The fascinating story of the first Pizza trucks
How the Type H Citroën or 'tubes' as they came to be known ushered in a new era of eating on the go
Silvestro Morlando bakes Neapolitan pizza for Londoners in the wood-fired oven fitted into a vintage blue Citroën Type H truck. It's very cool. Yet the millennial geek behind the rolling pizzeria he named Sud Italia can hardly be called the pioneer of the pizza truck. The movement, like his Citroën, traces back to France and a time when hipsters made movies and music, not Margheritas.
In 1962, Marseille ferry steward Jean Meritan loaded a wood-burning oven onto a trailer, hooked it to a pickup truck and changed the eating habits of a city. In Meritan’s day many Marseille homes still had no telephones, no freezers. Pizza delivery and frozen pizzas were off the table. But the low-cost convenience of street pizza proved irresistible. Soon there were over 200 pizza trucks, the majority of them Citroën “tubes,” as the hardy Type Hs were known, filling the air with the aromas of charred pizza crusts and melted Emmental, the domestic stand-in for Italian mozzarella.
In 1973 a pizza trucker’s union, the Syndicat des Marchands Ambulants de Pizza et Similaires de la Ville de Marseille (Union of Mobile Merchants of Pizza and Related Products of the City of Marseille), was established to regulate the industry.
When Francis Sposito, the union’s honorary president, began selling pizza out of a Citroën tube a half-century ago, lawless pizza truckers ruled the streets. “It was anarchy,” recalls Sposito. The new union helped transfer the power over parking-space allocation to city hall, presumably a less corrupt authority, but did little to address the stifling work conditions. Come summer temperatures inside the pizza trucks could exceed 122ºF (50ºC).
As the trade spread beyond Marseille the union followed, ultimately adopting the name Fédération Nationale des Artisans Pizza en Camion Magasin (National Federation of Pizza Artisans in Food Trucks). Why artisans instead of merchants? From their trucks, the pizzaioli heard the buzz of pizza delivery scooters. Supermarkets were selling frozen pizza. Aware they could no longer compete on convenience and cost, the union doubled down on quality, urging its members not to shortcut the dough and its maturation.
Will the union’s new catchphrase, “slow food ambulante,” be effective? Will the original pizza truck movement endure? Marseille still has its roadside artisans who craft delicately crisp pizzas topped with thin layers of good-quality ingredients. The exploits of hipster pizza trucks in London, Stockholm and Geneva give new hope to Sposito. Now in his eighties, his dream is to live long enough to see his union change its name once more, from Fédération Nationale to Fédération Européenne des Artisans Pizza en Camion Magasin.
Read more fascinating stories on how the Detroit car industry shaped the city's pizzas and how Japan became one of the best places in the world to enjoy Neopolitan pizza. And for more on the history of pizza and to discover the best pizza places on the planet - mobile or immobile - check out Daniel Young's Where To Eat Pizza.