ALSO READ. This way you can vote for the best pizza in Limburg
The discovery of coal brought us gold twice: black gold and golden yellow dough topped with fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella. On June 23, 1946, the Belgian and Italian governments reached a mutual agreement: for every 200 kilogram bag of coal that we sent to Italy, our country received one Italian guest worker. When the Italians found out after a while that they needed more time to earn generous sums, women and children – and with them countless recipes to lick your thumbs and fingers – came to our region.
“The story of Limburg pizza actually starts in the cité”, says Rosaria Ciarlo of Missione Cattolica. “Here and there were makeshift brick ovens in gardens that attracted a lot of gourmands as soon as the fire was lit. Sometimes those became small trades: 20 francs for a small, round pizza.” Belgians who lived in the garden districts got to know the Italian specialty in this way before the 1970s.
Agostino Lombardi was the very first ‘new’ Limburger to make pizza his profession. “My father passed away in 2018,” says Tania Lombardi, who took over the business after his retirement. “His obituary reads ‘Founder of the first pizzeria in all of Limburg’. At least that’s how he’s always told us.” Together with his wife, Agostino – himself from the Naples area – started a first branch of Da Fausto (then Pizza Napoli) in the Genkse Stalenstraat. He had no experience with making pizzas, but of course he knew the smells and flavors of his country like no other and came from an authentic Italian baker’s family. “My father also prided himself on traditional wood-fired ovens and simple recipes.” In the early 1990s, the business moved to Winterslag. The case is still going.
At the Italian
Tony Napolitano was also there like the chickens. The miner’s son moved to Overpelt in the late 1960s for love. “The number of Italians in the area could be counted on one hand,” Tony chuckles. “In 1971 I started with a takeaway chip shop, but I soon felt the urge to experiment with the cuisine from my home country. Unlike the wines I brought from my native region, the pizzas were not immediately appreciated. The people of North Limburg even spoke of ‘pie with siege’. It took years – until the 1980s – for the neighborhood to give in. After a while people stopped talking about ‘Frituur Tony’, but about ‘at the Italian’.” Meanwhile, Tony is enjoying his well-deserved pizza (and chips) retirement.
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The center of Hasselt has been smelling of oregano and basil since the 1970s thanks to Pizzeria Da Mario. Sabina Marzo can still vividly remember how she helped out in the pizzeria of her parents and uncle in the Kleine Maastrichterstraat: “When we started in 1974, there was already an Italian restaurant, but no real pizzeria yet. In 2010, my family closed the doors of the business, but people still often talk to us about how they got to know Italian cuisine with us. Steven Vandeput – not yet mayor at the time – often came here for a pizza calzone.”
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Although we can hardly imagine it now, the golden yellow baked delicacy slowly became a worthy alternative to the even golden yellow Belgian fries. According to Valentina Trotta, her grandparents Luigi Zecca and Maria Frisa only opened the very first real pizzeria in Maasmechelen in 1981. “And by ‘real’ I mean that they baked pizzas on beech or oak wood, in a wood court, as they had learned in Naples. The dough was proofed twice and the peeled tomatoes came all the way from Italy,” explains Valentina.
Domino’s avant la lettre
When our hearts increasingly filled with melted mozzarella in the course of the eighties, Belgian entrepreneurs also jumped on the bandwagon. Literally, because Roger Mertens and Mia Wans sold fresh pizzas in a van, famous in Genk and the surrounding area as De Pizzalijn. “The first pizzas were delivered with mopeds in a warm wooden box that my grandfather had put together himself,” says grandson Lars Jeurgen. “Domino’s (after the current pizza chain, ed.) before la lettre say. Then there was the well-known van. Whether the pizzas were less good than those of real Italians? Grandpa went all the way to Naples to learn the trade and also worked with real wood ovens.”
Do we dare to claim with one hundred percent certainty that Da Fausto was really the pioneer in Limburg? No, although several sources do point in their direction. “We asked the question on Radio Internationale, a radio station with many Italian-Limburg listeners,” says Rosaria Ciarlo. “Da Fausto was referred to by everyone as the very first. Although indeed everyone knows that the story of the pizza – again – started in the cités.”
Where does pizza come from?
Pizza as we know it today is of Italian origin. In the seventeenth century, people in Naples moved to the poorer parts of the city to eat this peasant dish. Yet the origin of the pizza actually lies in the Mediterranean region, where round breads have been baked for thousands of years and with toppings. So pizza is not exclusively Italian.