The History of Pizza

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Podcast Transcript

There is a good chance that sometime in the last few days, weeks, or months, you might have enjoyed a slice or two of pizza.

Pizza has become a near-ubiquitous food which can be found in almost every country. 

However, there is no one pizza. There are vehement disagreements about what pizza is best and what sort of toppings are acceptable. 

Learn more about pizza, where it came from, and its variations on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The history of pizza is difficult to pin down because it isn’t clear where a piece of flatbread with something on it ends and a pizza begins. Most of you can probably identify a pizza when you see it, but if you start changing or removing sauces, toppings, and the type of bread, when does it cease being a pizza?

There are records of ancient bread-making cultures that served flat pieces of bread with toppings on it. Let’s call these dishes proto-pizzas. 

There are reports of Persian soldiers in the 6th century BC who would cook bread on top of their shields with cheese and dates. 

The Greeks were known to cook flatbread with olive oil, herbs, and cheese. 

Flatbreads with cooked vegetables on top were mentioned in the epic poem The Aeneid. 

There are actually examples of flat bread all over the world, including China and India, so the idea of putting things on top of a flat piece of bread isn’t an innovation that is unique to any culture. 

Pizza, however, comes from Italy, and as with many other ancient people, the Romans had their own proto-pizza. They had a flatbread dish, which was known as panis focacius, which is the origin of the Italian bread known as focaccia. 

There was a fresco discovered in the ruins of Pompeii in one of the villas, and on it, there was depicted a still-life scene of various foods. One of the items was a round object, which, if you didn’t know any better, you would swear was a pizza. This was probably an image of a panis focacius with cheese and fruit on the top.

But I think most of us would agree that focaccia bread or an open-faced sandwich is not the same thing as pizza. 

The first mention of something called “pizza’ was published in the year 997 in the town of Gaeta, Italy. It came from a bookkeeping record that documented the demand for 12 pizzas to be delivered on Christmas Day and 12 pizzas to be delivered on Easter. 

However, while it uses the word pizza, it doesn’t actually say anything about what a pizza was at the time. 

The word pizza has ambiguous origins, and there are several different theories as to where it came from. 

The first is that it comes from the Byzantine Greek word ‘pitta’, which is also the origin of the word for the flatbread known as pita bread. 

Another theory holds that it is derived from the Italian word ‘pinza,’ which refers to a clamp or a pair of pliers. 

Another theory is that it came from the word in the Lombardic dialect, pizzo, which means ‘mouthful.’

Regardless of where the word pizza originated, the modern dish that we know as pizza came from the city of Naples in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Naples, at the time, was its own kingdom as Italy hadn’t yet unified. There had been flatbreads called pizza that had been sold in Naples since at least the 16th century. These were mostly served to poor people by street vendors. 

The contents of pizza, beyond the bread it was served on, usually consisted of cheese, lard, salt, garlic, and other foods that might have been available. 

What we don’t know is when tomatoes were first added to pizza. They certainly couldn’t have been added before the 16th century because that was when tomatoes were brought to Europe. 

If you remember back to my episode on tomatoes, one of the first cookbooks that mentioned tomato recipes was published in 1692 in Naples, Italy. So, at least by the end of the 17th century, tomatoes were a thing in Naples and may have appeared on pizzas, but we don’t really know how commonly they were consumed. 

By the late 18th century, Naples was experiencing a population boom. People from the countryside had flocked to Naples for work. These people were often quite poor and were locally known as lazzaroni which is because they wore tattered clothing and looked like Lazarus from the bible. 

The lazzaroni often lived in packed one-room apartments or homes and didn’t have the facilities to cook, so they often ate on the streets. One of the popular dishes that was sold by street vendors was pizza. 

Pizza at the time was mostly purchased out on the street. People would walk around with boxes holding pizzas, and they could cut slices based on what a customer wanted and could afford. In 1807, there were 54 registered pizzerias in Naples.

In 1843, the writer Alexandre Dumas noted in his travelogue about his trip to Naples, Le Corricolo, that a pizza slice that cost two liards made for a good breakfast, and you could buy a whole pizza for two sou, that could feed a family. A liard was a small French coin, about the value of a penny, that was worth one-quarter of a sou. 

By this time, we knew that tomatoes were appearing on pizzas in Naples, and the primary reason was that they were so cheap. 

By the second half of the 19th century, pizza had become well-known as a Neopolitan dish. More pizzerias began appearing, now allowing people to eat pizza off the street.

A major moment in the history of pizza occurred in 1889, after the unification of Italy when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples. 

What happened next is shrouded in legend, but supposedly, the king and queen grew tired of the French cuisine they were being served and wanted to sample some of the local Neopolitan pizzas. 

Raffaele Esposito, a pizza maker and owner of a local tavern, was summoned and asked to make some pizzas for the king and queen. 

He made three different pizzas, and the one that the queen enjoyed was one that had the colors of the Italian flag: red, green, and white. The red was tomato sauce, the white was mozzarella cheese, and the green was basil. 

The pizza was named after the queen and became known as the Margherita pizza. 

Raffaele Esposito is considered by many to be the father of the modern pizza. 

I should note that the two other pizzas he supposedly made didn’t have tomato sauce. They may have used lard.

The approval of the queen was a huge step for pizza as it changed its perception from that of food for poor people to something more respectable. Moreover, it allowed pizza to be identified as more than just a Neapolitan dish, but rather an Italian dish. 

However, this wasn’t the event that truly spread pizza. 

Beginning in the 20th century, Neopolitians and other Italians began immigrating to the United States in large numbers. The first pizzeria in the United States was Lombardi’s, which opened in New York City in 1905. As with pizzas in Naples, Lombardi’s mostly sold pizzas to factory workers. 

Originally, they weren’t sold as pizzas because Americans had no idea what they were. They were originally sold as “tomato pies.”

Lombardi’s still exists today, with its original oven, albeit at a different location.

As more Italian immigrants settled throughout the United States, more pizzerias opened, but it was still considered to be a niche ethnic dish. You could find pizzerias in many communities, but it hadn’t achieved widespread popularity.

What changed the status of pizza was the Second World War. American troops who served in Italy regularly ate pizza and brought their love of the dish back home. 

Tourists to Italy after the war began requesting pizza everywhere they went in Italy, and more restaurants across the country began carrying the Neapolitan dish.

Back in the United States, restaurants, often not even Italian, began experimenting with the dish. In Chicago in 1943, two men by the name of Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo created a deep-dish version of pizza at their new restaurant, Pizzeria Uno. 

In the 1950s, the popularity of pizza exploded. Veterans from the war, including President Dwight Eisenhower, were fans of pizza. There was an episode of I Love Lucy about pizza. 

Americans who had no cultural ties to Italy began to experiment even further with pizza. Hawaiian pizza was developed, which had pineapple as a topping, which was something that absolutely no one had ever asked for. 

In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Pie was developed that didn’t have quite as deep a crust as a Chicago deep dish pizza but had a wider crust and inverted the cheese and tomato. The Cheese was on the bottom, and chunky tomatoes were on the top. 

Chain pizza restaurants were created in the 1950s, the first of which was Shakey’s Pizza, founded in 1954 in Sacramento, California.  Pizza Hut was established in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas; Little Caesars Pizza was founded in 1959 in Garden City, Michigan; and Domino’s Pizza was created in 1960 in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

The trend towards quick and convenient home food also saw the creation of frozen pizzas. Frozen pizzas were fully prepared pizzas that could be taken home and cooked in an oven. 

While the United States saw a great deal of innovation in pizzas due to the influx of Italian immigrants, it wasn’t the only country. Argentina also had many Italian immigrants, and they developed their own type of pizza. 

Argentine pizza is characterized by a thicker, doughier crust compared to traditional Italian or American pizzas and often features a variety of toppings, including ham, cheese, olives, and other ingredients, with a strong influence from Italian cuisine.

As pizza spread around the world, many countries developed their own twist on the dish, usually in the form of toppings. In the course of my travels, I’ve seen kernels of corn, tuna, fried eggs, kimchi, potatoes, pickles, and baked beans as a pizza topping. 

Currently, the global market for pizza is estimated to be  $145 billion dollars, and in the US alone, it is over $45 billion dollars with 76,000 pizzerias. 

An estimated 13% of all Americans eat pizza every day. 

In 2001, the world’s longest pizza delivery took place. Pizza Hut delivered a pizza to the International Space Station. They had to create a specially designed pizza that would work in zero gravity and could be reheated in the ISS oven. 

Since then, pizza has been a regular part of food deliveries to the ISS.

Pizza has also become very official. In 2004, the city of Naples passed an ordinance giving the entire recipe for authentic Neapolitan Pizza.

In 2017, UNESCO added the art of making Neapolitan pizza to the list of intangible cultural heritage.

I’ll close with one particular fact that I found fascinating and demonstrates the popularity of pizza.

In 1973, Iceland codified the Icelandic language, removing many of the influences from other languages that had seeped in. One of the changes was totally removing the letter ‘z’ (or zed) from all Icelandic words. 

However, they made one exception. The only word in Icelandic that is allowed to use the letter ‘z’ is…