Most people believe that in Naples oven cooked pizza came first and fried pizza came later.

However, that is not true. The truth is that fried ‘zeppole’ or doughballs and other such similar fried leavened dough were the first street foods, as witnessed by various historical texts.

The reason for this is very simple: the things required to make these foods were few and easily obtained – leavened dough, a pan full of oil or animal fat and some wood to burn.

The first recipe book on fried foods – the ‘Liber de Coquina’- was written in Naples during the reign of Charles of Anjou between 1285 and 1309. The unknown author sets out the recipe for a dish known as ‘crespelle’, instructing: “Take white flour diluted with hot water and let it leaven with yeast until it rises, then cook in a pan with boiling water and honey, magic.” This recipe may in fact be considered as a forefather of the fried pizza.

We also find recipes for fried foods in the recipe book of Bartolomeo Sacchi (nicknamed il Platina), a distinguished humanist who around 1450 took it upon himself to translate into Latin from vulgar dialect the works of Maestro Martino, a celebrated cook within the Sforza court. We can already find fried ‘zeppole’, or doughballs, in Napes from around 1588, as quoted by Gianbattista del Tufo in his book “Ritratto o modello delle grandezze, delizie e meraviglie della nobilissima città di Napoli” (A depiction or model of the greatness, delights and wonders of the noble city of Naples). In the early 1800’s Naples, at the time the third largest city by head in Europe, already had 17 fry shops which used lard due to the excessive cost of olive oil.

In “La Zelmira”, an opera written in 1770 by Francesco Cerlone and set to music by the famous composer Maestro Giovanni Paisiello, there is a scene set in a fry shop, or “friggitoria”, where the characters talk about a utensil called a “vacante”.

In a comedy from around 1824 to 1827 named “Le ridicule operazioni, o sia Pulcinella vendicato” the same playwright sets the scene in a fry shop again, writing in dialect “Aje chi vo la paletta, e lo trepete, la scummarola e la votapesce?”, roughly translating as “So, who wants some utensils for frying pizza?” In the next joke, Pulcinella brags “venneva le pizze fritte e io le feci mettere lo cappottone”, or “He was selling pizza and I made him put a coat on.”

In 1837, Ippolito Cavalcanti sets out the recipe for stuffed and fried calzone (calzoncini ‘mbuttunati e fritti). In the early 1900s fry shops in Naples became eateries in their own right, with the growth of the local fry shop and the recognition of the “friggitore”, “panzarottaro” and “rosticciere” as skilled roles. This explosion in popularity was especially evident in the post war period.  It is no coincidence that the phrase “oggi a otto” (eight days from now) became famous after the films of De Sica with Sofia Loren, drawn from the book of the same name by Giuseppe Marotta. This phrase meant that the poor could buy themselves a pizza and pay for it within eight days.