It may not have been pepperoni with extra cheese, but it still caught the attention of archaeologists working on the ruins of Pompeii, and not because they were hungry.
The researchers were excavating the site earlier this year when they came across a fresco depicting a silver bowl laden with wine, fruit — and a flat, round piece of dough with toppings that looked remarkably like a pizza.
Proto-pizza may be more like it, given that the city of Pompeii was founded in 79 AD.
In a statement released Tuesday, the archaeologists stressed that the dish in the fresco does not mean that the history of pizza is about to be rewritten. “Most of the signature ingredients are missing, namely tomatoes and mozzarella,” they said.
Still, they admitted that the flat, round dough topped with pomegranate, herbs, and what may have been a precursor to pesto may well have been “a distant precursor to the modern dish.”
The fresco was discovered during the excavation of the atrium of a house in part of the ancient site that is currently being explored. The house was connected to a bakery and the mural is a still life of a silver bowl topped with a cup of wine, pomegranates, figs, a garland of yellow strawberry tree fruits, dates and nuts. And the pizza.
The statue is “quite unique,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director general of the Pompeii Archaeological Park. While it falls into a fairly common category of food depictions called “xenia” – guest offerings – it’s not like most of the 300 or so examples found in Vesuvian towns.
Mr Zuchtriegel said the still life showed a contrast between “a modest and simple meal” and the luxurious silver trays painted in “a refined style and technique”, similar to how pizza, humble as its origins, can now be found in Michelin star restaurants.
Marino Niola, an anthropologist and pizza expert, pointed out that there’s nothing simpler than mixing water with flour and then baking it. The practice was typical of many ancient cultures. The word focaccia originally comes from the Latin word for ‘hearth’.
Of course, he noted, “not every focaccia became pizza.”
The origin of pizza is not without controversy.
It may be virtually synonymous with Italian cuisine, but some like to point out that herb and cheese dough originated across the Ionian Sea, in ancient Greece, and that Naples was originally a Greek colony.
“The Greek History of Pizza the Italians Want to Hide,” read a headline in The Greek City Times.
A recent study of the skeletons of some of the victims of the Vesuvius eruption offered insight into the dietary habits of the ancient inhabitants of Herculaneum, a city 10 miles north of Pompeii.
“We found that they ate a lot of grains,” says Silvia Soncin of the Department of Environmental Biology at Sapienza University in Rome.
Yet the mystery remains.
“Obviously, with our analysis, we couldn’t tell what kind of cereal they ate, whether it was bread or pizza, and whether or not it was topped with anything,” Ms Soncin said. “We can’t say this.”
Mr. Zuchtriegel and Mr. Niola both described ancient ovens in Pompeii and Naples as very similar to those used by today’s pizza makers. But it took ages for pizza as we know it to make its way from old ovens to takeout boxes.
To begin with, tomato sauce had to be invented – and that only happened after tomatoes were introduced to Italy after Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Even then, it took them about 150 years to get on the regular diet.
The first tomato sauce recipe can be found in a book printed in 1692 by Antonio Latini, a chef from Naples, said Matteo Ghirigini, the director of Garum, a museum specializing in the history of cooking. Mozzarella, on the other hand, was mentioned in documents from the 16th century.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the winning combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil started to hit the table. According to some experts, including Mr. Niola, the dish can be traced back to a chef named Raffaele Esposito, who is said to have prepared it for the queen of a newly unified Italy, Margherita of Savoy.
Esposito chose toppings with the three colors of the Italian flag in mind. Of course he named it after the Queen.
“That’s the origin myth,” said Mr Niola, who was one of the people who drafted a briefing that in 2017 got a UNESCO commission to list Naples’ approximately 3,000 pizza makers on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity to place.
The fresco found in Pompeii is important, he said.
“It makes us understand that there is a common thread connecting the present to the distant past,” he said. “It’s an archaeo pizza.”