Pizza Oven (Used with permission of Mark Hardy.)
Pizza Oven (Used with permission of Mark Hardie.)

Bet you thought that “pizza” as we know it just magically appeared in the United States one day. Or maybe that Americans invented pizza, not the Neapolitans.

Nope. (Though in a way, Americans DID invent pizza, but we’ll leave that controversial subject for another conversation.)

Now, for the $64,000 question, “How in the world did pizza get its name?”

Carlos Fernández)
Pizza in Italy (Photo credit: Carlos Fernández)

Naturally, Wikipedia suggests an answer, or in this case, seven answers (sort of like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the film?). According to the expert of the moment, the word derives from:

  1. an Old High German word “bizzo” or “pizzo” meaning “mouthful” (related to the English words “bit” and “bite”) and was brought to Italy in the middle of the 6th century AD by the invading Lombards. This is the origin favoured by the Oxford English Dictionary though they state that it remains unattested. [Note added by C. Bertelsen:  Martin Maiden, an expert on Italian and a professor at Trinity College, Oxford, also believes “pizza” to be of Germanic provenance.]
  2. the Latin word “pinsa”, the past participle of the verb “pinsere” which means to pound or to crush and refers to the flattening out of the dough.
  3. the Italian word “pizzicare” meaning “to pluck” and refers to pizza being “plucked” quickly from the oven (“Pizzicare” was derived from an older Italian word “pizzo” meaning “point”).
  4. the Latin word “picea” which describes the blackening of bread in the oven or the black ash that gathers at the bottom of the oven.
  5. the word pita (as פיתא) which exists in the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, referring to bread in general, tracing the word to a cognate for pine pitch, which forms flat layers that may resemble pita bread.
  6. the Ancient Greek word πίσσα (pissa, Attic πίττα, pitta), “pitch”, or ptea, “bran”, (pétítés, “bran bread”).
  7. the Ancient Greek word πικτή (pikte), “fermented pastry”, which in Latin became “picta”, and late Latin pitta > pizza.

The article provides some documentation, but not the rigid, infallible kind demanded by academics. Like so much of food history, looks are deceiving and the broth may be murkier than we’d like, so to speak.

So let’s see what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

Various ancient Greek etymons have been suggested, but the word appears to be of fairly recent appearance in Greek (as is suggested by the variable spelling); also, a plausible transmission from ancient Greek into the various other modern languages is difficult to establish. Modern Hebrew pitth is written as if descended from an Aramaic form (cf. Old Western Aramaic pitt, Eastern Aramaic pitt, related to Palestinian colloquial Arabic fatte “crumb, piece of bread”) but there is no continuity between them. The Arabic word for this type of bread is kimj ([from] Persian kumj). Turkish pide (1890) is a loanword, prob[ably from] Greek.

and this:

An ultimate origin in Germanic has been suggested by G. Princi Braccini (Archivio Glottologico Italiano 64 (1979 ) 42-89), perh[aps from] an unattested Gothic *bita, cognate with Old High German bizzo “bite, morsel, lump, cake made of flour” (see PIZZA n.), whence the word spread first into Rhaeto-Romance and the languages of the western Balkans, and then beyond, cf. Romansh (Engadine) petta, Ladin (Ampezzano) peta, Friulian peta, all in sense “thin flat bread”, post-classical Latin petta, a kind of bread or flat cake (1249, 1297 in Friulian sources), Albanian petë thin layer of dough or pastry crust, Vlach pit pie, tart, Romanian regional pit “bread”, Hungarian pite “pie, tart” (1598). . . . An alternative theory has been proposed by J. Kramer (Balkan-Archiv 14-15 (1990 ) 220-31) who sees the word as ult[imately] of Illyrian origin.

Yep, looks like there’s controversy, but what fun!

Virgil, Roman Poet
Virgil, Roman Poet

The first recorded use of the word comes from a Latin text in the town of Gaeta, in what is now Italy, dated 997 AD.  A local bishop required a townsman to give him “duodecium pizze” (twelve pizzas) on Christmas and Easter. Describing both sweet and salty pie-like concoctions – some with a top crust, “pizza” actually appeared earlier than that. The Greeks and Romans baked flat “cakes” of bread and topped them with cold foods. As the first-century BC poet Virgil described it:

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…
See, we devour the plates on which we fed.

Apicius, his identity a bit fuzzy, like the history of the word for “pizza,” probably lived around the end of the first-century BC or during the first-century AD. At any rate, he wrote an invaluable book of recipes. There’s not really a recipe for pizza as we know it in this book, Apicius de re Coquinaria, but two recipes marry bread with ingredients that wouldn’t too out of line for modern pizza: mint, garlic, cow’s cheese, oil. Of course, other ingredients muscle their way in (wine, honey), so we’re not talking Pepperoni Lover’s here. But it’s still not called “pizza,” but rather “Salacaccabia.” Go figure.

Whatever the origins of the word for pizza, there’s no denying the seductive lure of what is obviously a primitive food, allowing the eater to touch, smell, taste, and see the food, as well as hear the sizzle of oil or cheese as the steaming hot, scorched circular mass emerges from flames, shaped like the sun. Can this be a coincidence?

In Rome et ses environs, French author Léon Gessi paid homage to pizza, ” a blossoming flower, noble, and full of fragrant odors; Mozzarella bubbles in the heat of the fire, revealing spots of oil and touches of tomato. Rust-colored streaks soften the bright red of these touches, but it is the anchovy purée which strengthens the taste on the palate … which is difficult to define because it subtly covers a range extending from a sweet kiss to a sharp bite … ”

(For more on the etymology of pizza, see the article (in Italian) by G. Princi Braccini, in the journal Archivio glottologico italiano, Vol. 64, 1979, mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “pizza.”)

Pizza sauce (Used with permission.)
Pizza sauce (Used with permission.)

Red Sauce (Salsa Rossa)
Makes 6-7 cups

1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 T. onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 fresh basil leaves
¼ t. dried oregano

Heat oil in stainless steel or other non-reactive pot over medium-low heat. Add onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes until translucent and not brown. Toss in garlic, cook for a scant 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Raise heat and bring to a boil. Add basil and oregano. Reduce heat immediately to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 1 hour. Adjust seasoning. Sauce keeps well tightly covered in refrigerator for a week. Freeze for up to 4 months.

Note: Blanching vegetables before cooking in red sauce allows them to become soft; otherwise the acid of the tomatoes hardens the cell walls of the vegetables and they don’t really become tender.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

Steve Garry)
Italy, Enchantment Incarnated (Photo credit: Steve Garry)