Is pizza a Southern food? Sabina Montevergine, an editor at La Cucina Italiana magazine, says “yes, in a way....” The birthplace of the modern pizza is in “southern Italy.”

Montevergine said: “The origins of pizza, which has become the trademark of Italian cuisine, lead to Naples,” the largest city in the south of Italy.

Naples is situated on Italy’s west coast facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. Its people are known as Neapolitans.

Italian peasants (about 1,000 years ago) were known to knead milled farro grain (a form of wheat) into flour by adding water, aromatic herbs and salt, Montevergine said. “Then they put this round loaf to cook on the hearth, in the hot ashes.”

“The Neapolitans are probably not going to take this very well,” she wrote, “but it was the Romans (from central Italy) who actually started to use discs of bread to hold saucy dishes – creating round pizzas, more or less, but still distant relatives of the pizzas of today.”

Montevergine said that in 1535, the famous Italian writer Benedetto di Falco noted that focaccia, a flat oven-baked Italian bread, had been perfected by Neapolitans, and “they called it pizza.”

“And so it became official. Since then, in the Naples region, the evolution of pizza and its tradition has never stopped. Olive oil replaced lard, cheese was added and herbs were resurrected from the Roman tradition.”

“In 1600, the tomato arrived in Italy and everything took on a different flavor. The tomato was first used in cooking sauces simmered with a little salt and basil; then later, someone had the idea to use the tomato in a different way, inventing, unbeknownst to them, the pizza as we know it today,” Montevergine said.

In 1889, Italy’s King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples. She had a penchant for wanting to sample the best local foods wherever they traveled. In Naples, the royal chef knew just the guy: Chef Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria di Pietro, was known far and wide as the best pizzaiolo (pizza-maker) of the time.

He chose to make three classic pizzas for the royals. One was red, white and green, the colors in the Italian tricolor flag, using San Marzano sul Sarno tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, dabbled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt.

Esposito named his culinary creation “Pizza Margherita.”

Mozzarella was first made in Italy near Naples from the rich milk of water buffalos. Because it was not made from pasteurized milk and because there was little or no refrigeration, the cheese had a very short shelf-life and seldom left the southern region of Italy near Naples where it was made.

Cheese historians say: Today, the buffalo mozzarella is still found south of Naples where small factories continue centuries-old traditions making buffalo mozzarella fresh daily for local customers, who line up at the factories to buy this delicacy.”

Pizza was first delivered to the United States from Naples in 1895 by a teenage baker named Gennaro Lombardi. He found work in a New York City bakery and used the same pizza dough recipe his father and grandfather had used in Naples.

Lombardi and other Italian immigrants who became bread bakers in New York “started taking their extra dough and making pizza. In 1897, Lombardi opened his own bodega (micro-grocery) and bakery in the “Little Italy” neighborhood. In 1905, Lombardi was issued a “mercantile license” from the city, becoming America’s first pizzeria.”

“National Pizza Week” is Jan. 10-16. Get hungry.

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