Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
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Nobody knows exactly where the word
pizza comes from. A recent theory identifies it as an Italian
corruption of pita, an Arabic word describing the bread popular in
the Middle East. Despite a possible medieval etymology, it is true that
the term "pizza" became more widely diffused in the sixteenth
century around Naples, though there were no actual pizzerias until the nineteenth
Before that time, Sicilians made a cheese-less pizza called sfincione, which is still prepared today, sold in bakeries
and a few restaurants. A similar food was popular in the southern part of
mainland Italy. Tomatoes were being cultivated in these regions by 1600,
and this crop greatly influenced the cuisine.
More popular was foccaccia, a crusty bread flavoured with spices
and herbs. Recipes for flavoured bread, in one form or another, had existed
since ancient times. There was also brischetta, slices of toasted
bread seasoned with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and other toppings.
Pizza, as we know it today, is essentially a Neapolitan invention that
evolved from these other specialities. In Naples the most popular recipe
was the margherita, named for a queen of Italy, made with tomatoes,
mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, thus representing the colours of Italy
(red, white and green). The cheese was the element that distinguished urbane
"modern" pizza from its rustic forebears.
One of the differences between pizza and its culinary cousins is that
it almost always is made with tomatoes and some kind of melted cheese, usually
mozzarella or something similar. Mozzarella, incidentally, is not considered
"cheese" by Italians. It is, strictly speaking, a "milk product."
Yogurt, feta and ricotta (cottage cheese) are also in this category of milk
products which, unlike true cheeses, are not aged.
Among the better mozzarellas for use in pizza - some would say the best
- is the buffalo mozzarella of the region around Naples. Buffalo milk is
very rich and dense compared to cows' milk, and has a unique flavour. Unfortunately,
there have been problems with milk quality due to the bovines grazing on
pastures where toxic chemical waste was dumped, and it may be a few years
before buffalo mozzarella's reputation restored. In theory, the word mozzarella
refers to a specific milk product from a specific region, similar products
going by names such as fior di latte. Whatever it is called, it is
softer and less rubbery than the mozzarella produced industrially in the
Americas and elsewhere. Italian mozzarella has a very delicate texture and
is formed into balls preserved for a few days in cold water. Like ricotta,
it is made from milk and salt and water and little else. (Here in Sicily
ricotta is usually made from sheep's milk, while mozzarella is made from
In addition to a base of tomato sauce and a layer of mozzarella, toppings
(which Italians call "condimenti") abound: hams (prosciutto, spek),
salami, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, onions, eggplant (aubergines), olives,
tomato chunks, cheeses (gorgonzola) and - in Sicily - ricotta and artichokes.
Even slices of anchovy or smoked salmon find their way onto pizza. Fresh
leaves of basil and arugula are also popular.
The quintessential Sicilian pizza is the capricciosa (shown here). This
usually includes tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, onions, ham, artichokes, olives
and perhaps a few chunks of eggplant. A wurstel is usually placed atop these
condimenti. The origin of this strange "Germanic" touch in Sicilian
pizza is something of a mystery. Perhaps it is a Sicilian homage to the
Italian-born Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, Frederick
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.