Monday, November 22, 2021

Pineapple on pizza: Sacrilege or welcome innovation?

I’m a member of a number of Italian American Facebook groups, and every so often some one brings up the topic of putting pineapple on pizza. It is usually met with a chorus of strong disapproval, sometimes for reasons of taste but most often because pineapple is not a pizza topping used in Italy, so that makes it an affront to Italians—and by extension, Italian Americans.

This was posted on one of my
Italian American Facebook pages.
Here’s a comment from Sal Milo: “No true Italian would eat it or put it on a pizza. I make pizzas all the time and have been making them for most of my life, and I still will not put it on a pizza.” Another comes from Bill Giglio: “That’s an abomination!” Philip Pannucci wrote: “That’s an insult to pizza.” Frank Lombardo said, “Real Italians would never destroy a pie with the disgusting fruit on it. If you said yes, for the love of God, leave this page.”

Hawaiian pizza,
with ham & pineapple.
I understand that Italian-Americans are rightfully proud of their heritage. I am also fiercely proud to be Italian-American, so much so that I’ve obtained Italian citizenship and purchased a home in the Italian city where my grandparents were born, raised and married. I’m also proud that Italian food is famous worldwide for being so incredibly delicious, fresh and healthy.

However, on the topic of pineapple on pizza, I think we Italian Americans are being a bit closeminded and even snobbish when we summarily dismiss pineapple as a topping possibility. I know this viewpoint will rub some of my friends the wrong way, but consider some history. Many famous Italian dishes and desserts were only made possible by blending the local cuisine with influences from other cultures. For example, sugar, coffee and tomatoes are all imports.

Furthermore, pizza as we know it today has been around for less than two centuries, and in the beginning the toppings were limited. A simple pizza margherita with tomato sauce, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, basil and salt is still preferred by many Italians. That would mean that many of the toppings used since pizza became popular worldwide in the mid-1900s—sausage, peppers, onions, olives, mushrooms, ham, eggplant, artichokes, anchovies, other cheeses, etc.—may have been considered strange when they were first used. But to everyone’s benefit, Italians embraced these diverse choices. I’ve recently been to a number of pizzerias in Italy where French fries and hotdogs are used as toppings—and no one in Italy seems shocked by these.

I will concede that most Italians would not embrace what Americans refer to as Hawaiian pizza, with ham and canned pineapples as toppings, but that has more to do with the fact that Italian pizzas are different than American in the first place, and also because the ham is not as good as Italian prosciutto, and the pineapple is canned and not fresh.

I also find it interesting to note that most of the negative Facebook comments come from Italian Americans, while the occasional native Italian will come out with a comment such as this, from Sandro Cirillo: “I feel that purists are shooting themselves in the foot if they express that some ingredients shouldn’t go on pizza, one of the most versatile dishes that we Italians have. We stick Nutella in it, we put in fries, hotdogs and ketchup over it. We stuff it with figs, blue cheese and honey.”

Cirillo adds that Italians who have sampled Hawaiian pizza were “horrified because the tomato base, processed cheese, cheap ham and tinned pineapple are frankly horrendous.” But he then goes on to say, “Foodies would welcome pineapple on pizza provided that it’s paired with the right ingredients.” For this, Sandro suggests fresh grilled pineapple combined with “smoked brisket, pulled pork with chillies, or spicy prawns and chorizo.” Cheese would be included, but no tomato base.

Cirillo was born near Rome and attended catering college in Italy. He is married to a chef, and he has been in the catering business for more than 20 years. “Italian food never stopped evolving in Italy,” he said. “There is always something new or local secret recipes or ingredients that become mainstream. Sadly, I’ve noticed way too many Italian Americans who have a skewed idea of Italian food and show rigidity.”

After I started a discussion on another Facebook page, Maria Luigia chimed in with this concurring comment: “Im from Italy born and raised. First time I tried pineapple pizza I almost puked. The combo tomato sauce and pineapple is awful to me, but once I tried a very good pineapple pizza with no tomato but a good amount of ventricina (a sausage), pineapple cut in really small pieces, cheese and some cilantro. It was good!

Cirillo does admit that Italians typically can be quite opinionated about food. He recognizes this as an Italian trait, and he is not offended by those who have other views. “We constantly talk about food,” he said. “While we’re having lunch, we already discussing what to make for dinner.”

Cirillo and I agree that while a certain amount of rigidity is necessary, we also need to be open to innovation. While it’s fine to engage in spirited debates about the merits of various meals and ingredients, these discussions should take place in an atmosphere of friendliness and civility—preferably over a nice Italian lunch or dinner. Just not spaghetti and meatballs—oops, another hot topic.