A proto-pizza emerges from a fresco on a Pompeii wall

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A proto-pizza emerges from a fresco on a Pompeii wall
The researchers were excavating the site earlier this year when they ran across a fresco depicting a silver platter laden with wine, fruit — and a flat, round piece of dough with toppings that looked remarkably like a pizza. Photo: Courtesy Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ROME.- It may have been no pepperoni with extra cheese, but it still caught the eye of archaeologists working on the ruins of Pompeii, and not because they were hungry.

The researchers were excavating the site earlier this year when they ran across a fresco depicting a silver platter laden with wine, fruit — and a flat, round piece of dough with toppings that looked remarkably like a pizza.

Proto-pizza might be more like it, given that the city of Pompeii was buried by a volcano in A.D. 79, nearly 2,000 years before anything modern civilization might recognize as a pie came into existence.

In a statement published Tuesday, the archaeologists were insistent that the dish portrayed in the fresco did not mean that the History of Pizza is about to be rewritten. “Most of the characteristic ingredients are missing, namely tomatoes and mozzarella,” they said.

Still, they allowed, the flat, round dough topped with pomegranate, spices and what may have been a precursor of pesto might be “a distant ancestor to the modern dish.”

The fresco was uncovered during the excavation of the atrium of a house in an area of the ancient site that is currently being explored. The house was connected to a bakery, and the mural is a still life of a silver platter bearing a cup of wine, pomegranates, figs, a garland of yellow strawberry tree fruits, dates and nuts. And the pizza.

The image is “pretty unique,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Although it falls into a fairly common category of images of food called “xenia” — offerings for guests — it is not like most of the roughly 300 examples that have been found in Vesuvian cities.

Zuchtriegel said the still life showed a contrast between “a modest and simple meal” and the luxurious silver trays painted in “a sophisticated style and technique,” not unlike how pizza, however humble its origins, can now be found in Michelin-starred restaurants.

Marino Niola, an anthropologist and pizza expert, pointed out that there is nothing simpler than mixing water with flour and then baking it. The practice was typical of many ancient cultures. The word focaccia originally derives from the Latin for “hearth.”

Of course, he noted, “not every focaccia became pizza.”

The origin of pizza is not without controversy.

It may be virtually synonymous with Italian cuisine, but some like to point out that dough topped with herbs and cheese originated across the Ionian Sea, in ancient Greece, and that Naples was originally a Greek colony.

“The Greek history of pizza that the Italians want hidden” accused one headline in The Greek City Times.

A recent study of the skeletons of some of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius offered insights into the dietary habits of the ancient inhabitants of Herculaneum, a town 10 miles north of Pompeii.

“We found that they ate a lot of cereals,” said Silvia Soncin, of the Department of Environmental Biology at Rome’s Sapienza University.

Still, mystery remains.

“Obviously with our analysis we couldn’t tell what kind of cereals they ate, whether bread or pizza, and whether or not it was topped with something,” Soncin said. “This we can’t tell.”

Zuchtriegel and Niola both described ancient ovens in Pompeii and Naples as closely resembling the ovens used by modern-day pizza makers. But it took centuries for pizza as we know it to make its way from ancient ovens to takeout boxes.

To begin with, tomato sauce had to be invented — and that only happened after tomatoes were introduced to Italy following Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Even then, it took around 150 years for them to enter the common diet.

The first recipe for tomato sauce is found in a book printed in 1692, by Antonio Latini, a chef based in Naples, said Matteo Ghirigini, the director of Garum, a museum specialized in the history of cooking. Mozzarella, on the other hand, was cited in 16th-century documents.

It was only in the 19th century that the winning combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil began hitting tables. According to some experts, including Niola, the dish can be traced to a chef named Raffaele Esposito, who was said to have prepared it for the queen of a newly unified Italy, Margherita of Savoy.

Esposito chose toppings with the three colors of the Italian flag in mind. Naturally, he named it after the queen.

“That’s the origin myth,” said Niola, who was one of the people who drafted a brief that in 2017 got a UNESCO committee to put the roughly 3,000 pizza makers of Naples on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The fresco found in Pompeii is important, he said.

“It makes us understand that there is a common thread that ties the present to the distant past,” he said. “It’s an archeo-pizza.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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