The Uncertain History of Pizza & The Most Unique Way to Slice It
Our exclusive Curiosity Box pizza cutter is one of a kind (by definition, really); the blade features the famous Voyager Golden Record, mounted on a handle shaped like the Titan IIIE rocket that launched it into interstellar space! The Golden Record has been the subject of several of our most popular Curiosity Box objects, the Voyager t-shirt and Golden Record pin. We’ve included some cool facts about the record and the rocket inside the box holding your cutter…but what about PIZZA?
It turns out the history of both pizza and pizza cutters is fraught with mystery and controversy. Even the ancient origins of pizza are hotly debated: was it China? Lebanon? 3rd and Broadway in New York City? There’s a passage in Virgil’s 2,000 year-old poem the Aenid that sounds kind of familiar:
Aeneas and his chiefs,
with fair Iulus, under spreading boughs
of one great tree made resting-place, and set
the banquet on. Thin loaves of altar-bread
along the sward to bear their meats were laid
(such was the will of Jove), and wilding fruits
rose heaping high, with Ceres' gift below.
Soon, all things else devoured, their hunger turned
to taste the scanty bread, which they attacked
with tooth and nail audacious, and consumed
both round and square of that predestined leaven.
“Look, how we eat our tables even!” cried Iulus, in a jest.
That Iulus! What a kidder! But seriously, 2,000 years ago we’ve got meat (and
possibly fruit) eaten on large, round, flat bread. Is that it? Part of the debate centers around what you consider to be a pizza. Even Aeneas, son
of Aphrodite, was still missing one essential ingredient to make a modern pizza: tomatoes. But he couldn’t help it, since Aeneas was in ancient Italy, and tomatoes originated in South America; meaning we had to wait for Renaissance-era European contact to bring the perfect trifecta of cheese, bread, and tomatoes together. And that particular combination does have a known place of origin: Naples, Italy.
Now, 16th century Naples, like many places, had a proto-pizza, consisting of flatbread with cheese or olive oil on top, sometimes spruced up with vegetables. Like all great street cuisine, it was a poor-person’s food, cheap to make and enjoy. It’s not clear when tomatoes appeared on the scene; a lot of places online say 1522, but there doesn’t seem to be any reliable source for that date. And in fact, for centuries after they were brought to Europe, tomatoes–known as “poison apples”–were considered deadly. Surprisingly, this is partly because they were. Sort of.
Aristocrats of the era often ate from plates made of pewter, and the acidic juice of the tomato would leech lead from the pewter, giving those who routinely ate off them severe cases of lead poisoning.
But the real culprit for the tomato’s underserved fatal reputation appears to be
several books on herbs and plants written during the period that claimed they were toxic; especially ones published in England. As a result, while people avoided them for hundreds of years in Britain, the American colonies, and northern Europe, in southern Europe they were eaten with relish, which brings us back to Italy.
Naples had a large working-poor population. Their pizza, translated as “pie” in
Italian, was a flatbread with cheese and olive oil, and sometimes vegetables, and was a popular, cheap, and quick food for these people. It’s not known when the first tomatoes were added, but we do know that by 1830, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the first known restaurant that offered only pizza, opened it’s doors. And it’s still there. If you’re itching to take your Golden Record pizza cutter on a little trip, the last menu of theirs that we saw had pizza pies available for a wallet-friendly 4-8 euros–minus travel costs, of course. And as a bonus cool fact, their ovens are lined with rocks from Mt. Vesuvius! Don’t tell your friends in Pompeii.
So at some point after 1522, tomatoes were first imported from Peru and it was in Naples that pizza makers started adding tomato sauce to the pizza. Being a port city, sailors and merchants spread word about pizza throughout Europe. But that’s generally speaking. The first time we know for sure that bread, tomatoes, and cheese came together in our modern pizza was 1889, when chef Raphael Esposito was commissioned to make special pizzas for the visit of Queen Margherita. He came up with a new dish in the colors of the Italian flag–white, green, and red–tomato, mozzarella, and basil, and the Margherita pizza was born!
The history of pizza cutters and who invented them is also filled with mystery, but we’ll save that for a future box. In the meantime, please enjoy your favorite pizza with the world’s most unique tool for slicing it! And for some fascinating insight into the mathematics of cutting pizza, check out Kevin’s amazing video on the Pizza Theorem over on Vsauce2.