The history of pizza is a long one. We know that the Etruscans, an early Italian people, baked a flat bread on stones 3,000 years ago that they covered in toppings of cheese, oil and herbs, and they called it picea.
That's not too far from today's word. Etymologists can enjoy chasing the roots of this word, possibly from the Aramaic word for bread, pita, or from the ancient Greek for leavened bread, pikte.
Later, some 2,000 years ago, the Romans adopted the Etruscan picea and kept the name. Carbonised examples have been found in the bakeries of Pompeii. But like everything else, the pizza evolved. From this flat bread it became the dish we know today, where the toppings are cooked with the bread, rather than added later. The word pizza is first found in Italian just before the end of the first millennium, where it referred to a flat bread with toppings from Gaeta, near Naples.
The two main changes from ancient times to today's pizza are, first, the tomato, which didn't arrive in Europe until the mid-16th century. Initially they were considered poisonous, but by the early 17th century the poor of Naples were adding tomatoes to their pizzas. Then came mozzarella. Although the water buffalo, from whose milk mozzarella is made, had arrived in Italy from India more than 1,000 years earlier, it wasn't until the 18th century that mozzarella became popular.
In 1889 the first pizza, as we know it, was made in Naples for Queen Margherita of Savoy by Raffaele Esposito. She tasted a pizza of mozzarella, tomato and basil -- the red, white and green of the Italian flag -- and pronounced it her favourite dish. The pizza Margherita was born. This and the Marinara, which is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and olive oil, are the only two pizzas that are recognised by the True Neapolitan Pizza Association and there are specific rules that determine their authenticity.
As far as I know, no one in Ireland claims to make an authentic Neapolitan pizza, but there are pizzerias that try to do it right. The most important element for a genuine pizza is that it should be cooked in a brick-domed, wood-fired oven. With today's exaggerated worries over health and safety they're virtually impossible to install in Ireland, so we have to make do with other kinds of ovens. A brick-domed, gas-fired oven comes close, but it obviously doesn't produce the added flavour of wood smoke.
It's one of these gas ovens that's the first thing you see when you walk into Oliveto in Dun Laoghaire, which is where Roly's used to be. The oven door is open and you can see the flames at the back of it, much as you would in the wood-fired version. As soon as I saw the oven, I knew that I'd be ordering a pizza. Oliveto, which means olive grove in Italian, is quite plainly decorated with simple chairs and tables, rather like an Italian pizzeria would be. There's a straightforward menu and an acceptable wine list and, on both bills of fare, the prices are reasonable.
I was there with Marian Kenny and we got a table by the window, from where I could look across at the pizza oven, which is surrounded by a counter where you can sit when all the tables are occupied. There was a blackboard with the day's specials as well, so Marian chose the homemade ravioli from the board as a starter and I chose the mussels from the menu. She then ordered the tagliata, a sliced steak for her main course, and I chose the pizza quattro stagioni. Two bottles of San Pellegrino and a bottle of Peroni beer completed our order.
Our starters were brought by a charming Italian waitress, which added to the sense of authenticity. Marian's ravioli were served 'in umido', or in a light broth. The ravioli were filled with the classic mix of spinach and ricotta, and, I must say, were very well made. Particularly good was the broth, which was very nicely balanced in flavour, tasting exactly as broth like this would in Italy.
My mussels were served in a tomato sauce, which was good but not exciting. Maybe it's the acidity in the tomatoes, but I prefer mussels cooked simply, like in a marinière sauce. Still, they were big and juicy, and there were plenty of them on the plate.
And so to the main event. A large peppered steak came to Marian, cooked perfectly pink and neatly sliced. It was certainly large, not huge, but big enough to make Marian exclaim: "I'll never eat all this." And, in fact, she didn't eat it all, partly because of its sheer size put her off her appetite and also because she doesn't like pepper.
Quattro stagioni means four seasons. It's called that because the topping is divided into four; each quadrant of the pizza has a different topping. The ingredients are the same as the pizza capricciosa, which is what I would normally order but it wasn't on the menu, so I picked the four seasons. What you get with this is mozzarella, tomato, mushrooms, artichokes, cooked ham and olives. Often in Italy you'll get half a boiled egg on a capricciosa too. The pizza base was well made, thin and just crisp enough, and the filling was as per recipe. Nicely done, I thought.
A dessert would have been 'de trop', so we ordered a tea for Marian and an espresso for me. It was a very good espresso, too, but will someone please deliver me from those fecky sugar lumps? "One lump or two?" might work for a mug of tea, but it certainly doesn't work for a ristretto. Just give me some granulated sugar. It's not a lot to ask for.
All in all, the Oliveto makes a fair stab at being Italian and does dishes with some authenticity. I liked it enough to want to go back, although I might wait until the promised sound-deadening happens, since it is a very noisy venue at the moment.
The bill came to €75.50.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FAIR
0-15 = POOR
On a budget
A good idea on a budget would be to have a pizza here. Mine was big and filling, and cost €14. If it is still on the daily specials' list, the ravioli dish that Marian had was very good and cost €10.50
On a blow out
A blow-out in Oliveto would mean eating three courses, which on average would cost you about €40 a head. The tagliata is the most expensive dish on the menu at €24.50. Add a starter and a dessert to that.