It's been a couple of weeks since I last put up my Tomato Diary Series, and it's about time to go back there. In this edition we will take a look at the history of the tomato itself, and how it changed international cuisine. From it's humble origins in South America, most probably a plant quite similar to the tomatillo, the tomato has undergone a series of continuous hybridizations and plant selection rivaled only by corn or wheat.
Hernando Cortez is credited with bringing the tomato back to Europe. He discovered the plant growing in the gardens of Montezuma, in Mexico, and gathered some seeds. The etymology of the word tomato derives from the Aztec word Tomatl, which originally meant "swelling fruit." The Spanish called it tomate. But from the time of its introduction to Europe, the plant was eyed with suspition. A French plant taxonomist gave the plant its scientific name, Solanum lycopersicum. Solanum refers, correctly, to the plant's membership in the Nightshade family of plants, allready known for their various degrees of toxicity. Lyco comes from the Greek word for wolf, and persicum, the latin word for peach. That the tomato was given the name "wolf peach" speaks to the fear of the fruit that was common in the "Old World" for at least 150 years, maybe as many as 200, after its introduction. Even in America, the tomato didn't gain widespread acceptance as a kitchen ingredient until 2 or 3 decades into the 19th century.
The fruit was mostly shunned by people of means in Europe. We have the Italian poor to thank for embracing it as a kitchen staple, and its status as one of the essential ingredients in cooking. And then there's the pizza.
Christopher Columbus didn't bring the tomato back to Italy, but he did hail from Genoa, which is the cradle of the Italian flatbread focaccia. It's a bit ironic that today we associate Italy with finely crafted things...and a home to deign that was always meant for an upscale market. Whether it be mens suits, Italian shoes, sports cars, or espresso makers...we tend to think of Italian contributions to culture as being on the "high brow" side.
The tomato defies that stereotype.
One theory has it that people with means. as often as not, ate on pewter plates, using pewter utensiles. The acid content in tomatoes may have leached trace amonts of lead from the pewter serviceware, which contributed to its reputation for being a dangerous food to eat. The peasants of Italy ate on wooden plates, with wooden utensiles...and never had that problem. The truth is probably more close to the fact that Italian peasants were quite poor, and ate a very rudimentary and bland diet. They were derisively referred to a "leaf eaters" because they would routinely supplement their diets with greens, either grown in the garden or harvested in the wild. They ate a lot of bread. And they were both hungrier than their more well to do compatriots, and more open to experimentation. They quickly discovered that 4 or 5 happy tomato plants in a small garden produced a prodigious yield of tastey fruits. And it turned focaccia from a bland meal into a tastey one, with a little cheese melted on top. This was the precursor to the modern pizza.
For reasons lost to history, the locus of pizza making shifted from Genoa to Naples, Italy. It is from Naples that the word pizzaioli derives...the original "pizza makers."
Naples was a port city, and over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries it saw a lot of international traffic. The first pizzaioli of Naples quickly gained a reputation, both within and without Italy. Spanish soldiers and other foreign tourists to Naples quickly took to "slumming" in the poorer sections of Naples in search of unusual and tasty food. They found the precursors to pizza.
Soon, Naples became famous for its pizza, and its pizzaioli. At the time, it was strictly a street food. Vendors sold it by the slice, from morning to night, as it was seen as a meal suitable for both breakfast, lunch and dinner. Which bachelor among us can disagree? I have enjoyed many a breakfast consisting of the previous evening's leftover pizza.
But the Modern Day Pizza has a very specific birthdate. And it is surprisingly late in the game. And it also coincides with the Great Migration of poor Italian Immigrants to America. The history of food is the history of people moving from one place to another, and the cross pollination of cuisines. But make no mistake about it...Pizza is purely Italian. (Not so spaghetti and meatballs, or beefsteak milanessa...those are purely Italian American inventions).
The modern pizza was born in Naples in the year 1889, while King Umberto I reigned in Italy. His Queen consort was Margharita. Napolitano pizzaioili Raffaeli Esposito vowed to make 3 pizzas in honor of the King and Queens vacation visit to Naples. By this time, mind you, the Italian aristocracy had already discovered pizza, and many of them had special pizza ovens installed in their kitchens, manned by chef staff. Esposito created 3 pizzas to honor the Queen's visit to Naples, all of them topped with toppings that reflected the 3 colors of the Italian flag...green, red and white.
The crust was decidedly different, as well...much closer to what we now recognize pizza to be. Thinner, crisper, less breadier. The Pizza Margharite was, for all practical purposes, the bith of the modern pizza. Mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil, on a crispy crust. The Queen was pleased.
By that time there were two other movements afoot. The Industrial Revolution, and Italy's mass migration to America. As Italians swarmed to America, our own cuisine underwent a transformation. And as the Industrial Revolution paved the way for new means to preserve and commercially can food, another Italian contribution to world cuisine was given birth to: tomato sauce, and tomato paste.
The Italians had long cooked tomatoes down to their essence much before Americans or others did. They used to make a sort of cake out of dried tomatoes that was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It was the essence of tomato sauce. When they immigrated to America, they discovered that Americans, too, had industrialized the canning of tomatoes. I chronicle it in my Tomato Diary, Pt II: New Jersey Shores Edition:
But America's tomato entrepreneurs canned whole tomatoes, mostly, in their own juices. They were a watery lot. Italian immigrants weren't used to them, and didn't recognize the varieties, and were used to a more substantial, thicker product. They mostly purchased imported canned tomatoes from their home country, giving rise to the Italian grocer.
Here in America, the birth of pizza occured in, where else? New York City. The year was 1905, and the man was Gennaro Lombardi. Gennarro purchased a grocery store from the older Italian who had employed him there, and added a pizza oven. In keeping with the Napolitano tradition of pizza being a food suitable for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it was open from 7:00 AM until night. Also in keeping with the original tradition of pizza being a street food, meant to snack upon, as opposed to make a meal upon, he sold it by the slice.
Gennaro didn't have a wood fired oven to turn out his pizzas in NYc...it was coal fired. But it proudly proclaimed itself a a Napolitano pizzeria. And they quickly caught on. In fact, there is a whole genealogy of New York pizza joints that can trace their roots back to the original Lombardi's pizzeria. Allumni came and went through it's kitchens, and moved on to open their own pizza establishments. Many of them are still alive and kicking, and thriving, to this day. You might have to be a New Yorker to recognize these names, but here they are:
Tottonos, opened in Coney Island in 1924, by a former pizza chef at Lombardi's. It's still open today.
Patsy's, opened by Patsy Lancieri, was also a Lombardi's alumnus. She had a nephew whose last name was Grimaldi, who established Grimaldi's Pizza under the Brooklyn Bridge. It's still there, and they have 3 more locations.
John Sasso opened "John's" on Bleeker Street. It's still there.
Lombardis launched pizza in New York, and their original store on Spring Street in Manhattan sort of fell in on itself. They reopened later, still on Spring Street, and his descendants carry on the pizza tradition.
Further West, in Chicago, pizza has a different history...coming, from all places, Texas. One can imagine the possible commercial...a knock off of the famous Pace Picante Sauce commercial with a bunch of New Yorkers sitting around a table in Central Park...instead, they are eating pizza.
"Where's this pizza from?" one of them asks.
"It was made by a Texan", one of them says...wheripun they all spit the pizza out and exclaim "San Antonio!!!??? String 'em up."
Chicago came by pizza by another Italian immigrant, who sold it door to door on the street, much like in Naples. He would walk the neighborhoods with precooked pizzas nested in a wash barrel, stacked one on top of the other. He sold them for 2 cents per "bite", whatever a bite was at that time. But true to it's roots, it was a street food.
It wasn't until the 40's that deep dish, Chicago style pizza was born. And it was the brainchild of a Texan by the name of Ike Shelton. He came up with the idea of pizza not being a snack, meant to be eaten one slice at a time, but rather a meal. Thick, crusty, bready, meaty, cheesey, you name it. It was almost a casserole. And his first restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, opened only in 1943. It quickly caught on, and like Lombardis in NYC, it saw several alumni go through its kitchen that went on to open pizzerias of their own, spreading the style throughout the city.
Actually, as ubiquitous as pizza is today, it's not a very old food. And its popularity here in the US didn't really catch fire until after WWII, when a lot of GI's who had been stationed in Genoa, Italy, came home with a hankering for the tomato pie. Prior to that, it was mostly an ethnic thing, except for cities like New York and Chicago, which had large Italian immigrant populations. People in Muncie, Indiana, weren't largely sold upon pizza until the middle of the 20th century.
Pizza Hut opened its first restaurant in the 1950's (in Kansas). It is also the only pizza chain to deliver pizza to our astronaughts in the international space station.
But whatever your idea of great pizza is, it comes from Naples, Italy. It was brought here by Italian immigrants. It was adopted to local tastes. And it depended upon tomato sauce...which the Italians pretty much invented.
By the way...spaghetti and meat balls? What would any family style Italian restaurant be without that dish? It was invented here in the US. Italian butchers were selling aged beef, which the immigrants were accustombed to, but Anglo Americans not so much. As the beef began to show signs of getting a bit old, the Italian butchers would grind it up into ground beef, which was not a commonly found offering at butcher shops of the time.
Italian Americans came up with meatballs in tomato sauce, as a topping for pasta, which became an immediate hit. Had you travelled back to Italy at the time, you wouldn't have found spaghetti and meatballs on the menu of any restaurant.
So there you have it...Tomato Diaries PT III. Aren't you hungry for pizza now?