Pizza ranks high amongst the world’s favorite fast foods. The once humble pizza has come to enjoy dominance at home, in restaurants, and on street corners.

Greek and Italian literature is credited with the origin of the word pizza. Before pepperoni became a favorite among pizza toppings, olive oil and herbs were spread on baked flatbreads. Make the best vegetarian pizza.

This version with olive oil and herbs is similar to today’s focaccia.

Let’s explore the history of pizza to learn more about its invention as we trace it from ancient times to the modern pizza we know today.

home made pizza

Where And When Was Pizza Invented?

The first pizza was the flatbread, made in mud ovens by the Israelites, Babylonians, and Egyptians. In Greece, ancient Greeks would bake flatbreads on hot stones or mud ovens and spread their favorite toppings on top, including herbs, mushrooms, and olive oil.

In ancient Rome, Romans cooked on hot ashes and called it Pinsa.

The modern-day pizza can be traced back to 18th Century Naples in southwestern Italy. It had become one of the largest cities in Europe under the Bourbon kings but was notorious for its throngs of working poor called the lazzaroni based on their rugged appearance that resembled that of Lazarus.

They needed inexpensive food they could quickly eat because they were always rushing out looking for work. Shops didn’t sell the poor man’s food.

Only informal restaurants and street vendors sold pizzas, which would be cut to meet the customer’s appetite or budget.

Who Invented Pizza?

Different accounts provide different information about who invented the pizza or who invented the pizza first. Some credit it to ancient Babylonians, while other interesting findings show Persian soldiers baked flatbreads using their shields as ovens.

However, most historians agree that modern-day pizza has its roots in Naples, but it wasn’t as popular at the time. For most of the 18th Century, pizzas remained scorned and associated with the crushing poverty of the Neapolitan Lazzaroni. However, that all changed after the Italian unification in 1861.

While visiting Naples at the beginning of the late 19th Century in 1889, Queen Margherita of Savoy and King Umberto I wanted to try out local Italian specialties. They had grown tired of having a constant French at all mealtimes.

According to legend, Raffaele Esposito, from the city’s Pizzeria Brandi, that had succeeded Da Pietro pizzeria founded in 1760, was called to prepare an assortment of pizzas.

He is credited with inventing the first modern-day pizza. He cooked the first with caciocavallo, lard, and basil, the second with cecenielli, and the third with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.

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She liked pizza mozzarella the most, and to everyone’s delight, it featured colors of the Italian flag. In her honor, that particular topping combination was henceforth called pizza Margherita.

It signaled an important shift that elevated pizza from a poor man’s food to something royalty could enjoy. Pizza was changed from only a local cuisine to a true national dish in Italy, ranking in the same league as pasta.

Pizza's Rise

Pizza’s move from Naples was slow. Until the 1940s, knowledge of pizza had remained minimal in Italy beyond Naples’ borders.

The much-needed spur was provided by migration. Millions of Europeans, including Neapolitan and Italian immigrants, were moving to the United States for factory jobs from the late 19th Century to the early 2oth Century.

Soon, they were replicating their crusty pizzas across American cities, and everyone became intrigued by the aromas and flavors of pizza.

World War II accelerated this trend. Soldiers invading Italy fell in love with pizza and asked for it wherever they went.

During the postwar period, the cost of travel declined, and tourism took off. Tourism helped consolidate pizza as a truly Italian dish.

Restaurants across the peninsula started offering more Italian specialties as tourists became more curious about Italian food, including pizza.

Pizza quickly soared throughout Italy, and new ingredients were added in response to local tastes and new customers who were willing to pay higher prices.

Pizza in America

As the 19th Century ended, many Italian immigrants were already all over the US, and pizza had found its second home in America. As Italian Americans migrated with their food from city to suburb and east to west, especially after the second world war, the popularity of pizza in the United States boomed.

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It soon became synonymous with America and spread across the US simultaneously with the growing pace of urbanization.

It was no longer an ethnic-only treat as the rest of America embraced it. Enterprising restauranteurs who didn’t even have Italian backgrounds quickly took it up, adapting it to suit local identities, tastes, and needs while changing ingredients like tomatoes to tomato sauce.

picture of pizza shop showing history of pizza

Modern Pizza Today

The first pizzeria in America, Gennaro Lombardi, was opened in 1905 at Spring Street in New York City. It wasn’t the first time pizzas were being cooked and sold in America. Italian immigrants, showing pride in their roots and food, were already selling pizza as street food.

Lombardi was the first to get an American license to bake pizza. He was able to capitalize on the increased popularity made possible by street vendors who sold pizzas kept warm by charcoal-filled drums.

Tracing Lombardi’s footsteps, other pizza restaurants would soon mushroom in the USA. In 1943, two entrepreneurs, Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell, created something different; an American-Italian version of pizza.

The deep-dish pizza was a new style of pizza featuring a deeper dish, crunchier thicker crust, inverted layers, and richer, more abundant toppings.

It was a far cry from the classic Neapolitan version, and it usually came with cheese at the bottom and a generous serving of chunky tomato sauce on top.

The dream to create a pizza like no other was achieved when they opened Pizzeria Uno, and Chicago residents bit (literally).

Deep dish pizza soon became a Chicago-born icon, but debate remains about who invented Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

The official cultural historian of Chicago notes there isn’t enough documentation to determine the inventor with certainty.

There are two sides to the story. One side claims Ike Sewell, who founded Pizzeria Uno invented deep dish pizza to serve more filling pies than the average pizza.

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The other side involves the Malnati’s, one of the most famous pizza families in Chicago. Formally an employee of Pizzeria Uno, Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, Sr claimed he created the deep-dish pizza recipe. The Malnati’s assert that Sewell came later.

The claims are further fueled by the absence of records of either Sewell or Ricardo making pizza or showing any abilities in the kitchen.

Shortly after the invention of deep-dish pizza, the Rocky Mountain Pie was developed in Colorado. It wasn’t as deep as Chicago’s pizza, but it featured a much wider crust meant to be eaten with honey as dessert.

The rapid pace of economic and technological changes from the 1950s onwards helped make pizza the most popular fast food in America. Two changes worthy of note include:

The Domestication of Pizza – With an improved economy, people were busier and disposable incomes grew. At the same time, technology was advancing, and fridges and freezers became increasingly common.

More people could now afford convenience foods, and fast foods became the in thing. This increased demand and promoted the development of frozen pizza.

You could now take your frozen deep-dish pizza home and cook it at will. Recipe changes were necessary, and instead of scattering generous slices of tomato on the base, it was now covered with smooth tomato paste.

It helped prevent the dough from drying out when cooking in the oven. New cheeses that could withstand freezing were also developed. How long do you reheat pizza in the oven?

The Commercialization of Pizza – Thanks to the increased availability of motorcycles and cars, freshly cooked food could now be delivered to customers’ doors straight from the pizzeria. Pizza was among the first to be served up. More pizza chains opened in quick succession in the 20th century.

Pizza Hut started in 1958, followed by Little Caesar’s in 1959 and Domino’s in 1960. Initially opened as Dominik’s, the pizza chain won a reputation for speedy deliveries and soon delivered pizzas nationwide.

The Pizza Delivery Evolution – Pizza delivery became a common phenomenon in the US, with the 60s marking the beginning of modern pizza deliveries.

Fast foods were very common, and the food industry was changing thanks to pizza joints, fast food eateries, and burger chains that started offering fast deliveries.

The humble Margherita was flying out of pizzerias faster than ever before!

The proliferation of the internet has greatly impacted pizza delivery and propelled its growth. At the start, only a few chains integrated internet services in their delivery operations with mostly experimental services.

Many customers were skeptical of this invention that allowed them to visit a pizza chain online, pick their toppings, and order a pizza.

Fast forward to today, and it’s impossible to imagine a world without online pizza deliveries – how far things have come since that very first pizza.

Online pizza deliveries were propelled even further with the invention of mobile applications.

From small pizzerias to large, famous pizza chains (such as Robertas Pizza in NYE), apps are now available where you can view a chain’s menu, order your favorite pizza and track your orders in real-time.

Pizza’s American popularity translated to global acceptance. From Boston to California and everywhere in between, Pizza was a “thing.” Like rock and roll and blue jeans, the rest of the world picked up on pizza simply because it was American, making pizza maker an actual job!

Today, you can find more than 70,000 Pizzerias offering pizza in the US. American chains like Pizza Hut and Dominos also thrive in over 60 different countries.

Why is it Called a Pizza?

Various theories exist relating to the origin and meaning of the word pizza. Some believe it comes from the Italian word pinsere, which means stretching or spreading by stamping or pounding.

A study conducted by Italian food historian Giuseppe Nocca revealed that pizza first appeared in a text from a small town in Gaeta, located between Naples and Rome. The document describes how every Christmas, the Bishop of Gaeta had to be paid with 12 pizzas.

Researchers believe the word comes from the Greek word pitta for a thin, round flatbread baked in hot wood-fired ovens.

Additional reading:

 

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