How pizza became ‘the world’s most popular dish’

An emblematic dish of popular Italian cuisine, pizza has traveled from Naples to Tokyo… Conducive to all kinds of abundance, it has adapted to local idiosyncrasies. A three-volume encyclopedia and a Netflix series are dedicated to him.

It took a true degree of insanity and a healthy appetite to devote 1700 pages to pizza. A simple slice of white dough, an archaic mixture of flour, salt and water, decorated with tomatoes and cheese, did it deserve such ruthlessness? Yes, assures the obsessed Nathan Myhrvold, who has just devoted three years of his life to the transalpine specialty, and to dedicate an encyclopedic sum in three volumes to it. (modernist pizza), almost as heavy as a Neapolitan wood-fired oven. “Pizza is undoubtedly the most popular food in the world,” confirms the one who, with his team, examined the kilometers (one hundred and twenty thousand) and the tastes (eight hundred measured, dissected and chewed samples), which undoubtedly exploded his carbon footprint as much as his cholesterol level.

“Pizza is multicultural, it can be found in almost every country, but with local adaptations”, confirms this hyperactive with a CV as long as a trattoria map, who was therefore able to judge in situ the many faces of the Italian round. A review of more than a thousand recipes as much as an in-depth account of a worldwide success story, its colossal book actually illustrates the infinite adaptability of the margherita, from Naples to Tokyo, via New York or São Paulo. Today, the French would be the second biggest eaters in the world, after the Americans … and therefore ahead of the Italians.

From Italy to North Korea

Galette of cooked and garnished dough consumed in Naples since at least the XVI centurye century, pizza actually experienced a global boom during the 20th centurye century, and first traveled in the baggage of the Italians when a million Neapolitans emigrated to France or the United States. It then returned in its Americanized forms to reinvest Europe and conquer the other continents according to the same process: first consumed as an exotic dish in the restaurant, before being trivialized by its marketing in supermarkets and completely integrated into local customs. becoming a homemade dish. dish.

Nathan Myhrvold is categorical: Pizzas can be found everywhere today, including in Nairobi or the Palau archipelago, in Micronesia, but also in Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan. And even in Pyongyang, in North Korea since 2009… The only exceptions that would still escape the grip of the Italian round: the archipelago of Kiribati and Tuvalu. A conquest that would even exceed the Earth’s atmosphere, as NASA would plan to put on the menu for its astronauts “margheritas generated by a 3D printer”, as says the anthropologist Sylvie Sanchez, who devoted a very copious essay to the Italian specialty (Pizza, cultures and globalization, CNRS editions).

Margherita Olympic Games

A sign of the times and its influence, this great traveler of modern food has even become a champion of the standard of living: the pizza index, which is based on the principle of the Big Mac Index (invented in 1986), now makes it possible to determine , through the variations in price , a picture of the evolution of purchasing power from one country to another… Another illustration of this planetary reign: pizza has the right to its World Fair, organized every year in Las Vegas, where the latest innovations in the sector are exhibited, from the breathable box designed to prevent dough from becoming soggy, for high-tech home delivery applications. There are also competitions in acrobatic throwing, dough stretching and cardboard box folding. From the Olympic Games in Margherita, in short, pizza, like football, has become a sport without borders, which also has its annual world championships (in Parma).

Good dough, this unifying specialty has been acclimatized to all latitudes, dressed in local colors, adapted to current trends. Kosher pizza in Israel, halal in Bangladesh, gluten-free or veggie… “It seems to be inscribed in its DNA that it can lend itself to the craziest reinventions, because it is an atypical culinary object: it escapes the rules that normally apply to the course of the meal, can be eaten hot or cold, it combines whimsical sipping of the share eaten on the run and invigorating snacking. She is not serious, and yet she really nourishes,” analyzes the anthropologist.

Its endless variations have sometimes been inspired by a local dish rejected in “pizza mode” » : anchoïade for Marseille anchovy pizza; burger for North American ground beef pizzas; khoresh ghormeh sabzi, a traditional herbal stew, in its Iranian version… Canadians invented the Hawaiian pizza (born against all odds in Toronto, far from the Pacific atoll) with the controversial mix of pineapple and bacon…

An excerpt from the book Modernist Pizza.

Photo Nathan Myhrvold/The Cooking Lab, LLC.

Accommodating, pizza has also known how to fuse with its local cousins: in Rome it has joined with focaccia to give pizza al taglio ; in the United States, she met the “pie” (pie) to give birth to the “Chicago style”. », baked in a mold and crumbles under a thick filling. “Pizza has, uncommonly in our modern history, demonstrated a union, a union of North America and Latin Europe”, notes Sylvie Sanchez.

The girl of the streets, adorned with a towering creature, today achieves the status of an object of art and passion, as evidenced by the monomaniacal Netflix documentary seriesChef’s Table: Pizza, which, in six episodes and in an ultra-polished aesthetic, celebrates the “John Coltrane” and the “Michelangelo” of fermented dough – respectively the American Chris Bianco, installed in Phoenix and crowned by New York Times best pizzeria in the US; and Romain Gabriele Bonci, at the head of the very popular Pizzarium, whose pizzas al taglio, decorated after cooking with squid or foie gras, has had the effect of a small revolution in La Botte.

A constant back and forth

Two creators who embody a process of sophistication and moving upmarket that began in the 1980s, with the emergence of “artisanal pizza” and some “gourmet pizza” which gradually transformed the pizza maker into a chef and the plebeian dish into haute couture creation. Since 2005, the Italian guide Gambero Rosso (equivalent to our Michelin) has been publishing an edition dedicated exclusively to pizzerias. But starting in the late 1970s, chef Alice Waters installed a wood-burning oven in her San Francisco restaurant and offered refined creations with goat cheese and nettles. Followed up a few years later by an Austrian restaurateur from Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck, associated with pizza maker Ed LaDou, who made pizza for a “dish for stars” uses the same ingredients as haute cuisine: caviar, smoked salmon, duck or truffle. From a humble piece of bread, the pizza became a canvas to put together an inventive meal, both accessible and refined.

“The French came very close to Italy for toppings, buffalo milk mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes”

Double world champion, award-winning for his creations based on radicchio, panna cotta with gorgonzola, parmesan crumble and crispy chips, John Berg embodies this creative and demanding pizza that stands out today. Located near Aix-en-Provence, for more than ten years he has been training pizza makers who want to perfect their know-how and chefs who want to get their hands dirty. A shrewd observer of the latest changes in pizza, the Provençal maestro has noticed a double evolution in recent years in terms of fermentation but also selected products. “The French have come very close to Italy for toppings, buffalo milk mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, grana padano, parmesan, all this was not on the plates ten years ago. Conversely, I think the French inspired the Italians in fermentation: Gabriele Bonci did an internship in Sisteron with one of the biggest French bakers. They come in search of French know-how that stems from an ancient baking culture. »

As much as creativity, it is also the search for authenticity that is now in order, with the proliferation of addresses that highlight artisanal know-how, kneading and long-term fermentation techniques, sourced quality ingredients – San tomatoes Marzano, mozzarella fior di latte or buffalo milk from Campania. The Neapolitans themselves, in a traditionalist spirit, have worked to turn their centuries-old specialty into a recipe “protected”, with the creation of the Associazione verace pizza napoletana (AVPN), which affixes its label and defends “state of the art” – the pH of the water, between 6 and 7 at the cooking temperature of the oven (wood oven of course), set at 485 degrees.

Thus the endless history of this crisp and golden globetrotter is written: a constant coming and going between cultures, according to fashion and inspiration. Which stretches between an appetite for authenticity and a desire for novelty, like the strands of mozzarella melted on a gourmet’s fork.

modernist pizza, by Nathan Myhrvold. encyclopedia in three volumes, published by The cooking laboratory, 1708 pages. 375 euros.

Chef’s Table: Pizza, on Netflix.

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