Pizza is now multicultural experience

Published March 28, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

It is twilight along Atlantic Avenue, and at Moustache the aromas of Provence, Italy and the Middle East have begun to dance in the air. Behind the counter, owner Salam Al-Rawi, a rogue pizza man who calls his product pitza, watches and smiles as a parade of work-weary locals stops in for takeout. Ten years ago in France, the blue-eyed, mustachioed Al-Rawi put himself through school by making pizza. Then, lonely for the foods of his native Iraq, he began to use the pizza oven to make pita bread.

Soon, inspiration struck.

Pizza made on pita equals _ what else? _ pitza.

Now Al-Rawi serves his invention at his Middle Eastern "Pitzeria" in New York's Brooklyn borough, where the dish has become so popular with his clientele that he soon will open a branch of Moustache in Manhattan.

Pizza in all its forms _ both traditional and innovative _ is on a roll. In fact, spurred by changes in lifestyle, economics and just plain old love of a gooey, drippy slice, the pizza business has been increasing by about a billion dollars a year since the mid-'80s.

Americans now eat 90 acres of pizza a day. And a study recently released by the NPD Group, a marketing and research company, states that the old American favorite, apple pie, has been steadily losing ground to pizza, our new favorite American pie, which is four times as popular.

But just how American is pizza pie?

Well, about as American the mass of immigrants who built and continue to build our country and then contribute their own ethnic touches to our national pie.

Immigrants have been making this southern Italian dish their own since it landed in New York during the second half of the 19th Century. In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi opened the city's first pizzeria. Then, in the post-war 1940s, our soldiers came back from Italy wanting pizza, a demand that ultimately moved it out of the Italian neighborhoods and into daily life.

American cookbooks, such as The Joy of Cooking, started printing recipes for pizza in the 1950s. And in the 1960s, it became one of America's favorite fast foods.

But it wasn't always Italians who produced it.

First came the Greeks, who proliferated in the restaurant business in general, then the Arabs and more recently the Indians. Along with them, other ethnic groups began to open pizzerias.

"Because the pizza business requires little money, little knowledge of English, and, at its most basic, little skill, it is a natural business for immigrants," said William G. Lockwood, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in ethnicity and food. "But it is also a way for an immigrant too poor to open a restaurant that serves the food of his own country to have a place to serve at least a few of his native dishes."

So, Greek-run pizzerias often sell gyros and Israeli pizzerias often sell falafel.

Although many countries already have foods of their own similar to pizza _ the tandoori-baked nan of India, the oval-shaped Catalonian coca, the pork-strewn pastoromailla of Macedonia _ it is American pizza that is on the march.

Paula Werne, editor of Pizza Today, the industry trade magazine, at the pizza convention in New Orleans earlier this year, said that there were delegates from 22 nations.

"Foreign participation has increased considerably since 1983," Werne said. "Pizza is growing everywhere, and it is adapted to the palates of those countries. In Japan, you can find it topped with squid and eel; in Australia, with shrimp and pineapple; in Pakistan, with curry; in Russia, with red herring, and in Costa Rica, with coconut."

Such international popularity seems appropriate for a dish that, from its inception, was cross-cultural. Pizza has roots not only in Italy, but in Greece and Egypt, and also among the Etruscans, who came to northern Italy from Asia Minor. In its most ancient form _ simply gruel baked on a rock _ it appeared throughout the Middle East.

So, when Al-Rawi opened his restaurant and began to serve pitzas as well as lahambajin, an Armenian beef-and-lamb-topped pizza prototype, he was, in a sense, bringing things full circle, going back to the cradle of pizza, as well as creating something new.