Sometimes it's hard to remember that pizza, which has become one of the most American of all foods, actually originated centuries ago near Naples, Italy. However, it wasn't until 1889 that the forerunner of what Americans have come to know as pizza was created. That year, an Italian tavern owner created a pizza out of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil in the colors of the Italian flag. He dubbed it the Margherita pizza in honor of an Italian queen, and it has endured as the classic Italian pizza.
Shortly after World War II, pizza found its way to America, where it was transformed from a simple, healthy down-to-earth food, to "Pizza Americana." In classic American style, it became overloaded with cheese and high-fat toppings.
Pizza is now very big business in the United States and abroad. Although in this country the most popular pizza toppings continue to be pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers and mozzarella, the National Assn. of Pizza Operators tells us that at one time or another, "pizza makers have tried virtually every type of food on pizzas, including peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, mashed potatoes, even oysters, crayfish and dandelions." (It isn't hard to imagine why those didn't catch on.)
In 1997, Consumer Reports magazine published a list of some of the favorite regional toppings from the biggest U.S. pizza chains overseas.
Germany: sauerkraut, ham and onions.
Greece: feta cheese and olives.
Guatemala: black bean sauce.
Russia: sardines, tuna, mackerel, salmon, onions (not all on the same pizza, we hope).
Hong Kong: Sichuan chicken.
Indonesia: shrimp, bean curd, mushrooms, with spicy sauce.
Malaysia: curry, mutton, onions.
Poland: cabbage and sausage.
Pizza is by no means junk food; it does supply substantial nutritional value. The crust (flour, water, yeast and salt) has complex carbohydrates and fiber, especially if it is made with whole-grain flour. Mozzarella cheese has lots of calcium and is lower in fat than some other varieties. Tomato sauce is high in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant known as lycopene, and some beta carotene, potassium and folic acid.
Nonetheless, it isn't hard to turn pizza into a high-fat, high-sodium, high-calorie, artery-clogging nightmare. A typical slice of pizza from your local pizzeria may be loaded with cheese, pepperoni and oil. It could weigh as much as 8 ounces, have more than 600 calories, 30 grams of fat and 1,000 milligrams of sodium (that's half a day's worth of fat and sodium). Frozen pizza can be just as bad, but at least you can compare labels before you buy.
Making pizza at home is easier than you might think, even if you start from scratch with the crust. If you don't get any particular pleasure out of kneading dough and you're pressed for time, there are excellent ready-made, refrigerated and frozen pizza crusts on the market. Pita bread also makes a good base for pizza, as does the prebaked, preseasoned crust that you can buy just about anywhere.
Pizza toppings can be about as varied as your imagination will allow. How about chopped tomatoes, roasted potatoes, broccoli, chopped onions, sliced bell peppers (red, green, yellow, brown), spinach, chick peas, leeks, cubes of baked squash, shrimp, tuna, roasted chicken, cooked ground turkey? In fact, just about any leftover vegetables or meats would be great on a pizza.
Dessert pizzas, with sweet crusts made of cookie crumbs or delicate pastry, are becoming very popular, and the toppings can include nonfat yogurt, ricotta cheese, fruits, chocolate or whatever strikes your fancy.
Here's a recipe for California Pizza from the "Simply Healthy Lowfat Cookbook" (Rebus, 1995), which includes a simple recipe for a homemade crust that contains a nutritional bonus, carrot juice.
* Basil Oil
1/3 cup (packed) fresh basil
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons olive oil
* Pizza Dough (or buy it ready-
1 1/2 cups carrot juice
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry
1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Cornmeal, for dusting the bak-
ing sheet (optional)
* Sauce and toppings (you can
change these toppings if you
Two 8-ounce cans no-salt-added
1 large carrot, shredded
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves minced
8 cups (packed) chopped
1 1/2 cups shredded part-skim
1 small red bell pepper, cut into
1 cup yellow pear tomatoes
1/2 cup finely slivered red onion
1/4 cup fresh jalapeno pepper
Puree basil leaves with chicken broth and olive oil, and set aside.