An ode to the humble, healthy (?) pizza pie

Has pizza gone from being the go-to ultimate junk food to a possible health food?

Published September 14, 2021 5:50PM (EDT)

Marinara Rustica pizza at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana photographed for Weekend in Darnestown, MDon January 12, 2020. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Marinara Rustica pizza at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana photographed for Weekend in Darnestown, MDon January 12, 2020. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This article was first published in Petits Propos Culinaires.

Pizza is not meant to be a gourmet meal. Pizza is meant to be a rustic treat. It should be a delicious, inexpensive, fun experience.  It should result in a collision of orgasmic flavours stimulating your taste buds with a bundle of different, mouthwatering sensations. Flowing all the way over to your brainstem and down your throat to your gut, it should bring on smiles and laughter and perhaps some guilt for the size 0 diet-conscious.

Originally, the pizza we know today was a cheap, easy-to-transport and easy-to-eat food for poorly paid labourers in late 18th century Napoli. It was a pie with humble beginnings, originally made from inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients with plenty of flavour, never meant to be a pretentious, formal affair.

The two most important elements of a pizza are: (1) It is delicious, outrageously delicious; and (2) it resembles the Italian flag with red (tomato sauce –preferably made with San Marzano tomatoes), white (thinly sliced garlic and fresh mozzarella cheese) and green (a pinch of oregano and fresh basil leaves). This aromatic trio of colours, now known as pizza margherita, received royal patronage in 1889 when Queen Margherita of Savoy, on a visit to Napoli, declared it her favourite and elevated its status from poor man's slopped-together food to a dish worthy of satisfying royal taste buds. Or so the legend goes.

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Although not necessary or even recommended, other toppings can be added, but those ingredients must be Italian. Plastic dairy products, American cheeses, eggs, bananas, pineapple, tandoori chicken, bean curd, labneh, sweet corn, honey roasted ham, nutella, peanut butter, jelly? These items do not belong in or on or anywhere near a pizza.  Pizza deserves better than this. Untraditional items should be outlawed as the president of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, jokingly suggested when he said if he had the power to pass laws, he'd ban pineapple on pizza across the land. 

Stuffed crusts, thick crusts, cracked crust?  No.  An unstuffed, raised, bendable, tasty crust is necessary. Of course the crust should be soft enough so that when gently folded lengthwise it forms a sort-of horseshoe shape. And the dough should be stretched by hand. No rolling pins. Rectangular shaped pies? Square pies? No. It has to be round.  That is why it is called a pie.

If the pie does not come pre-cut, a pair of scissors or a pizza slicer can be used to cut it into 6 or 8 equal-sized triangles.  If at all possible it should be eaten as soon as it comes out of the oven. A bit of warmth adds to the deliciousness.  Forks and knives? No. It should only be eaten by hand.  If ordered as a take-away it should be eaten directly from the box that it came in. Linen napkins? Never. Paper napkins? Yeah, if absolutely necessary. If a bit of olive oil and tomato sauce spills onto your clothes – no problem, this is acceptable and probably means that just the right amount of oil and sauce was used in the preparation. 

This simple, universal comfort food is appreciated by young children, rebellious teenagers, young lovers and middle-age and downright old couch potatoes. It is eaten at home, in restaurants, on street corners and park benches. There are pizza joints all over the world. China, Laos, Viet Nam, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, The Gambia, Kenya, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador and many more countries have adopted the pizza.  It has even been cooked and eaten by members of the British Antarctic Survey in the most isolated place on earth. It is a meal capable of crossing borders and oceans and uniting enemies. It is beyond doubt a truly intergenerational, international meal.

When you sit down (or stand or slouch or lie down) to eat pizza there is really no reason to be riddled with guilt. Yes, we all know that pizza is often high in salt, fat and calories and this can result in negative health effects. However, pizza might – just might - also be considered a health food because of the powerful chemical antioxidant in cooked tomatoes called lycopene. Depending on who and what you read and who and what you believe and how much you need to justify your cravings for a pizza, the traditional Italian pizza (note the words traditional and Italian) with its use of health-giving olive oil and cooked tomato sauce can protect against oesophageal, breast, prostate, stomach, lung, colon, throat and mouth cancer, lower the risk of heart attacks, tackle male fertility problems by boosting sperm quality and can help you look younger by preventing sunburn and protecting against premature wrinkles – or so they say. I mean, what can you loose?  Feasting on a pizza might very well be a complete win-win, mouth-watering, gastronomic activity.

Over the centuries, this humble wonder from Napoli has gone through a mixture of transformations. What was once considered a poor person's food not worthy of being included in cookbooks morphed into a delicious dish satisfying royal tastebuds. It has gone from being the go-to ultimate junk food to a possible health food - possibly one of the few fun, delicious, saliva-dribbling health foods out there. And yet in spite these transformations it has always remained a simple and convenient food.

So important was the simple artistry of creating the perfect pizza, that in 2009 the European Union's quality food board recognized this by granting 'Pizza Neopoletana'  the ultimate seal of approval, a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed label (TSG).  This coveted label ensures that all pies sold as 'Pizza Neopoletana' and sporting the TSG label, adhere to incredibly strict, traditional standards regarding ingredients and preparation and protect it from imitation. 

So let us now, with olive oil and tomato sauce dripping down our chins, dribbling down our wrists, splotching our clothes, with pieces of basil caught between our teeth, the odour of garlic emanating from our mouths and strings of melted mozzarella stretching everywhere, hail the humble, healthy (?) pizza pie.

For all things pizza, don't forget to check out: 

Originally published in Petits Propos Culinaires 117, pages 96 – 98. Prospect Books. July 2020. 

By Dawn Starin

Dawn Starin is an anthropologist. Her writings have appeared in both peer-reviewed journals and popular publications and news sites as varied as Al Jazeera, the Christian Science Monitor, the HumanistNatural History, the New York TimesPhilosophy Now, the Progressive,  Prospect and Scientific American, amongst others

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Comfort Food Commentary Food Healthy Eating Italian Cuisine Pizza Pizza Napoletana Tomatoes