It’s safe to say the Italians created the first modern pizza by perfecting previous versions of pizza. Pizza-like food has featured in different cultures across the world throughout the ages.
Today, pizza stands tall among the most favorite fast foods in the US and the rest of the world. Attesting to this is the fact that 100 acres of pizza are served daily in America alone! For those who don’t measure their pizza consumption in acres, this translates to 350 slices of pizza every second.
Pizza toppings are also not an Italian invention. As far back as the 6th Century and ancient Greece, flatbread’s toppings included cheese, olive oil, and herbs. Today, pepperoni is ranked high above pizza toppings in America, and 251.7 million pounds of pepperoni are consumed every year from pizza alone. In contrast, anchovies, a kind of fish in the herring family, are the least favorite topping.
What is certain is that Italy was the first to add tomatoes to pizza, which later developed into tomato sauce, the most favorite sauce used on pizza. Italy also created mozzarella, scientifically proven to be the best cheese for pizza by enhancing its taste and appearance.
So if Italy didn’t create pizza, where was pizza invented? Let’s explore the history of pizza to find out!
The History of Pizza
The question of who invented pizza or where was pizza first invented continues to puzzle historians and enthusiasts alike. A broad definition of pizza is a yeast flatbread with ingredients baked into it or placed on it to flavor it. People have enjoyed pizza-like food since ancient times.
Greek, Egyptians, and Romans all baked flatbreads in mud ovens or hot stones. In Rome, Romans cooked flatbread on hot ashes and named it Pinsa. They also incorporated olive oil and cheese into an unleavened flatbread called matzah over 2,000 years ago. In the 6th Century BC, Persian soldiers baked flatbreads on their battle shields and covered them with dates and cheese.
Ancient Greeks baked a plakous flatbread in Greece and flavored it with their favorite toppings, including onions, herbs, garlic, and cheese. Focaccia, which preceded pizza, is an example of a flatbread that has survived from the ancient Etruscan civilization of the Mediterranean region from 900-27 BC.
Across the world, pizza-like flatbreads have existed since the invention of baking. They include wheat flour-based Chinese bing with a disk-like or flattened shape, paratha from India, roti, naan from the south and central Asia, Finish rieska, and Sardinian spianata, carasau, and pistoccu.
Across Europe, many pizza-like pies based on the idea of covering flat pastries with meat, cheese, seasoning, and vegetables have existed. They include the French quiche, German zwiebelkuchen and Aslatian flammkuchen.
The modern pizza can be traced back to the 16th Century among the working-class poor of the Italian City of Naples. Naples was a Greek colony founded in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius around 600 BC. The Neapolitans were the first to place tomatoes on their flatbread, creating the first pizza resembling the modern pizza you know of today.
Folklore and Half Truths
One of the most famous stories about the origin of pizza, specifically pizza margherita, is that of Queen Margherita and King Umberto I. The story goes that while visiting Naples, Italy, in 1889, Margherita and Umberto grew tired of French Cuisine and wanted to try local specialties.
According to legend, pizza chef Rafael Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi received the summon to prepare different pizzas for the Queen. He created three pizzas, the first with caciocavallo, lard, and basil, the second with cecenielli, and the third with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.
The Queen loved the third one the most, and it happened to match the colors of the Italian flag. Esposito renamed it pizza margherita in her honor. A supposed thank you note dated June 1889 from the royal household is still displayed at Pizzeria Brandi, which still operates today.
However, historian Zachary Novak disproved this story as a myth or more of a marketing gimmick in 2014 based on several facts. One is that the letter in Pizzeria Brandi is a forgery. Findings show that it was a fake seal that didn’t match any official seal. It also lacked protocol, and the handwriting differed from that of the supposed author.
Pizza in the late 19th Century also had very little culinary capital. It was considered food for the poor, described as miserable, detested, and derided. Additionally, Naples was famous for cholera outbreaks at the time, and it was a city to fear rather than visit.
Novak notes that it’s unlikely any Italian elite, let alone an Italian Queen, would have wanted to try a pizza. And even if they did, it’s even more unlikely that they would have eaten a pizza cooked by a working-class commoner from the notoriously filthy and cholera-ridden Neapolitan slums.
Getting people to believe that royalty ate his food seemed to be a long-term marketing ploy by Esposito. In 1883, six years before the supposed royal encounter, he had requested permission from the Naples police to change the pizzeria’s name to the ‘Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy.’
Where was the first-ever pizzeria?
Naturally, the first-ever pizzeria was in Naples, where the modern-day pizza was born. A pizzeria is a place where pizza is made or sold or a pizza restaurant. The famous Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba in Naples is honored as the first pizzeria in the world. It can be traced back to 1738, when it initially opened shop as a stand catering to passersby and peddlers. The peddlers would cook the pizza in wood ovens and keep them warm in tin stoves balanced on their heads.
The peddlers would often walk around selling pizzas on the street on movable tables the whole day at the cost of one soldo or five cents per piece. The Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba opened officially around 100 years later as an authentic pizzeria in 1830 in the heart of Naples at Via Port’ Alba 18.
It immediately took the place of pizza street vendors and peddlers and soon became a vibrant meeting point. Traders, merchants, and travelers entering the city through the port would stop at the pizzeria for business or take a break as they enjoyed a delicious meal.
The first pizzeria frequently welcomed students, artists, or other locals who had little to no money. Pizzas were made generally simple and topped with garlic or oil for flavor. A ‘pizza a otto’ payment system came into force where customers were allowed to pay even eight days after they had their meal.
The Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba still operates today and is situated between a line of bookstores. It’s a no-frills place and isn’t as flashy as other eateries. All that matters is simple ingredients and the purest of flavors. It’s considered one of the most important landmarks for foodies and a must-visit destination for any pizza lover.
When did pizza arrive in America?
Pizza made its first appearance in America in the late 19th Century with the arrival of immigrants from Europe. Before this in the 18th Century, pizza knowledge was minimal beyond Naples borders.
Millions of Europeans, including Neapolitan and Italian immigrants, migrated to US towns like New York, Boston, Trenton, and New Haven. These towns provided opportunities in the form of factory jobs for poorly educated immigrants.
Thanks to the migration, pizza found its second home in America as Italian Americans moved with their food from city to city, east to west. However, it remained an ethnic, poor man’s food in the early years, eaten only by Italians in the urban enclaves they had settled.
Another popular myth is that pizza became famous thanks to World War II soldiers returning from Italy. The story goes that they discovered pizza while in Italy and fell in love with it, so they asked for it wherever they went when they got back home.
However, some basic facts about the war contradict this theory. First, there was only a limited number of US troops involved in the Italian invasion. At the time, pizza was still a regional dish found only in Naples and Southern Italy, so only a few would have seen it, if any. Naples would have already become destitute by the time they arrived at the end of the war, thanks to fascist misrule and the war itself.
More importantly, pizza was already in America way before World War II began due to immigration. Pizza places were already familiar in cities like New York, and by 1905, people were aware they could buy pizza for the low nickel price.
It was during the Great Depression that pizza once again became food for the poor. It started gaining popularity as a cheap way to make do. Pizza recipes started popping up with their versatility and small ingredients born out of the need to survive. It was suitable for the poor, middle class, and affluent who could no longer afford to hire to help them in cooking and cleaning.
By the 1950s, the economy had improved, the war had ended, and technology was making fast advances, further propelling the popularity of pizza in America.
What was the first-ever American pizzeria?
Lombardi’s was the first-ever American pizzeria opened by Gennaro Lombardi in 1905 at Spring Street in New York City. Lombardi was the first to get an American license to sell pizza, but pizzas were already being cooked and sold in America.
Italian immigrants were cooking and selling Italian food, including pizza as street food. Lombardi had initially opened a grocery store in 1897 to sell tomato pies, and like bakers in Naples, he made and sold pizza to use up leftover dough and cheese.
As pizza’s popularity increased, he applied for a license and opened Lombardi’s, entirely dedicated to pizza. Following Lombardi’s footsteps, other pizzerias soon mushroomed in the USA. Joe’s Tomato Pies opened in New Jersey in 1910, followed by Papa’s Tomato Pies in 1912.
In 1924, the first pizzeria was opened in Chicago by Tom Granato on Taylor Street. Marra’s Cucina Italiana opened in South Philadelphia in 1927 and has never closed for the past 94 years.
Deep Dish Pizza
In 1943, Ike Sewell and Ric Ricardo created something different when they opened Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. The deep-dish pizza was a new style, American-Italian version of pizza.
It’s considered a Chicago-born icon, and it features a deeper dish, inverted layers, a crunchier thicker crust, and richer, more abundant toppings. It was very different from the classic Neapolitan pizza, and it usually came with a generous chunky tomato sauce on top and cheese at the bottom.
Today Pizza Is The Most Popular Fast Food In America
The rapid pace of technological and economic changes from the 1950s has helped make pizza the most popular fast food in America. Changes that have propelled the popularity of pizza include its domestication, commercialization, the pizza delivery evolution, and the proliferation of the internet.
An improved economy meant that people had more disposable incomes and were busier. The demand for convenience foods like pizza increased as more people could afford to eat out and buy fast foods that didn’t require any cooking.
With advancements in technology, fridges became standard in every household, promoting the development of frozen pizza. An increase in cars and motorcycles meant that freshly cooked food could now be delivered to customers’ doors.
Pizza chains popped up in quick succession. In 1958, Pizza Hut opened, followed by Little Caesar’s in 1959 and Domino in 1960. Originally called Dominik’s, Domino’s won a reputation for speedy deliveries and soon delivered pizza across America.
The internet further propelled the growth and popularity of pizza. Social media even made focaccia art a baking trend during the pandemic! Today, you simply can’t imagine a world without online pizza delivery. And with the invention of mobile applications, small and large pizza chains are now like pizza street vendors on your phone.
You can now view a chain’s menu, order pizzas, and track the delivery in real-time! Today, over 70,000 pizzerias offer pizza in the US, and chains like Dominos and Pizza Hut are available in over 60 countries worldwide.