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Did Julius Caesar Eat Pizza?

November 27, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant no comments
Did Julius Caesar Eat Pizza?

“Food that graced ancient Roman tables”

Every chef is also a little bit of a food historian. To understand a dish, it’s important to know its history, and that’s especially true of cuisines with a rich and illustrious history. The Italian food you love today has a colorful history that stretches back millennia to the food that graced ancient Roman tables. Even one of Italy’s most famous creations, the pizza, goes farther back than you might think. Even Julius Caesar may have eaten something we would recognize as a kind of pizza, but he didn’t get to enjoy a New York slice the way we know it.

The classic Neapolitan pizza wasn’t created until the late 1800s. Until southern Italy got a taste of tangy tomatoes and adapted them to their menu, there could be no familiar pizza sauce. That’s about two millennia too late for Caesar to have enjoyed a red sauce, but Caesar probably did enjoy another condiment that isn’t as well-known today: liquamen. Liquamen, a salty fish-based sauce that probably tasted much like anchovies, was a favorite for Romans of every status, and bottles of it were as likely to be found on Caesar’s table for a state banquet as on the kitchen table in the home of a farmer or merchant.

Caesar could have enjoyed his liquamen with something that is familiar to any pizza-lover – a crisp, flat round of flavorful, yeasty bread. The ancient Romans loved great bread as much as Italians today appreciate it, and they were inventive with how they served it. It’s no wonder, then, that some Romans enjoyed their focaccia-like bread with a topping or filling. Stacks of the bread were served on Roman tables to let guests enjoy plain, drizzled with olive oil or folded around a bite of meat or cheese. In fact, the word “pizza” was around before the concept as it’s known today, being used first about a thousand years ago to describe a flatbread with something tasty atop it.

As for those toppings, Caesar would be familiar with most of today’s options. Italian sausage redolent of fennel would have been a familiar sight on any well-to-do Roman’s table, and prosciutto’s history goes back to Julius Caesar’s era; ham in all its forms was a favorite for Romans. Pepperoni and salami would have been reserved for honored guests; the black pepper that gives them their characteristic taste was as precious as gold in ancient Rome. Onions, mushrooms and olives were completely familiar to the Roman table, too, and they were often served as condiments with bread. About the only common pizza toppings that would seem truly strange to the Roman emperor are green peppers and tomatoes, both New World foods that Europeans had not yet encountered.

For many aficionados, pizza is all about the cheese. All of the cheeses that top a modern-day pizza would have been available to Caesar’s kitchen, too. Mozzarella cheese is made fresh with ingredients that would have been available to any Roman chef. Milk, rennet, lemons and salt were part of the Roman pantry, and they enjoyed fresh cheese with their meals as much as modern diners. A grating of Parmesan cheese is the finishing touch for pizza and other Italian dishes, but the Romans likely ate a similar cheese centuries ago. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese had already been perfected in Parma more than a thousand years ago, so it’s likely that the hard cheeses described by Roman contemporaries of Julius Caesar tasted a lot like the current version.

In one sense, Julius Caesar never ate a pizza because he didn’t have some of its main ingredients. However, he probably ate something quite similar to it, albeit with liquamen instead of tomato sauce atop it. The next time you grab a slice of pizza, think about the history behind each bite; it’s one of the things that makes Italian food so exciting!

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