Pizza, Pinsa, Focaccia, Schiacciata, and Cold?

Pizza is cut with scissors and a spatula.

Pizza in Italy reminds me a bit of that time when my friend, who had never had a wedge salad, ordered one but without the tomatoes or the blue cheese. She was speechless with disbelief when a wedge of iceberg was served to her on a plate. In Italy, a plain pizza, a “pizza bianca,” or “white pizza” is indeed a piece of pizza bread that looks like focaccia… no cheese, no sauce, no toppings (other than salt and oil), and often served cold.

White pizza and red pizza fresh out of the oven. No cheese needed.

During the pandemic, I’ve been keeping pizza in my freezer. After a few weeks of eating all the frozen pizza I’d sequestered in my freezer, I thought that I’d had enough pizza for a while… until I saw a potato and mozzarella slice at Alice (AH-lee-chay).

Alice is a pizza chain.

Now that I live in Italy, some of my friends ask me questions about Italian food expecting that perhaps I have become an expert. Not yet. The most recent question I received was about focaccia and pizza. What is the difference? It turns out that pizza is the type of dough, not so much the type of topping or how it’s served. Even a brioche can be a pizza. At Easter, a large brioche shaped like a panettone is called a “pizza formaggio” and it is a cheese pizza. See photo below.

Pizza formaggio

I actually quite like the bread that is called pizza because it’s made from the pizza dough.

Bread roll made from pizza dought.
Long pizzas are sold by the slice (taglio) in Rome.

This reminded me of the last time I was in Italy when I had a bread called, “schiacciata,” which is was a flat, oil-rich, salty, pillowy dimpled flat bread sold in squares. I recall those dimples of green olive oil and the slick of grease on my chin. It is a Tuscan version of what is known as focaccia in the North. It is a little thinner, and perhaps a little closer to a pizza.  

Cold shrimp salad on a pizza. Ham and cheese pizza (sandwich).

In Rome, the pizza is sold by weight and in rectangles. It doesn’t have to have red sauce or cheese. It doesn’t even have to be warm! Often the pizza is topped with cold salad or sauteed greens. An extremely popular topping is cold mortadella. Pizza is also available as a breakfast item, even mortadella with mayonnaise.

Notice how it’s an oval shape?

There is a style called “pinsa” which is slightly oval and it is not a pizza, it’s a pinsa. Got it? The pinsa is a type of flat bread that is baked first and then topped with fresh ingredients.

This a colorful array of pinsa from Pinsere (small pinsa) before they go in the oven once you order.

So basically a pizza is a type of bread, sometimes cooked with the toppings in the oven and sometimes dressed afterwards. Otherwise, the rest seems to be free to one’s creativity. Except for pineapple. No pineapple on the pizza here in Italy. I really like pineapple on pizza and I don’t even mind corn. A really good pizza here is blue cheese and walnuts. Nuts! Right? Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American pizza evolved from the Neapolitan pizza.

A white pizza with porchetta.

When I went on a food tour with a local guide, she confirmed that pizza is about the type of bread. Not what is on it, what temperature it is, or how it’s served.

This lesson pizza will have to be ongoing as I discover more types of pizza.

Rock, Fork, Scissors

One of the things I find most useful in my kitchen are scissors. I’m not alone in this. In Rome, there is a type of pizza that is cut with scissors. In Korean food, scissors are used to cut the meat after it’s been grilled. In the photo, the mini scissors are used to cut open condiment packs (photo taken in Argentina). 

IMG_9536

Then, there’s the fork. Have you ever wondered why some forks have that slightly wider tine on one side? The answer is that the one tine is wider depending on if the fork is for a right handed or left handed person. If both the outer tines are wider than the inner tines, then the fork is for everyone, both righties and lefties. There are over fifty different types of forks, but that is the subject of another book. I have plans to write a book about forks and kitchen tools. A friend begged me to call it, Fork U

While forks had been used since ancient Egypt for ceremonial purposes, the personal dining fork was first used in Constantinople in 400 CE (This particular fork is in a private collection in Washington, DC). The fork fashion spread to the middle east and the courts would use small two-pronged gold forks instead of their fingers. In the eleventh century, one such gold fork was part of the dowry of a Byzantine princess sent to marry a Venetian doge, a chief magistrate, Domenico Selvo. When a bishop saw her eating using this fork, she was admonished and told that she was insulting God by not using her fingers. The fork disappeared from the dining table for three hundred years!

By the 1400s forks had returned to the dinner table in Italy. The fork probably gained traction in Italy due to the popularity of eating pasta, which is much easier with a fork. By 1400 CE, it was common in Italy to present a diner with his own spoon and fork.

Famously, the fork was introduced to the French court by the queen, an Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici. Caterina de’ Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence. She took silver forks with her to France in 1533 as part of her dowry. The French did not take to the fork immediately.

The fork did not gain popularity in the rest of Europe until much later. British travelers in the seventeenth century would deride the fork as an effeminate Italian custom. It was not until 1633, when Charles I, King of England declared the fork “decent.” The original dining forks had two prongs. The two prongs were not enough to eat peas and other round foods, so over the next several centuries, the fork gained two more prongs. The word “fork” comes from Latin “furca.” The fork reached North America during the revolutionary war, most likely via Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, both who had enjoyed the good life in France.