might be tempted to ask. Yes, they could say, it’s good comfort food, but it’s not haute cuisine. Aren’t Italians just exaggerating, as usual? Twitter accounts like “Italians mad at food”, which publishes screenshots of upset Italian users shocked by the way the rest of the world reimagines Italian recipes, might lead you to believe that, indeed, the entire country should swallow a pizza-flavoured chill pill and accept that foreigners might not share their obsession with kitchen traditions.
But as an Italian passionate about her country’s kitchen I can’t help but argue in favour of such a spirited defence for something that, at the end of the day, is nothing more than some thin, hot bread, doused with tomato sauce, some weird leaves and melted cheese.
Yes, I tremble with rage when I hear anyone calling pizza “kiddie food”, or order weird toppings for it. Put down the pineapple and shrimps, and nobody will get hurt. No, I’ve never tried deep dish – in fact, I’ve never set foot in the US – but I will pick Naples pizza over Chicago anytime. Yes, I feel at home whenever I bite into a tasty slice. No, I’m not even from Naples. This is a national affair.
Now that this disclaimer is out of the way, let me tell you why, apart from my utter infatuation with it, pizza is important enough to be safeguarded by the same organisation that protects the Taj Mahal or the Statue of Liberty.
The Intangible Heritage candidacy was supported by a petition counting over 2 million signatures from all over the world. So pizza has no shortage of popularity, but the intimate reasons behind the candidacy actually arise from complex problems, which keep political scientists and culture professionals up at night. At stake is an attempt to preserve the fragile, precious particularities that struggle for survival in today’s brutally globalised world.
It’s an issue that’s been tackled by the European Union time and time again in the past decades. Favoring local products over imported ones, creating labels to protect traditional cuisine, and assuring food quality are all just smaller pieces in the complicated puzzle that is valuing national cultures, while also building a broader, common European tradition.
Recognising the sweat on the brow of those pizza professionals who – in an age when even Italian cities have started opening up to Domino’s – keep patiently stretching the dough by hand is an act of resistance. Resistance against the lack of care and passion that lies behind standardised production. Resistance against those ignorant online users, who show up in comment sections stating that everyone knows that pizza was invented in China anyways. Resistance against the use of lower quality products for the sake of profit. Resistance against Hawaiian pizza. What the hell is Hawaiian pizza even?
Don’t get me wrong. I, too, have eaten garbage pizza in my life – both in Italy and abroad. I’ve queued up outside of sketchy kebab stands that somehow sold oily, dry slices of what they called pizza in the centre of several Italian cities, without anyone getting arrested for this crime. I’ve taken frozen ones out of the microwave without an ounce of regret. I’ve spent my first four months in Paris pretending to enjoy the €5 “Margherita” that a small pizzeria close to my university sold, even though it was clearly made out of student tears and regret. Don’t tell my parents, but I’ve entered Pizza Hut in London once. I don’t believe that everything that falls short of being the perfect Neapolitan dish should be banned from the surface of the Earth.
Still, I was filled with anticipation as the Intangible Heritage Committee, meeting in South Korea earlier this month, voted its way through the recognition of yet one more Italian excellence. Because there’s a reason why one of the Italian government’s online campaigns opened up with the stereotype of Italians as “pizza makers”. There’s a reason why pizza is one of the most recognised Italian words around the world – on the podium with espresso and spaghetti. And there’s a reason why Italian diplomats have been lobbying so hard to have the art of Neapolitan pizzaiuoli protected by one of the United Nation’s most recognised agencies.
Pizza might have travelled the seven seas; it might have landed wherever an Italian has ever dared set foot; it might have developed to suit different palates and changing appetites. But its roots still burrow in the land that was once walked by Julius Caesar and Leonardo da Vinci. And nothing tastes as good as a slice of margherita, straight from the oven.
VIOLA SERENA STEFANELLO never noticed how Italian she was until she escaped to Paris. She's been looking for some decent pizza ever since. She's not had the best of luck so far.