That's no Pizza: Pompeii Painting Doesn't Depict Italy's Iconic Dish

The fresco dates back nearly 2,000 years — long before tomatoes and mozzarella were available.

A fresco, depicting a table with food, on the wall of an ancient Pompeian house.
A fresco, depicting a table with food, on the wall of an ancient Pompeian house.
Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP

MILAN (AP) — A still-life fresco discovered recently in the Pompeii archaeological site looks like a pizza, but it's not, experts at the archaeological site said Tuesday.

They noted that key ingredients needed to make Italy's iconic dish — tomatoes and mozzarella — were not available when the fresco was painted some 2,000 years ago.

Tomatoes were only introduced to Europe from the Americas a few centuries ago, and some histories have it that the discovery of mozzarella led directly to the invention of pizza in nearby Naples in the 1700s.

The image is instead believed to be a focaccia covered with fruit, including pomegranate and possibly dates, finished with spices or a type of pesto, experts said. In the fresco, it is served on a silver plate and a wine chalice stands next to it.

The contrast of the frugal meal served in a luxurious setting, denoted by the silver tray, is not unlike modern-day pizza, "born as a poor-man's dish in southern Italy, which has won over the world and is served even in starred restaurants," said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological site.

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed in the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The sudden and deadly event left much of the structure intact, embalmed in volcanic ash, and the site is now a major archaeological project and tourist attraction.

The Coldiretti ag lobby immediately seized on the discovery of the fresco to promote pizza — invented as a quick meal for the working poor — as a national treasure. Today, pizza represents one-third of the food budget of foreign visitors and generates total annual revenues of 15 billion euros ($16.4 billion) in Italy.

The art of the Neapolitan pizzamaker was put on UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list in 2017, recognized for its four phases of dough preparation and for being baked exclusively in a wood oven at 485 degrees Celsius (905 degrees Fahrenheit.)

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