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Ancient Roman wall painting does not depict pizza after all, archeologists say

A still-life fresco recently discovered in the ruins of ancient Pompeii was at first believed to depict a pizza, but archeologists say it is not the iconic Italian dish after all. 

The fresco was painted some 2,000 years ago, long before the key ingredients in pizza – tomatoes and mozzarella – arrived in Italy. 

Tomatoes were only introduced to Europe from the Americas a few centuries ago. It is widely believed that the discovery of mozzarella led directly to the invention of pizza in nearby Naples in the 1700s.

Italy Pompeii Fresco

This picture provided on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, by the Pompeii Archaeological Park shows the wall of an ancient Pompeian house with a fresco depicting a table with food.  (Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP)

The image in the ancient fresco 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 fresco depicts a relatively frugal meal served in a luxurious setting as seen by the silver tray. This is not unlike the modern-day pizza which was born as a “poor man’s dish in southern Italy [but] has won over the world and is served in starred restaurants,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological site.

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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. 

Pompeii Archaeological Site

This picture provided on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, by the Pompeii Archaeological Park shows the wall of an ancient Pompeian house with frescoes, one depicting a table with food.  (Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP)

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 $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 905 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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