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Pitta Pie

September 03, 1997|CHARLES PERRY

Many people have idly wondered whether there's any connection between pita bread and pizza. Why, yes, there is. Both words come from the Greek word for pitch, pitta.

Not that anybody ever made pittas out of pitch, the sticky resin of certain evergreen trees. It's just that about 1,700 years ago, the Greek language needed a new word for plain flatbread, the old word having come to mean a thick cake. Pitch naturally forms flat layers, so pitta was a handy term for something flat.

The Greeks conquered Italy in the 6th century and managed to hold on to the southern part of it for 500 years. There they introduced pitta, which is still a word for flatbread in the southern provinces of Calabria and Basilicata. The pronunciation changed to "pizza" as it spread north into central Italy.

In most of Italy, pizza is still a plain flatbread (in Abruzzo, often made from corn meal). The idea of baking a topping on it is not ancient--it originated in Naples less than 200 years ago. On the other hand, the connection between pitta/pizza and the modern pizza toppings may go back earlier. In Calabria, pitta can be a sort of two-crust pie made with leavened dough and stuffed with meat and cheese.

Meanwhile, the Turks conquered Greece in the 15th century and adopted pitta, which they spread among the nations they conquered from Armenia to Hungary. It was probably from (formerly Turkish) Romania that the word "pita" reached Israel about a century ago.

In Greece, the word came to be the name for various fairly thick pies made from filo dough, such as spanakopita. By contrast, in most Balkan languages, pita can mean a single sheet of filo--the ultimate in thinness, way thinner than a cake of pitch.

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