Why is pizza so good? Who created traditional Italian pizzas? I will explain all these things to you, starting with the history and going on to talk about authentic Italian pizza toppings!
Let’s start with the definition of pizza, which I imagine roughly everyone knows. It is a product with a savoury dough made from flour, water and yeast, which is rolled out and baked. Originating in Neapolitan cuisine, Italian pizza is today, together with pasta, the most well-known Italian food in the world and after rice it is the most widely consumed.
I have a very nice anecdote to tell you about it: according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, “pizza” is the most famous Italian word in the world, before “ciao”… I leave it to you to imagine how much it is appreciated in every part of the globe!
Today we know many types of Italian pizzas, that vary according to dough, toppings, recipes, cooking, but also according to intolerances! They suit all kinds of cravings and needs! You can also decide whether to enjoy pizza at a restaurant, in a pizzeria by the slice or comfortably at home to take away or make it yourself!
Also, know that UNESCO has declared the art of the Neapolitan pizza maker as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So, if you too love authentic Italian pizza, follow me because I will show you all the most famous and delicious traditional pizzas, as well as all their names and characteristics (such as dough, cooking, etc.).
So let’s get started! 😋
History of all traditional Italian pizzas!
It is well known that pizza has Neapolitan origins… But let’s take a step back in history! It is necessary to mention several actors in this story:
- In the Neolithic period, men in the Near East found a way to make certain dishes tastier: they baked porridge of toasted and ground cereals or unleavened bread on stone.
- The Egyptians are credited with the discovery of yeast, thanks to which doughs became soft and fluffy after baking.
At this point, bread began to spread and the path of pizza continued…
- In ancient Rome, farmers created flour by crossing different types of spelt (the name flour comes from “far”, from the Latin “farro” that means spelt), kneaded it with water, herbs and salt, and then left it to cook on the fireplace in the heat of the ashes. With the Romans, the first discs of bread were used to hold juicy dishes, a bit like round pizzas, a long way from modern ones, but close enough!
- In the 7th century A.D., with the Lombards, a new Gothic-Longobard word began to circulate: “bizzo”, sometimes called “pizzo”, or bite, we are getting close!
- In the 14th century, the word “pissas” was used for certain dishes from central and southern Italy, i.e., mashed wheat flour with garlic, lard and coarse salt.
- This is where Naples comes in, with the poet Benedetto di Falco formalising the word “pizza” in 1535, stating in one of his writings “focaccia, in Neapolitan is called pizza”. In 1500, olive oil replaced lard. In 1600, the first ancient Neapolitan pizza appeared: pizza alla Mastunicola.
It was called this way for two reasons: the first from “maestro Nicola”, the name of the pizza maker who invented it. The second refers to the fact that, Mastunicola derives from Vasinicola, which in dialect meant basil. In fact, it was made good and fragrant precisely by the addition of this ingredient.
In the mid-1700s, tomato was added and then in 1800, mozzarella was added, hence the first recipe in which pizza as we know it today appears, is found in a Neapolitan text written in 1858.
- In 1889, pizza Margherita was born. Queen Margherita and King Umberto I were visiting Naples and pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito made three pizzas for them: pizza alla Mastunicola (lard, cheese, basil), pizza alla Marinara (tomato, garlic, olive oil, oregano) and pizza pomodoro e mozzarella (tomato, olive oil, mozzarella, oregano), in honour of Queen Margherita and whose colours recalled the Italian tricolour. The queen liked it so much that she wanted to lend her name to this pizza!
The Different Types of Classic Italian Pizza
In Italy, there are different types of traditional pizza depending on the region you are in. In fact, there are different recipes and flavours from north to south.
These differences are due to several factors:
1. the yeast – the most commonly used are brewer’s yeast (dry or fresh), sourdough, biga or poolish. The first two are direct doughs, i.e. all the ingredients are combined simultaneously, while the latter two are indirect doughs, whereby the biga and poolish have a separate preparation and are then added later to the pizza dough.
Brewer’s yeast works by eating the sugar and releasing carbon dioxide, which remains trapped inside the gluten mesh and makes the dough swell. While sourdough also contains lactic acid bacteria, which impart the typical acidity to the dough, with far better organoleptic characteristics and digestibility than brewer’s yeast.
Speaking of indirect methods, on the other hand, we find biga and poolish. They are pre-doughs, both made with water, flour and yeast, but the former is drier, while the latter is much more liquid. The advantage of indirect dough is that there is less yeast, so the pizza is more digestible. The biga will produce a pizza with large bubbles, while the poolish generates small alveoli and a crispy pizza.
2. the baking method, which can be by electric, gas or wood-fired oven. The former is usually the one most used at home, as it is available to everyone. Excellent pizzas are obtained with it – usually low, not very crispy and extremely soft. On the other hand, the gas oven has the option of having a burner, which cooks the pizza crispier, but still usually low. While the king of pizza baking is, and will always remain, the wood-fired oven. Here the temperature is very high (over 400 °C) and cooking times are very short, for a Roman pizza about one minute, while a Neapolitan pizza 2-3 minutes.
I will now show you the most famous types of pizza, with their history, ingredients, characteristics and curiosities… But above all, some places where you can enjoy them! 👇
Flickr, albert erickson
Let’s start with the most well-known and loved Italian pizza variety in the world, the Neapolitan pizza. Round, thin and fluffy with the classic high and puffy rim, it was recognised in 2010 as a traditional speciality guaranteed by the European Union. In 2017 the art of the Neapolitan pizza maker was recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In Naples, the two iconic pizzas are the Margherita and the Marinara. We have already mentioned the former, while the latter, topped with fresh tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and oregano, is the second most consumed pizza in Italy (after the Margherita). It owes its name to the fact that the ingredients needed to make it all have a long shelf life, so they were brought by sailors during their voyages, to be eaten together with bread and to improvise a kind of pizza!
Of course, if you visit Naples, you can’t miss the chance to taste the pizzas offered by Gino Sorbillo’s pizzeria… A delicacy!
Other popular traditional pizza toppings in Naples are:
- Salsicce e friarelli: where friarelli are inflorescences of the turnip top, which are fried with garlic and chilli pepper and then added to the pizza. They have a very bitter taste, which pairs perfectly with that of the sausage. Sausage and friarielli are a combination of peasant origin, which in its simplicity creates a great recipe full of flavour and deliciousness.
- Ragu napoletano: The pizza dough is topped with Neapolitan ragu, sausage and stringy provola cheese, all flavoured and scented with delicate basil leaves.
- La Cosacca: this is one of the most traditional Italian pizza recipe. In this pizza, there is no mozzarella, which is replaced by grated cheese: a mix of pecorino and parmigiano is used. It seems that the origins of the cosacca date back to a visit to Naples by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
Other types of Neapolitan pizza are: the “pizza a ruota di carro”, characterised by a larger diameter, reminiscent of a cart wheel, very large, thin and tasty. You can enjoy it at the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Forcella, in the heart of Naples; or there is the “pizza casertana”, also known as “pizza a canotto”, characterised by a smaller diameter and a very pronounced crust, even more than 3 cm, very soft and with large alveoli, called “caves”.
Another variety of Neapolitan pizza is the one with the “cornicione ripieno”, which, as if the base dough were not enough, sees the cornicione filled with a topping. The best known is the Margherita with a ricotta-filled rim.
The Neapolitan pizza today has a worldwide fame, not only for its goodness, but also for the television programmes where it is the protagonist. In fact, on many channels, Neapolitan pizza makers are invited to narrate the art of this classic Italian pizza, as in the case of Gino Sorbillo. Another medium that has made this traditional pizza so famous is certainly the opening of Italian pizzerias abroad, such as in the United States, Japan or the United Kingdom!
But also social media, with photos and tags, make Neapolitan pizza travel overseas. In fact, a few days ago a post by Britney Spears, tagging Gino Sorbillo, wrote “more, please, more”, referring to the Maestro’s pizza! On the same social wave, we also find the cinema, which consecrates this pizza, for example with the film “Eat Pray Love” starring Julia Roberts, who visits the ancient Pizzeria da Michele in Naples.
Pizza a portafoglio
A typical form of Neapolitan pizza is the “pizza a portafoglio”, a traditional street food suitable for those who do not have a place to sit, but do not want to give up the unique taste of pizza. It is so called because it is folded in four on itself like a wallet or a booklet. It is smaller than the classic shape and can be eaten comfortably while walking.
The historic temple of pizza a portafoglio in Naples is the Antica Pizzeria Portalba, an establishment that was founded in 1738 and whose customers have included Gabriele d’Annunzio and Benedetto Croce.
The fried pizza
Along with pizza a portafoglio, this is another iconic street food from Naples. It originated as a poor recipe for baking pizza dough during World War II, when there were no ovens. Today it is sold in special fry shops or pizzerias, stuffed with a variety of ingredients. The most traditional pizza toppings are:
- fried ricotta and salami pizza
- fried escarole pizza
- fried pizza with ciccioli (cracklings)
But there are also other variations, including desserts. Incidentally, in the film “l’Oro di Napoli” (The Gold of Naples) with Sophia Loren, it is the famous actress herself who prepares the fried pizza!
This pizza is commonly found in Roman pizzerias. Its main characteristic? It is thin and crunchy!
To achieve this, the Roman pizza is left to rise for about 6-8 hours and then rolled out very thin, almost like a sheet of dough, and it is baked non-aggressively in a wood-fired oven.
A great place to eat this type of pizza is “180g Pizzeria Romana”... A must try!
Another name to mention for Roman pizza is certainly that of Gabriele Bonci, a great pizza maker, who has participated in many TV programmes and opened several restaurants both in Rome and abroad.
Among the authentic Italian pizzas, we find the pinsa romana, a very hydrated, long-rising dough, made with a special mix of flours: wheat, soya and rice flour. It is also made with cold water and is left to rise in the freezer for at least 24 hours.
Pinsa is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, compared to traditional pizza. It has fewer calories and a high percentage of water, which makes the dough much more hydrated, and the long leavening process makes it more digestible.
If you want to taste an excellent pinsa in the capital, you should drop by Habemus Pinsa, a place that specialises in preparing Roman pinsa.
Pizza by the slice
If you have ever visited Rome, you will certainly have come across the pizzerias al taglio that dot the capital. In fact, this pizza is a typical Roman street food!
It is characterised by a thickness of between 15 and 30 mm, with no swelling of the rim, slight alveolation and a crispy crust. This is achieved by a high hydration of the dough and a long leavening time, even up to 72 hours. Its characteristic rectangular shape comes from baking in a pan, usually measuring 60 cm by 40 cm.
Pizza alla pala
It is directly topped, baked and presented on a pizza peel, usually made of wood or aluminium. It is characterised by a very high degree of hydration (even 80%), a highly developed alveolation, soft and crispy at the same time.
This type of traditional pizza has a slightly shorter rising time than sliced pizza, but is always long, 18 to 24 hours, sometimes even 48. It bakes about 5 to 10 minutes in a wood-fired oven. The result is a long, narrow pizza, rectangular in shape, one metre long by 30 cm wide, crunchy and very digestible, higher in the middle and without a crust.
Pizza a metro
This is a variety of pizza characterised by being one metre long and being able to have different toppings. It is prepared in the same way as classic pizzas, only it is rolled out to a length of one metre. It is an excellent solution for when you can’t decide on just one flavour of pizza!
Some pizzerias, not having sufficiently long ovens, have created pizzas of intermediate dimensions between the common pizza and the metre-long pizza, the so-called “two-plate pizza”, which can have up to two toppings.
Pizza in the ruoto
Speaking of this classic pizza, I would say to start with a crucial question: what is a ruoto? The ruoto is quite simply a round baking tray, mostly made of aluminium. It was also used by our grandmothers to cook pizza at home.
So, pizza is made and baked in this ruoto, taking on a round shape. It is generally higher, softer and more topped than a classic Neapolitan pizza. It was also prepared with leftover bread dough, sometimes with lard added to the bottom of the pan.
Pizza al tegamino
Also known as “pizza al padellino”, pizza al tegamino is one of the best Italian pizzas. This recipe comes from Piedmont, from Turin specifically, and was created by a pizza maker from Turin who wanted to reduce the waiting time for pizza.
The dough is similar to Neapolitan pizza, but it is leavened twice: the first for 8 hours and the second also for 12 hours, directly in greased pans. The result is a high and soft pizza.
When we talk about Sicilian pizza, we mean different varieties of pizza. In Palermo, the “sfincione” is thick, spongy and topped with tomato, onion, anchovies, breadcrumbs and caciocavallo cheese. In Bagheria, there is also the white sfincione, which differs in the absence of tomato and the presence of ricotta cheese. In Camporeale, we find the sciavata, halfway between pizza and sfincione. In Catania, the scacciata is made, filled with many ingredients. It is an oven-baked preparation, typical of the ancient bread-making tradition.
Among the most traditional pizza toppings, there are one with caciocavallo cheese and anchovies and one with broccoli, cauliflower, boiled potatoes and meat. And there are many more… If you get the chance, try as many as you can!
This is a special kind of pizza, served already divided into slices. Each of them is individually topped with their own ingredients to create a perfect bite. It is great to share with friends, as you can sample a thousand different flavours of your choice! The dough of this pizza is usually taller and airy, light and without a crust, perfectly round as it is baked in special pans.
Traditional Italian pizza toppings & special varieties
As I imagine you have understood so far, there is a great variety of pizzas, but there are even more when classified according to toppings! There are in fact many red pizzas and white pizzas, but also different formats with particular types of dough, suitable to every dietary need, with valid alternatives for vegetarians or vegans, coeliacs or those with intolerances. And they may also be dietary or for other specific needs…
But let’s cut to the chase and see what the authentic Italian pizza toppings are!
1. Red pizzas:
There are a large number of red pizzas, among the most common and consumed we find:
- margherita: tomato and mozzarella
- marinara: tomato, garlic, oregano
- napoli: tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, black olives
- diavola: tomato, mozzarella, salami and chilli pepper
- ‘nduja: tomato, mozzarella, ‘nduja, sausage, garlic, chilli, onion
- quattro stagioni: tomato, mozzarella, mushrooms, cooked ham, artichokes and sausage
- capricciosa: tomato, mozzarella, cooked ham, mushrooms, artichokes
- pizza pugliese: tomato, mozzarella and onion
2. White pizzas:
- ortolana: fior di latte, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, cherry tomatoes
- pesto genovese: cherry tomatoes, pesto alla genovese, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts
- ham and figs
- vegetarian: mozzarella, courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes and mushrooms (actually, you can put many other vegetables of your choice)
- carbonara: eggs, pecorino cheese, lard
- seafood: seafood, garlic, onion, cherry tomatoes and parsley
- zucchini flowers: mozzarella, zucchini flowers, anchovies
- 4 cheeses: grana padano, fontina, mozzarella, gorgonzola
The Neapolitan calzone, better known as “calzone ripieno al forno” (baked stuffed calzone), is a southern Italian speciality made of leavened pizza dough. It is folded, closed and stuffed with (for example) ricotta and salami, or ham and mozzarella.
Focaccia is a shallow bread, made from a dough of flour, water, salt and yeast. It can be baked or barbecued.
In Italy, practically every region has its own, let’s see what they are!
- Focaccia genovese, consisting of a kind of flat bread seasoned with olive oil and salt
- Genoese-style focaccia with onions is a variation of the common Ligurian focaccia from Genoa
- Focaccia col formaggio di Recco – two layers of dough stuffed with a mixture of stracchino cheese and Ligurian curd cheese
- Focaccia barese – a typical Apulian food, topped with fresh tomatoes and olives
- Tuscan Schiacciata – crispier than the Ligurian focaccia
- Roman focaccia: soft inside and crispy outside, to be stuffed with mortadella, also known as “mortazza”!
And there are so many other types of traditional focaccias!
5. Artisanal or industrial pizzas
Obviously, like any other food, there is an artisanal version and an industrial version. So I don’t think it is necessary to specify which one carries with it the true pizza tradition… But in any case, in supermarkets you can find many types of frozen pizzas, produced by large companies, suitable for those who don’t feel like cooking or are looking for a quick meal!
6. Pizzas with special doughs
The pizza base can be changed to suit every need or taste, perhaps using whole wheat doughs, or using wheat germ or stone-ground ancient grains. They can also be adapted for coeliacs or those with intolerances, using flour mixes other than the traditional ones.
It is a cross between a pizza and a sandwich, a typical Roman street food invented by Stefano Callegari, characterised by two factors. The first is its triangular shape, a sort of white pizza corner, closed at the sides and stuffed inside. The second is the filling: it is not just any filling, but really succulent and special! The trapizzino is in fact stuffed with the best delicacies from Roman cuisine, from coda alla vaccinara to pollo alla cacciatora.
8. Sweet pizzas
Let’s end this list on a high note with the extraordinary sweet pizzas, loved all over the country, that manage to end every meal with just the right sweetness. The variants include pizza with Nutella or Nutella and strawberries, or Greek yoghurt and berries, or Nutella and banana… In short, the variations are endless! An address worth mentioning among the sweet pizzas is certainly that of “Pizzeria Pier Daniele Seu”, known for its original pairings and the exceptional taste it creates.
Travel Tips to enjoy all kinds of pizzas in Italy!
The advice I would give you is to go to the local restaurants to taste the inimitable flavour of authentic pizzas, whatever shape or size it is, because thanks to the technique and means of the pizza makers, they are able to reproduce the true essence of traditional pizza.
But in case you are a cooking enthusiast, I advise you to reproduce this wonderful dish at home, carefully following the rules of tradition, so that you can enjoy any of the types of pizza you wish to recreate in the best possible way.
My guide ends here, I hope I have made you salivate by listing all traditional Italian pizzas. I hope you will be able to taste them all, each one in its region of origin if possible, or at least each one at its best!
So, enjoy your trip to Italy, but above all… Bon appétit! 😋