Pizza is the most famous Italian food, and the standard tomato and cheese pizza known as pizza margherita is thought of as the quintessential Italian dish. There are many typical Italian dishes, and many of them are well-known around the world. But we sometimes forget — or we never knew in the first place — that Italian food has evolved over the last two centuries. In fact, it has evolved dramatically. The ubiquitous tomato sauce on spaghetti did not become common until the early 20th century. If we look back more than 100 years, we find a kind of Italian cooking that is thoroughly unrecognizable to our 21st-century eyes.
One of my favorite examples of this historical food is a dish from Naples served around 1550. It is a kind of pizza pie probably served in aristocratic and bourgeois homes and called pizza di bocca di dama, which means “lady’s mouth pizza.” Very probably, this extravagant (by today’s standards) pizza, in fact, a pie, was rich and sweet for the ladies and cut into dainty portions so that women, who have smaller mouths than men, could enjoy it. (Remember that older Italian-Americans still call pizza a pizza pie).
The Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi (circa 1500 to 1577), the chef to Pope Pius V, in his book “Opera [dell'arte del cucinare]” published in 1570, gives a recipe. In Scappi’s recipe the influence of Arab cookery is still prominent in the use of sugar, spices and rose water. Also, his recipe shows the medieval fascination with spices has not yet been superseded by aromatics as it was later.
Recipe from another sensibility
In a large mortar, pound the meat from three pigeons, half-spit roasted, without their bones or skin, and the meat from three boiled pigeons with 4 ounces of dates, and 8 ounces of marzipan and 4 ounces of beef bone marrow. If there is no marzipan, then use 8 ounces of almonds cooked in water, and 4 ounces of fine sugar. Mix with six portions of heavy cream and if there is no fresh heavy cream, use 1 pound of fresh sheep’s cheese and pass through a sieve. Then mix with 10 fresh egg yolks and 4 more ounces of fine sugar and 1 ounce cinnamon, and a half-ounce each of cloves and nutmeg.
Cover a pie pan with a sheet of dough, made with fine flour, egg yolks, sugar, butter, rose water and salt in a spiral shape. Place the stuffing into this pie and cover with latticework strips of pie dough. Cook in an oven.
In this pie, musk-flavored biscotti (mostaccioli muschiati) can be put and a sauce made of malvasia wine, pomegranate sauce and a little sugar can be poured over.
This 16th century Neapolitan pie sounds remarkable similar to the contemporary Moroccan pigeon pie known as bastila, and one can only wonder if there may have been some North African influence in kitchens of Naples of 1550.
Can you make this? Although the measurements are imprecise, a competent cook could bake this pie, perhaps replacing the pigeon with dark meat turkey, and using ricotta cheese instead of fresh sheep’s milk cheese. It would be a pie to remember.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo: Lady’s mouth pizza. Credit: Clifford A. Wright