A great email landed in my inbox this week via the inbox of Slice founder Adam Kuban. Adam and I shoot questions to each other all the time but this one was particularly interesting because I had recently experienced a slice that helped inform my answer. Read on…
QUESTION from a guy named LARRY: A twenty-something friend of mine tried suggesting that pizza-folding was a “fairly recent thing in New York. It started like in the 60’s.” After picking my 54 year old jaw off the ground, I questioned his intelligence and manliness, scoffing at his source: a Discovery Channel documentary from a few years back on the history of pizza.
Phooey, I’m hitting a wall researching the subject, do you have any idea when pizza-folding started?
Great question and of course one that sorts controversy. Since old school NYC pizza joints like John’s, Lombardi’s, and Totonno’s don’t offer slices and pizzerias that opened after WWII generally DO, people often assume that there’s a correlation between the timeline and pizza eating method. Gas ovens (introduced in the early 1940s) did make pizza by the slice a viable business option since those ovens are heated indirectly at a much lower temperature than their wood- and coal- burning brethren. Movies and TV shows of the 1960s forged the relationship between pizza by the slice and NYC, helping to spread the concept to other cities. So your friend certainly has reason for the theory. But there’s more to the story…
I recently ate at a pizzeria in Casserta, Italy (photo above) that offered pizza al portafoglio, or “pizza in a wallet,” on their menu. It’s a folded slice wrapped with paper eaten on-the-go. As you can see in the photo above, we were in a sit-down restaurant so there was no real need to serve the pizza this way. It’s an homage to a local tradition honored by this famous pizzeria (Pepe in Grani). I have no idea when pizza al portafoglio started, but it’s clear that it folding pizza was commonplace in Naples before the 1960s. The 1954 film L’oro di Napoli features an episode about a pizza maker (Sophia Loren), who serves pizza this way. Since it’s an entire pizza and not a single slice, this is referred to as pizza a libretto, or “pizza in a book.”
It doesn’t show folded, but this 1858 etching titled “Il Pizzajuolo” by Filippo Palizzi clearly shows pizza being sold by the slice by a street hawker. I’ve seen several similar images, all dated around the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s very cool to see a food like pizza in the context of old documents like these.
It’s easy to understand why someone might think folding pizza started in New York City. Most of Italy eats pizza with fork and knife, so it appears as though the tradition started after the dish left its native country. But we have to keep in mind that pizza is not necessarily Italian to begin with, it’s Neapolitan, and the culture of Naples is key to the understanding of pizza at its origin. Naples was an active port and one of the most densely populated cities in Europe at the time pizza was gaining popularity in the 19th century, but as a peasant food it was not often eaten by outsiders. Even today, the most common reason for visiting Naples is as a connecting point to go somewhere else (Capri, Amalfi, etc). Pizza was a street food enjoyed by the lazzaroni (peasants) thanks to its low price point. It’s unlikely these people were eating a meal at a table with fork and knife. But because of their circumstances and the culture of Naples, this method was isolated until its resurgence a century later in New York City.
To sum it all up, people were definitely folding slices of pizza before post WWII NYC, but it was only happening in Naples and never achieved the status of compulsory eating method the way it did in New York City. So your 20-something friend might want to be careful about using television programs as historical references.