words | Mark Viales
Sometimes in life you are confronted with an irresistible aroma that can send you down memory lane that brings forth an insatiable craving for that cuisine. Pizza is a common choice for many who are blissfully in love with the beautiful marriage between crust and sauce. The delightful melted mozzarella cheese blankets the sauce to create a culinary masterpiece. Make no mistake, when pizza is in the air, there will be mouths watering aplenty.
There is a never-ending debate as to the origins of the homely hot pie that has warmed the hearts of billions of people in all corners of the globe. Some argue that similar bread based dishes with an array of different toppings, similar to pizza, could have originated from Greece, Egypt, Rome and other places. However, the modern day pizza as we know it comes from Italy, Naples to be exact. By the late 18th century, it was common for the poor of the area around Naples to add tomato to their yeast-based flat bread and this is regarded as the pizza we know today. It was soon to become an extremely popular dish, eventually becoming a tourist attraction as these impoverished locals began to take advantage of the adoration from abroad. A similar occurrence took place in the United States in the late 19th century when Italian immigrants opened Pizza up to the American populace. They were to take the dish on a different direction, keeping the essentials, but spreading their own brand on the now global produce.
In Gibraltar, pizza may have come as early as when the first Italian immigrants from Genoa sailed to the Rock, finally settling in Catalan Bay. The tiny Genoese settlement on the East side of Gibraltar was a factory of culinary activity with homemade pastas of all kinds and fillings, numerous Italian recipes and possibly the very first local pizza pies. Many of the Italians who settled in Gibraltar were not very wealthy and the pizza would have been ideal as a way to feed a large family on simple ingredients. Italians share a culture of ‘family-first’ with Gibraltarians, a virtue that is sung wholeheartedly in Gibraltar as a place of empathy for your relatives and close friends. Arguably, the mix of Italian, Spanish, Maltese and the culture of other Mediterranean countries that immigrated to Gibraltar might have served as the building blocks to this mentality. Pizza might have initially been a dish to keep ‘within the family’, but how could the Rock resists such a tasty treat? Just like in the United States, the Italians would open up and unleash their ravishing and scrumptious pizzas to the local population.
Well-known Gibraltarian chef Pepe Palmero is fond of the ‘simple fast-food delicacy’ and told me of the story when he encountered pizza for the very first time.
“After the first reclamation some decades ago, the first estate to be constructed was Harbour Views. I used to run a shop in a small market that was set up in the building site selling all sorts of goods,” he said. “There was an English lady called Maggie – descendant of Italians – who ran a canteen there and started creating this little snack that became very popular.”
Scores of hungry customers, from construction workers, to any passers-by would be ensnared by the alluring aroma emanating from a pizza freshly pulled from the oven. It was the first time, in Pepe’s memory, that the dish became commercialised and sold in vast quantities. There was no stopping the culinary movement on the Rock and many businessmen saw the potential behind such an overwhelmingly charming and lovable dish.
Once the estate was built and the workers moved onto their next project, Maggie then opened ‘The Market Restaurant’. “It was very traditional and a bit of a man’s dominion in this smoking cafeteria – something out of a 50s black and white movie it seemed,” he said. “But Maggie would be there serving this delicious pizza as well as other fantastic Italian dishes.”
The Anglo-Italian culinary expert went from strength to strength and decided to open something new, ‘The Piccolo’ which was built where La Mamela restaurant now stands at the top of a hill overlooking the Genoese village of Catalan Bay. “She had an old fashioned oven to create the best kind of pizza and even made her own dough from scratch. She made all versions of the pie and people used to go crazy with it. There were long queues that formed to snatch up these hot snacks as there were no deliveries back then and not everyone had a car or a bike.”
The craze then slowed down when Maggie gave up the restaurant business, but has really come back with a bang in the last decade or so with fast-food giants Pizza Hut and Domino’s now mainstays in Gibraltar and delivering right to your doorstep.
“Bianca’s Restaurant was also one of the first restaurants to make the proper Italian style pizza some time ago. The chef there specialised in it and used traditional methods, even spinning the dough on his finger like an expert showman, just like they do in Italy. I think that many Gibraltarians enjoyed this. I have always asked myself why nobody has made a pizzeria with a window into the chef’s kitchen to see them prepare them. It is a bit of an art at times and would be a great show. I am sure someone will do it once they read this article.”
However, much of the excitement has sprung up in the last few years through the introduction of the traditional Italian stone-baked pizza oven. The baking chamber is made of fireproof brick, concrete, stone, clay, or cob. The traditional way to heat the oven is to use wood or charcoal to create an intensive heat that cooks the pizza to perfection. In some cases, an old stone-baked oven would even add its own flavour to the pizza after decades of use, making it unique. However, nowadays most of them are often fired with natural gas (which is now easily available with propane gas delivery) or even electricity. It still keeps the heat at the top, which is the essential component to cook the pizza, and can also give an authentic taste. “My Grandson loves the stuff. It is like a second wave of pizzas has landed on the Rock. In these ovens, it heats the pizza pie the whole way round and does not use electricity. It gives it that authentic and rustic taste. What you need is flame and heat to make a good pizza.”
Gibraltar is now spoiled for choice with Italian and American style pizzas galore at the people’s beckoning call but Pepe said that it is actually very easy to make in reality. “As soon as you see a nice brown crest then out it comes. It doesn’t need a lot of cooking. Put your tomato, salt, pepper and some herbs and that’s it. But you need to know what you are doing, if not, it can be a disaster. It is important to keep an eye on it and make sure it does not burn.”