Pizza is undeniably irresistible. It’s one of America’s favorite foods, and it’s been enjoyed since ancient times in the Mediterranean. It used to look a lot different than the pizza we enjoy today, however. The origins of pizza are linked to Ancient Greece, where flatbread toppings were typically limited to olive oil, garlic, herbs, spices, and dates. Popular modern pizza toppings like tomatoes and peppers only made it to the Mediterranean in the 16th century, when Columbus returned to Spain from the New World with what were then novelty crops.
Pizza-making using tomatoes soon took off in Naples, Italy, a booming waterfront city with a fast-growing economy and a huge working-class migrant labor force. Pizza satisfied their need for inexpensive, convenient, yet satisfying food to carry them through the day. The first pizzeria opened in America by Italian immigrants in New York City successfully catered to this same need generations later.
Although pizza is most often attributed to the Italians, traditional variations of pizza still exist all over the Mediterranean. Pissaladière is a classic southern French version, made with olives, anchovies, and onions. In Spain, coca is a popular street food made with both savory and sweet toppings like citrus rind and honey. Turkish lamejun is made with an extremely thin crust and most commonly topped with a spread of finely minced meat and vegetables.
Whatever you call it, pizza has strayed quite far from its roots in many parts of the world. It’s easy to find pizza laden with salt, sugar, preservatives, and a carpet of artificial cheese. According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, pizza is one of the main contributors of sodium (salt) in the American diet.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Pizza can include the most important parts of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – whole grains, vegetables, and healthy fats – all rolled into one tasty dish. Here are a few tips for making your pizza better:
Keep It Simple
Mediterranean pizza is simple, made with a few quality ingredients. One of the most famous pizzerias in Naples, Pizzeria da Michele, serves only two types of pizza: margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil) and marinara (tomato sauce, garlic, and oregano). It’s also common to see Italians enjoying pizza bianca (plain crust with a light drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt) for a light lunch or afternoon snack.
At other Italian pizzerias with a little more selection, the quality of the ingredients is far more important than the quantity. You might see a sprinkle of anchovies or a few slices of fresh mozzarella, but just a taste of each ingredient so that the flavors balance nicely in your mouth.
Try making your own pizza with two or three toppings, or choose pizzerias that offer a simpler selection.
Choose A Whole Grain Crust
Whether you’re ordering takeout or making pizza dough from scratch, switch to whole grain crust. Whole grains are much more nutrient-rich than refined grains, and research shows that whole grain crust is just as tasty. It’s fairly easy to make your own dough at home using whole wheat flour, water, yeast, and salt. Sprouted wheat flour is especially good for pizza dough because it absorbs a lot of water, allowing it to stand up to the high heat required to cook pizza. Alternatively, choose from a variety of whole grain pizza crust options at the grocery store. Or, make modified pizzas using whole wheat pita bread, sprouted wheat tortillas, or other whole grain flatbreads.
Add Vegetables and Fresh Herbs
Pizza is an excellent platform for adding more vegetables to your meals. Try adding cooked eggplant, mushrooms, squash, potato, or asparagus, for example. Choose fresh, sliced tomatoes when they are in season, or use canned or jarred crushed tomatoes, plain and simple. Or, go the traditional route and add a heaping handful of peppery arugula once the pizza is cooked and out of the oven. Fresh herbs like basil, mint, and oregano are also tasty last-minute additions with a big impact on flavor.
In Italy, carry-out pizza is sold by weight, to cater to the needs of different people that stop by for a merende, or snack. A small slice of pizza can be a great healthy snack. At restaurants, personal thin-crust pizzas are often accompanied by a big green salad tossed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic or red wine vinegar. In Naples, unsliced eight-inch mini pies are popular.
For more ideas to make your pizza better, check out the recipes below.
Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.