History of Pizza, Part One: Tracing the Origins of Pizza: From the Stone Age to the Middle Ages

With the history of pizza, you find it is a mystery with no clear starting point. We cannot start with its etymology. The word “pizza” is derived from the Latin word picea, meaning ‘the burning of bread using an oven.’ Pizzicare is Italian for pizza and means ‘to pinch or to pluck.’ The origin of pizza starts when man invented fire.

The history of pizza may start over 20,000 years ago. Archeologists discovered that cavemen combined crushed wheat germ with water and cooked this mixture on burning stones. The first pizza stone! Cavemen did not invent pizza as we know it. Who invented it? It remains a mystery, but here are some facts.

The history of pizza evolved in the Stone Age when flat bread started to take on pizza-like form. Early settlers in modern Italy topped flat bread with various ingredients. The flat pizza bread was a poor man’s substitute for a plate or utensil. Some maintain this substitution originated with the Greeks as they used a flat, round bread known as plankuntos that was baked with an assortment of toppings and then used as a plate.

The ancient Egyptians made contributions to the history of pizza making by developing both the ‘rising dough’ technique and the first ever conic-shaped oven-the first pizza oven. They used this oven invention to prepare flat bread that was garnished with herbs to celebrate their Pharaoh’s birthday. Ancient Egyptians invented the first pizza party!

The Persian Empire has a place in the history of pizza. Legend has it that Darius the Great’s army baked flat bread on metal shields and used cheese and dates as toppings. This pizza-like food nourished the armies as they conquered the world at that time.

The Roman Empire played a part in recording the history of pizza. A Roman historian, Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, described the Roman’s form of pizza as a “flat round of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey baked on stones.” Virgil referred to this food in “The Aeneid” as “cakes of flour or cakes of bread that Romans happily devoured.”

“Beneath a shady tree, the hero spread

His table on the turf, with cakes of bread;

And, with his chiefs, on forest fruits he fed.

They sate; and, (not without the god’s command,)

Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band

Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,

To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.

Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling said:

“See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

(Book VII, lines 141 – 49)

Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius’ “De Re Coquinaria” cookbook advanced the history of pizza making. Apicius described a pizzaesque food as a bread base topped with ingredients, such as, chicken, cheese, garlic, pepper, oil and mint, among others. Excavations at the site of Pompeii uncovered places with equipment used to create this pizza-like street food. Are these signs of the first pizzeria? What we know is that this pizzaesque food had been a staple in Pompeii over 1900 years ago.

A close look at the history of pizza cannot conclusively answer who invented pizza. Even today, many Chinese believe the origin of pizza starts with China’s green-onion pancake or cong you bing. Those who study the history of pizza say pizza could have evolved from China. In 1295, Marco Polo returned from China persuading a Naples chef to recreate this stuffed-pancake. Though difficult to recreate, Marco Polo advanced the history of pizza making when he suggested that the filling be placed on top not inside. This technique was wildly successful, adding to the history of pizza. Although the creation of flat bread with toppings resembles a green-onion pancake, it remains a mystery still whether the history of pizza starts with China.

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