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Pizza through the ages

Chef Rajesh Radhakrishnan   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

Countries are beginning to recognise how powerful a tool food is when it comes to spreading awareness about themselves through their cuisine and food shows. Food is, after all, a soft power. One of the best examples of popularising a country through its cuisine would arguably be Italy, with two of its national dishes that have become an international phenomenon — pasta and of course, pizza. While Indians consider thick crust pan pizza and thin crust as the two types of pizza, Italians would tell you the only types are Italian and non-Italian!

The word ‘pizza’ is thought to have come from the Latin word ‘pinso’, meaning ‘beat or pound’ or to have been derived from the Greek word ‘pitta’, which is a flatbread or pie. Pizza, in its most basic form, is a seasoned flatbread with a long history in the Mediterranean.

Pizzas were traditionally a poor man’s food and took decades to be accepted by the rest of society. It is very amusing that tomatoes, considered an integral part of Italian cuisine, were considered poisonous and thus not consumed. The introduction of Indian water buffaloes to Italy led to the production of mozzarella cheese that became popular only by the mid-18 century. Thus, the two ingredients that are today an essential part of pizza were not used till the 18 century.

The popularity of pizza sky-rocketed once the local aristocracy got fond of it. The first ‘pizzeria’ was officially opened by 1830 and the story goes on that in 1889, when Italy’s queen Margarita visited Naples, a Pizzaiolo (pizza chef in Italian) by the name Raffaele Esposito created a patriotic pizza combining mozzarella, basil and tomatoes signifying the Italian flag and named it ‘Pizza Margarita’. The rest, as they say, is history.

Pizza was taken across the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by migrating Italians. By the 1950s, American corporate giants realised the potential of pizza and popularised the thick-crust, deep-pan pizza.

By 1980s, some American chefs started the trend of gourmet ‘California style’ pizza which were thin-crust and had fancy toppings ranging from crème fraiche to caviar. As pizza became more entrenched in local cultures, the toppings and styles became more varied. Today, one can order pizza topped with kimchee in Korea, chicken tikka in India. In Chennai, you could even stumble upon a ‘chicken chettinad’ or ‘mutton sukka’ pizza. Sweet variations have also emerged with toppings of chocolate, nutella, fruits or honey. Pizzas entered the Indian food market around the 1980s but it was not until 1996 that some American fast food chains set up shop with their pan pizzas. Till then, pizza, for most Indians, was a bread base topped with tomato ketchup and processed cheese. The popularisation of the thick-crust pan pizza in India led to many indigenous pizza chains.

In 1998, Chennai's first stand-alone Italian restaurant, Bella Ciao, serving true Italian pastas and pizzas, opened in Besant Nagar. They built their own pizza oven  and Chennaites got the first taste of real Italian pizzas. Although most ovens were directly imported from Italy at that time, a few Italians in Pondicherry had started manufacturing indigenous wood-fired pizza ovens using fire bricks, clay and concrete. Mango wood was the choice of wood for lending the smoky aroma. Ingredient availability was a big challenge then, and many, be it good quality olive oils, flour or meats, were simply not accessible! Le Royal Meridien was the first to install a pizza oven in their coffee shop. In 2002, 601 at The Park, with Chef Willi at the helm of the kitchens, kick-started the artisan and gourmet thin-crust pizza trend. These pizzas were hand-made, had a thinner crust and featured better quality mozzarella and fresh, high-quality toppings. 601 experimented with ‘fusion’ pizzas like the ‘Hoisin Chicken’ pizza and Tandoori prawn pizza that had an Indian twist.  Speciality Italian ingredients were also becoming more easily available commercially at this time. Little Italy, which came to Chennai in 2004, was successful in capturing the pure vegetarian market segment. Chef Willi went on to team up with Vipin Sachdev to create Tuscana Pizzeria, where the core idea revolved around the wood-fired pizza oven.

 Given the success of these Italian restaurants, pizzas have found their way onto the menus of most five-star hotel restaurants in the city.

Pizza is a popular category of food and rightly so. Today though, there is a growing concern around the world that pizza is fuelling obesity, specifically childhood obesity. Most fast food pizzas are high on fat, calories and sodium, which definitely have adverse effects on health. Rather than branding pizza as a villain, improving the nutritional content of pizza and reducing the quantity consumed are more viable options. This is where artisanal pizzas come into play.

Fresh, high-quality, local and organic ingredients are finding their way onto pizza menus. Many ingredients, ranging from whole wheat flour to rye, soya bean or lentil flours or even ethnic millets like ragi (finger millet), or thinai (foxtail millet) flours could be incorporated into the dough to make pizzas nutritionally richer. Low-fat mozzarella is becoming popular as a reduced calorie option. Topping pizzas with a variety of fresh vegetables could well be a smart way of getting them to eat vegetables. People with gluten allergy needn’t lose heart too, as gluten-free pizzas are now available. Going forward, you may be able to even find pizzas incorporated with super foods such as flax seeds, chia seeds or even goji berries. This decade may well bring about many evolutionary tranformations. Long live pizza!

The writer is the Area Director, Food Production of The Park, Chennai.


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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 3:32:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/pizza-through-the-ages/article6860756.ece

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