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RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity. 

Known as a savoury dish of Italian origin, pizza constitutes a flattened base of wheat-based dough topped with tomatoes, cheese and various other ingredients baked at a high temperature, traditionally in a wood-fired oven. Undoubtedly, the most elementary version of this dish would be the Pizza Margherita.

The most popular account of the origins of the Margherita claims that on June 11, 1889, to honour the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, the Neapolitan pizza maker Raffaele Esposito created the “Pizza Margherita”, garnishing it with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to represent the national colours of Italy. Today, Naples, a city in southern Italy, is widely regarded as the birthplace of pizza. However, academics have contested this legend, claiming that this patriotic combination of ingredients was by no means a novelty. In fact, in 1853, Emanuele Rocco published an essay-vignette titled Il pizzaiolo describing a pizza topped with “basilico, mozzarella e pomodoro”, the three canonical ingredients.1

To deconstruct the history of the Margherita, we must first look at the history of its ingredients: flatbread, tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Our exploration of the origins of wheat-based flatbread led us to the Fertile Crescent, a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East including modern-day Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan as well as the southeastern Turkey and western Iran. Often referred to as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, it is where settled farming purportedly first began around 8500 BCE. The humid climate and proximity of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers provided fertile conditions for crops such as wild wheat and barley. Between the 7th-6th centuries BC and 2nd century CE, the Fertile Crescent served as a bridge between Eurasia and Africa, enabling trade between the Kingdom of Saba in Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush in Africa along trade routes known as the ‘Incense Routes’.2 Eventually, by the pre-pottery Neolithic period (around 10,000-6,500 BCE), wheat and barley agriculture had spread around the Mediterranean and southern Europe.3 

Secondly, although the tomato is a fundamental ingredient in Italian cuisine, it might be surprising to note that it is not indigenous to Europe. In the Columbian Exchange, tomatoes were introduced to Europe from the Americas through trade. Interestingly, as the tomato belongs to the family of poisonous nightshade plants, it was initially shunned by the Italian population. Its assimilation into mainstream consumption after 200 years had two catalysts: for one, it was rumoured that the tomato was an aphrodisiac, with its Hebrew name translating to “love apples” or “love plants”. Second, by the late 1700s, peasants began to put tomatoes on their flatbreads due to the publishing of a cookbook using Spanish recipes that involved tomatoes, as well as the unique properties of tomatoes that resulted in their prescription for medical purposes.4

Thirdly, mozzarella is a cheese made from Italian buffalo‘s milk. Although the origin of buffalo mozzarella is not confirmed, our research found two competing theories: first, that Arabs may have introduced the water buffalo to Italy during the conquest of Sicily in 827 before being conquered by the Normans in the 11th Century. Thus, it is possible that the Normans later introduced the water buffalo to Campania and other parts of Southern Italy. Another possible origin is the introduction of water buffaloes from Mesopotamia through the Marsh Arabs, a living link between the present inhabitants of Iraq and the people of ancient Mesopotamia. Subsequently, the buffalo was introduced into Europe by pilgrims and returning crusaders.5

Lastly, basil is said to have originated from India but there are some indications that basil may have originated even farther east, with ancient records from 807 AD suggesting that sweet basil was used in the Hunan region of China at that time. Basil eventually migrated westward to Europe as it could be grown easily indoors and away from exposure to cold climates and frost.6

Traditionally, the pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven, a technique that has prevailed since the dawn of civilisation. Our research revealed that the wood-fired brick oven reached its modern form in ancient Rome. While Mount Vesuvius’ tragic eruption led to the fall of Pompeii in 79 AD, it enabled archaeologists to unearth 33 domed clay ovens with chimneys resembling the modern ovens often seen in pizzerias today.7

Close analogues of pizza include the manakish, a popular Levantine dish consisting of dough topped with thyme, cheese or spiced meat8, scallion pancakes from China and the kiymali pide or lahmacun, a Turkish flat bread with ground meat and vegetable filling, one of the most popular snacks and slow cooked “fast food” in Turkey.9

Annotated Bibliography

Nowak, Zachary. “Folklore, Fakelore, History.” Food, Culture & Society 17, no. 1 (2014): 103–24.×13828682779249.

This article evaluates the creation myth of the pizza margherita as presented by those texts which presume to describe its history, as well as an alternative possibility for the story’s genesis.

Lee, Alexander. “A History of Pizza.” History Today. History Today Volume 68 , July 7, 2018.

This articles consolidates a brief overview of the rich history of pizza, proffering insight into the spread and rise of pizza’s popularity, now a staple in the culinary scene.

Nowak, Z. “Interview with Antonio Mattozzi, Author of Inventing The Pizzeria: A History of Pizza Making in Naples.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 15, no. 4 (January 2015): 1–5.

This interview of Antonio Mattozi not only gives a glimpse into his book ‘The Pizzeria: A Hisotry of Pizza-making in Naples’ but offers his personal understanding of the history of pizzerias and its evolution.

Mark, Joshua J. “Fertile Crescent.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, November 9, 2019.

This articles traces the history of the Fertile Crescent, a historically significant region for agriculture – providing fertile conditions for the growth of some of the most fundamental crops such as wheat to make dough, the base of any good pizza.

Pasqualone, Antonella. “Traditional Flat Breads Spread from the Fertile Crescent: Production Process and History of Baking Systems.” Journal of Ethnic Foods. No longer published by Elsevier, February 17, 2018.

This article evaluates the production and spread of flatbreads from the Middle East, tracing the geographical distribution of different variations of flatbread.

Morais, Rodolfo. “The History of Buffalo Mozzarella.” Grapes & Grains, October 1, 2017

This article offers three different possibilities as to the history of buffalo mozeralla, evaluating the possible origins and trade routes the buffalos might have taken, as well as the development of the production process of mozarella.

Written by Elizabeth Koh.


1 Nowak, Zachary. “Folklore, Fakelore, History.” Food, Culture & Society 17, pp. 110

2 Mark, Joshua J. “Fertile Crescent.” Ancient History Encyclopedia.

3 Pasqualone, Antonella. “Traditional Flat Breads Spread from the Fertile Crescent: Production Process and History of Baking Systems.” Journal of Ethnic Foods. 

4 Smith, Andrew F. The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery. Chicago:University of Illinois Press, 2001.

5 Morais, Rodolfo. “The History of Buffalo Mozzarella.” Grapes & Grains, October 1, 2017

6 Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. “The History of Basil and Its Many Uses.” The Spruce Eats. 

7 “A Brief History of Wood Fired Ovens.” Grand Voyage Italy.

8 Flavorverse. “Manakish 4 Ways (Middle Eastern Pizzas).” The Spice at Home.

9 Warren, Ozlem. “Kiymali Pide; Turkish Flat Bread with Ground Meat and Vegetables.” Ozlem’s Turkish Table.