Pizza is one of the most commonly liked foods in the United States. It’s such a staple food that everyone from children at birthday parties to adults in the workplace get excited at the possibility of a pizza party. In fact, there are just over 61,000 pizzerias across the country and, on average, approximately 3 BILLION pizzas are sold each year in the US.
But as you bite into that warm, saucy, cheesy goodness, have you ever wondered about the history of pizza and how it became so universally beloved? Well, we have. So put on your reading glasses and grab a plate — we’re about to serve you a piping hot slice of history.
Pizza’s first form was similar to modern focaccia. While many presume that pizza originated in Italy, many cultures in the middle east and all around the Mediterranean created derivative forms of modern pizza.
Ancient Greek, Israelis, Egyptians and other cultures produced flatbread in mud ovens, added regional seasonings then topped it with olive oil, thick stews, and vegetables. It was cheap, convenient, and sustainable, making it ideal for the working class poor.
Much debate surrounds the etymology of the word “pizza.” Some argue it derives from the Greek “pitta” bread, some argue it’s origins lie in the Latin “pinsere” (“to clamp or pound”). There are many other theories, but one thing is for sure — the first documented use of the word “pizza” was in 997 AD in a Latin text found in the town of Gaeta, Italy while it was under Byzantine control.
As time went on, the more modern forms of pizza started to take shape. Modern pizza’s origins are in the 1700s in Naples. It’s important to note that at the time, pizza was still regarded as a poor man’s food, commonly sold by street vendors and considered disgusting by high society. The working class in Naples were the ones that started adding tomatoes (a relatively new vegetable/fruit in the region), garlic, cheese and other tasty toppings, to their flatbreads.
After ages of political strife, Italy finally unified in 1861 and, according to legend, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita (does her name sound familiar yet?) visited Naples in 1889. The two grew bored with their constant diet of high-society cuisine, so requested an assortment of local food varieties.
Queen Margherita became smitten with ‘pizza mozzarella’, a flatbread topped with soft white cheese, tomatoes, olive oil and basil. This pizza eventually became known as the ‘pizza Margherita’. Her proclivity for the food is speculated to have started a pizza craze in Naples and may have helped break down classist cuisine barriers in the region. Pizza was finally commonplace in Naples.
Although pizza-like dishes had been a staple food for centuries in the mediterranean region, especially in Naples, it was largely unknown to the rest of the world. It’s no surprise then that the first pizzerias in the US sprouted in communities heavily concentrated with Italian immigrants. They started to put regional twists on the classic neapolitan dish which started to pique interests of the surrounding non-immigrant communities.
After World War II, Italians started to immigrate to all corners of America, bringing their cuisines with them. At the same time, American soldiers that had served in Italy became acquainted with local foods, especially pizza. Once the veterans returned home, they would still seek out local pizzerias, encouraging non-immigrants to try it. It’s stigma as an “ethnic food” quickly vanished as it integrated with the American palate. This is when modern pizza really took shape and its popularity started to boom. Eventually, the 1960s marked the era of home pizza delivery services, and the rest is history.
Pizza has always been a staple product throughout human history — from the most basic ancient forms of flatbread topped with oil and cheese, to today’s modern deep dish, thin crust, brick oven and other variations. So the next time you pick up a slice, take some joy in participating in an age-old tradition.