By Malu Lambert
Pizza is the most globalised dish on the planet. Americans are said to gobble 350 slices a second, and no matter where in the world you find yourself, from Sweden to South Africa, there’ll be a pizza place nearby.
It’s a slice of culinary history with ancient origins, and the modern pizza is consumed as street food across the globe. Not just for eating on pavements though, chefs have made it a gourmet dish too, with luxurious toppings like caviar and even gold.
We’ve been embellishing bread for centuries, with baked-in ingredients as well as fresh toppings, and the exact place of pizza’s invention is shady (as it is for most cuisines) with roots from Turkish pide to Greek and Persian flatbreads, to French pissaladière and perhaps the earliest form of pizza, Roman focaccia. The pizza’s birthplace is purported to be Naples—in the heart of the primeval countryside; of golden wheat, green olives and molten, sweet tomatoes. It’s said that Neapolitan peasants would top a disc of dough that was leftover from bread baking with vegetables and olive oil for a primitive pizza.
The cheese component came later, in the nineteenth century, when restaurateur, Raffaele Esposito decorated a pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves—mimicking the white, red and green of the Italian flag. The patriotic chef cooked this symbol of Italian heritage to welcome Queen Margherita of Savoy to Naples. A dish that’s gone on to be one of the most celebrated in the world.
For Italians, pizza is serious business, so serious that it has a governing body. While the dish itself is deceptively simple, authentic Neapolitan pizza must be made to the rules dictated by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (‘True Neapolitan Pizza Association’). Here’s a taste of the recipe bureaucracy: ‘the pizza must be baked in a dome shaped wood-fired oven, hand-kneaded, and the base cannot exceed 33 centimetres’. There are also even more esoteric regulations; the olive oil must be drizzled clockwise, and only tomatoes from the foothills of Mount Vesuvius can be used for the sauce.
You’ll find this pizza in the narrow hallways of Naples in a pizzeria called, Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba. Here the Margherita is made the same as it was in Esposito’s time. It’s the oldest pizzeria in the city dating back to 1738.
In Naples the pizza base is soft and floppy; it’s the kind you fold over when you bring a slice up for a bite. Roman pizza on the other hand is more thin-crust with a bubbly crunch. Base aside, pizza purists only recognises two types of topping; the Margherita and the Marinara. The latter is the closest to the orginal peasant pizza; simply tomato sauce with oregano, garlic and olive oil—a flavour profile that’s as Italian as the colours on the Margherita are.
Globally pizza has been bastardised from ships to shores creating insipid versions of the Italian classic. And it’s unfortunate that the majority of the world’s Margherita pizzas are served slick with luminous cheese and a metallic tinny sauce, far from Esposito’s vision of pizza purity.
However the pizza revolution has come full circle, and now restaurants and pizzerias all over the world are upping their standards, and no longer are pizzas just greasy street food fare, but gourmet meals for the upper crust.
And in the case of the Malta pizza, it’s gone from an emblem of the bygone Italian peasantry to a status symbol for today’s wealthy. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s most expensive pizza hails from Margo's Pizzeria on the small island nation. Retailing at 1,800 GBP (that’s over R25, 000); the pizza is topped with white truffles and 24-carat gold leaf.
Thankfully not all restaurants cover their pizzas in gold, and gourmet pizzas are readily available to most, and even in Naples itself. In a defiant snub to tradition, Trianon Pizzeria specialises in ‘ultra-pizzas’. Into the fiery heart of a wood-fired oven chefs paddle in blasphemous creations, with toppings like salted cod, asparagus, figs and pesto. The scent of truffles sings through this maverick pizzeria and many pizzas are topped with the luxury ingredient. The ‘ultra-pizza’ trend has spread across Italy and The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana is not impressed, feeling that this ostentatious display of ingredients is an affront to the pizza’s peasant heritage. They once famously declared: ‘"There is no such thing as gourmet pizza!”
In South Africa we’re used to the American version of pizza; thick crusts with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink toppings (and only in the last ten years have popular pizza parlours offered a thin-crust option). Luckily we’ve caught up, and while gourmet pizzerias might not be on every street corner, our chefs are rising to the challenge.
These pizzas can’t be topped
Gourmet pizzerias are popping up like olives on an anchovy pizza—from Cape Town to Pretoria there’s somewhere to indulge in pizza passion.
Massimo’s, Cape Town
Housed in a converted barn, this Hout Bay eatery serves the best pizza in Cape Town; a sweeping statement, but true none-the-less. The thin-crust bubbly pizzas are inventive without being icky—you won’t find ingredients at odds, but honest flavours paired elegantly; for example the Italiano pizza is topped with roasted sweet fennel and smoky Italian sausage—the pairing is a dream. Run by charismatic owners Tracy and Massimo (there’s always at least one of them on duty); they’ll make you feel right at home. The restaurant is decorated with personal photographs, and there’s one over the fireplace with Massimo as a boy on his family’s farm. In it he’s wearing a Fedora and is surrounded by chickens—the inspiration for the restaurant’s logo. It’s this vibrant and personal ambience combined with the gourmet pizzas that make this restaurant really special.
Address: Oakhurst Farm Park (next to Spar), Main road, Hout Bay Contact: +27 (0)21 790 5648
Trabella Pizzeria, Johannesburg
Trabella has become something of a pizza institution in the City of Gold. The ambience is young and chic and the pizzas are unashamedly modern. Try the famed ‘Prawn and Teriyaki’ pizza: a thin crust base is topped with prawns, honey and teriyaki and is fired in the wood oven then topped with fresh coriander. This pizzeria is a good one to try for the health conscious too, as they also specialise in gluten-free bases. But perhaps what makes the experience here so memorable is the service. Hands-on, owner Tracy Bell can be found playing host most nights.
Address: 3 Galen House, Corner Corlett Drive and Oxford Road, Illovo, Contact: +27 (0)11 442 0413
Tuck into classic pizzas such as the Margherita or Marinara, or take a walk on the wild side with the ‘Alla Pera’; topped with pears, walnuts, mozzarella and gorgonzola. This cosy Pretoria pizzeria pays homage to authentic Italian pizza-making, while still being inventive. The options don’t come in small, medium, and large, but in regular or mini—styled as ‘pizzettes’ these mini-pizzas were created with the indecisive in mind, and come in all flavours. The prices are very reasonable too.
Address: 676 Chamberlain Street, Deernis (Rietondale) Contact: +27 (0)12 329 9000
Spiga d'Oro Durban
The Italian heart of Mornngside, the pizzas here are simply delicious. Run by brothers Marco and Luca, the pair have created a restaurant styled on the pavement cafés of their native Italy. They have a no-bookings policy and this ensures the bar is always abuzz with eagerly waiting patrons (mimicking the hustle and bustle of the Neapolitan streets). The pizzas are pretty authentic too—thin-crust, wood-fired, and topped with only the best mozzarella and tomato sauce. Feel free to create your own gourmet pizza; the larders are overflowing with beautiful Italian ingredients from anchovies to artichokes.
Address: 200 Florida Road, Morningside Contact: +27 (0)31/303-9511