We already talked about the fact that the Margherita pizza was already common in Naples even before the supposed invention at the court of the Queen of Savoy (read more on the history of Margherita pizza here).
Only at the end of the 18th century the tomato made its appearance in Neapolitan cuisine and became one of the most popular ingredients on pizza. But pizza was already a staple food in Naples by four centuries. At least as we intend it today: a round flatbread topped with several ingredients.
So, what did pizzaioli put on top of the dough, before the red sauce dominated their kitchens? Mostly different varieties of cheese and cold cuts.
However, not always there was such an abundance of these toppings. Pizza originated as a poor people’s food. And in this sense, the first type of pizza we are aware of reflects the simplicity of a few essential ingredients: oregano, lard, and basil.
This type of pizza was called Mastunicola: it is said to be originated at the end of the XV century, although we don’t have any record of its invention. In fact, the very same name is a topic of debate.
Some think it is a reference to one of its ingredients, the basil leaf. In the Neapolitan language, basil is called “vasinicola”, and this assonance might have been associated with the pizza itself. If it’s true that at the time there was not so much variety of ingredients, due to the fact the pizza had to be cheap and fulfilling; it is also true, though, that there’s never been a lack of the green plant, abundant in the Mediterranean area (in Naples has its specific variety).
But the name Mastunicola might also have originated from a legend, which states not only the year and place of its invention but also its creator.
It is said that, in the port area of Naples, there was an excellent baker, called Mastro Nicola. He had his bakery in a street called Rua Catalana, populated by workshops for the ironmongery. One day, in the year 1490, the master baker decided to try a new combination of ingredients for a focaccia to sell to the artisans of the street.
This pizza topped with oregano, lard, and basil became so popular, that people started to call it with the name of the baker: Mastunicola (in the Neapolitan language, “mastu” means “master”). Unfortunately, we don’t have any written record of the existence of this character or his shop.
Also, the Mastunicola pizza has risked being lost in time, when the Margherita pizza became so popular. For a while, it has been impossible to find one in any pizzeria of Naples, and its existence was only recorded in old recipe books.
Luckily, thanks to the revived interest in pizza and its old traditions we had in the latest years, the mastunicola pizza has made again its appearance in several Neapolitan pizzerias.
When you’ll come to Naples, instead of the usual Margherita, try and ask what is now considered the first pizza ever made: I bet you will be welcomed by a mixed reaction of surprise and appreciation. Way to make an excellent first impression in the motherland of pizza.
[thanks to Federico Quagliuolo for his research posted on Storie di Napoli]