There is no more iconic Italian food than pizza. What is it about this crunchy cushion of dough, topped with a smattering of tomato sauce, a few shredded chunks of buffalo mozzarella and a fragrant flash of sun-kissed basil? Since 1940 it has become the world’s go-to meal, though other countries have taken Italy’s signature dish and made it its own (to the horror of native Italians in some cases – like deep dish or Hawaiian pizza!!) Nothing quite beats eating pizza in its native habitat, Bella Italia. Join us for a journey through the glorious history of the humble pizza and its surprising facts and figures. Plus – we’ll reveal where the Palazzo del Vice Re team likes to eat their pizza and the best pizza in Bellagio, Varenna and other Lake Como locales.
The origins of the humble pizza are humble indeed – but not originally Italian. It was the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians who had unleavened flatbread as a staple food, made out of a simple mix of flour and water, cooked on a hot stone and seasoned with herbs. In the 7th century BC, the Greeks brought their tasty flatbread to the colony they founded on the Bay of Naples. Fast forward to the 1800s, when eyewitness accounts from such renowned travel writers as Dumas or Goethe describe the working poor in the booming port city of Naples, ragged wretches known as lazzaroni. Dumas noted that the lazzaroni have two staple foods: watermelon in summer and pizza in winter, and that the pizza toppings, ranging from lard and anchovies to cheese or just a splash of olive oil, gave insight into the seasonal products.
There were two products that arrived in Italy during the middle ages, which forever changed the face of pizza. The first was the tomato. Brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Europeans initially thought they were poisonous. Gradually the tomato gained traction as a delicious food – whispers about its power as an aphrodisiac certainly didn’t hurt! – and it spread from Spain to the Kingdom of Naples with the new Spanish rulers from the houses of Aragon and Bourbon. The first mention of tomatoes in a recipe comes in a Naples cookbook from 1692, which describes a tomato sauce “in the Spanish style”.
The other product was mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk. It was in the 12th century that we find the first mention of a “mozza” cheese, made by Benedictine monks in the region of Campania, but it wasn’t until the 13th century that it became common to use the milk of the water buffalo. Historians believe that the water buffalo arrived in Sicily with the island’s Arab conquerors in the 10th century and were then brought to the mainland by the Normans at the turn of the first millennium. Italy’s marshland proved ideal for the beasts of burden – particularly in the Campania region, where they are still bred today. The cheese is made by mixing the buffalo milk with rennet, then heating and hot spinning the curds until they become pliable and ready to cut, or “mozzare”, into its various forms.
The question now is how did all come together? How did Pizza Margherita, still Italy’s preferred variety of pizza, get its name? It’s a classic chicken-and-egg story. Some say that renowned Neapolitan pizza baker, or “pizzaiolo”, Raffaele Esposito created the Pizza Margherita for Queen Margherita of Savoy, when the second queen of the recently unified Kingdom of Italy visited Naples in 1889. Others insist she asked to sample Esposito’s different pizzas, and when the plain cheese and basil was her favorite, he named it after her. Regardless of what came first, it is clear that Pizza Margherita was a play on the “tricolore”, featuring the red, white and green of the united Italy’s flag.
After Naples’ signature treat got a very public endorsement from the Queen, it spread like wildfire throughout the country and even found its way to America with the millions of Italian immigrants arriving between 1870 and 1914. The first pizzeria in Manhattan was G. Lombardi’s on Spring Street, which started selling pizza by the slice in 1905 and still going strong today. But it was WWII that made pizza popular outside of Italy and Italian immigrant communities. When allied troops stationed in Italy during the war started to tire of their food rations, they looked to the local economy for cheap, filling and delicious fare – the pizza fit the (GI) bill! Veterans returned home with memories of the tasty Italian treat and started seeking out pizzerias in the Italian neighborhoods. Pizza had made it to the mainstream and won the hearts of millions across the world!
Pizza Facts & Figures
- There are 63,000 pizzerias in Italy (42,000 eat-in and 21,000 takeaway)
- More than 200,000 people work in the pizza industry
- Italians eat 1.6 billion pizzas every year, around 16 pounds of pizza per person
- The industry-wide turnover in the pizza industry amounts to about 30 billion
- More than 59% of all pizzas sold in Italy cost less than 8 euros
- Abruzzo is the region with the highest concentration of pizzerias – 1 for every 267 inhabitants
- Half of all pizzas made in Italy are sold on the weekend
- It takes 200 hours of training to qualify as a pizzaiolo
- The pizzaiolo profession is gradually becoming less male-dominated: Tuscan pizzaiola Clara Micheli was crowned Italy’s 2018 Master Pizza Champion!
The Best Pizza on Lake Como
Here at Palazzo del Vice Re, our guests are big pizza fans. They often ask where they can find the best pizza restaurant in Bellagio or near Bellagio, and what other pizzerias in and around Lake Como come highly recommended. Truth be told, you’d have to try hard to find a bad pizza in Italy, but everyone has their favorite pizzerias that really stands out.
Pizza at Casa Pertusini
If you ask the Pertusini family, owners of the Palazzo del Vice Re, where to find the best pizza on Lake Como, they’ll say, “At our house!” For the Pertusinis, pizza making is a family affair. Mamma Laura and Papa Bruno passed their secret family recipe down to their three sons, who have become quite accomplished amateur pizzaioli! Some of our lucky Palazzo del Vice Re guests have even been invited to dine on Pizza Pertusini – or take a pizza-making class with them – in their lovely family home. This is the ultimate in Italian cuisine – food prepared lovingly by hand using traditional family recipes and local ingredients, and a meal enjoyed with family and friends around a well-laid table full of lively storytelling and laughter!
BabaYaga Steak House & Pizza
Via E. Vitali 8, 22021 Bellagio
+39 031 951 915
Price per pizza: €7 and 12
If you ask either of our lovely ladies at the Front Desk, where they should go for the best pizza in Bellagio, they will immediately say BabaYaga. This Bellagio classic is known among visitors and locals alike for their succulent steaks and tasty platters of cured meats and carpaccio. But it is their signature oblong pizzas, served on a stylish wooden board, that have everyone raving. The crust is crispy and light, the toppings are generous, but not overbearing and the atmosphere – whether you’re on the terrace flanked by flower boxes or indoors in the charming stone-clad dining room.
Lungolago Lario Manzoni 8, 22021 Bellagio
+ 39 031 950212
Price per pizza: between €7 and 10
This is our owner Andrea Grisdale’s go-to pizza place. She always gets the Salame Piccante, which is a cheese pizza with spicy salami. It’s similar to a pepperoni pizza in America, only don’t order pepperoni in Italy – if you do, you will get bell peppers instead (which is always confusing!!)… Carillon has a great outdoor space right by the harbor, with a shady roof for those hot summer days, where Andrea likes to sit and watch the boats go by – or you can move inside in a pinch!
Piazza Canestri, 10, 22021 Bellagio CO, Italy
Tel: +39 031 950440
Andrea is lucky (or unlucky!) to live just a few minutes’ walk from this amazing bakery and pastry shop. It is the perfect spot for delicious cookies and cakes (such as the local specialty Miascia cake!), but Andrea loves their savory snacks – especially when enjoyed on their small terrace with a glass of bubbly. Palazzo guests can eat there, or bring to the Palazzo a selection of “pizzette”, small pizzas topped with an olive, or “focaccina”, little bites of focaccia that are a bit like the dough balls some pizzerias serve.
Piazza Giovanni XXIII 2, 22035 Canzo
Tel: +39 031 682310
The small town of Canzo lies in the heart of the Triangolo del Lario, that triangle-shaped mountainous area between the two southern branches of Lake Como. Andrea sometimes makes the trip to the sport center in Canzo with her tennis friends for some indoor tennis in the winter – they also offer basketball, volleyball and indoor soccer. Every time she does, she makes sure to make time for a pizza at Green Six. This is a truly local place, off the beaten track and away from the hustle and bustle of Lake Como’s touristy towns. The wood-fired pizzas from Green Six are second to none – worth the trip for them alone!
Via Bagnana, 10, 22025 Lezzeno
Tel. +39 031 914521
Price per pizza: around €8
This small hotel – basically our neighbors just a stone’s throw from the Palazzo! – has a fantastic Pizzeria, where all of the locals flock for delicious pie, whether it is from our lakefront village of Lezzeno or nearby towns like Nesso. They serve their pizzas small – basically plate size – which may be a bit small for big appetites, but you can always order more! The quality and flavor of these little gems are spot on. Our butler Jagath has even been known to collect pizzas for our Palazzo guests, who can then dine on the Sun Terrace with a fine bottle of wine and enjoy the view as the sun sets over the lake.
Other Pizzerias around Lake Como:
Via Odescalchi 10/12, Como
+49 031 2753421
Price per pizza: between €4 and 11
In Como, Guest Services Supervisor Chiara prefers the rustic Locanda Barbarossa with its intimate atmosphere and charming walls clad in local Moltrasio stone. Although the menu has a lot to offer besides pizza (yummy risotto!), Chiara thinks this is where the Locanda’s menu really shines. One of Chiara’s personal favorites is the Calzone, a pizza folded in on itself with the toppings inside! When the weather is fine, there are even a couple of tables outside on this quiet side street near the Church of San Fedele.
Bar Il Molo
Via Riva Garibaldi 14-4, 23829 Varenna
Tel +39 03 41 830 070
Price per pizza: between €7 to 10
This isn’t the fanciest place on Lake Como, but you could argue that its lakefront location is one of the prettiest. The quaint wrought iron chairs, the leafy plane trees and the gentle waves literally lapping at your feet make for a lovely backdrop, and the pizza – even if it’s not “verace napoletana” – is quite delicious paired with a crisp white wine or an Aperol Spritz. Prices are pretty cheap, but the view of the little pebble beach and the snow-capped mountains is free!
Piazza Domenico Croggi, 10, 22100 Como CO
Via Luigi Dottesio, 22, 22100 Como CO
+39 031 307284
Price per pizza: between €7 and 10
Our colleague Martina at IC Bellagio is more partial to Napule è, which has two branches in Como (on the lakefront or on the outskirts of town) and another restaurant downtown Milan. This family-run is recognized by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana for its authentic Neapolitan pizza. “Maestro Pizzaiolo” Ciro and “Pizzaiolo Verace Napoletano” Antonio worked tirelessly to perfect their dough recipe – and it shows! They use only the best ingredients in their toppings, from Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP to Bresaola Valtellinese i.g.p. and authentic Neapolitan treats like “friarielli” greens, nduja sausage from Spillinga and pork crackling from Naples. The bright white and Tyrrhenian Sea blue walls put you in a southern Italian mood, and the service with a smile – particularly from Ciro and Antonio’s sister Katiuscia – make every meal truly special.
Piazza Era, 7, 23900 Lecco LC, Italy
+39 0341 171 6957
Price per pizza: between €8 to 15
South of Lecco town, this lovely pizzeria and tapas bar is located on a leafy square overlooking the mighty Adda river. Manuelino, Soqquadro’s pizzaiolo from Naples, is meticulous in the selection of his “raw materials”, whether it is mozzarella di bufala campana or cherry tomatoes from the sun-kissed slopes of Mt Vesuvius. The prices here are a bit higher – between 8 and 15 euros – but the craftsmanship and the 30 combinations, some very inventive, are divine. Plus, if you’re feeling a bit of Iberian fever, the Soqquadro menu has a lot of delicious Spanish-inspired tapas and an over-the-top paella catalana.