Pizza—A Short History of the World’s Favorite Food

For starters, pizza didn't originate with Queen Margherita in the 19th century.

By: Dina Di Maio, ISDA Contributor 

In the 1930s, my grandmother worked as a waitress at her sister and brother-in-law’s pizzeria. (Her name wasn’t Angelina; it was Maria.) One day, she served pizza (or “apizza,” pronounced like “ah-beetz” in Neapolitan) to a young man who worked at the nearby candy store. He asked for pepper on the pizza, so my grandmother gave him pepper—so much so that he couldn’t get enough cola to soothe his blazing palate. Perhaps he thought the heat was a harbinger of things to come, and here I am writing about my grandparents’ courtship over pizza 80 years later.

But what is pizza? Ask someone from Naples, Sicily, Argentina, New York, New Haven, Chicago, and you’ll get a different answer. Round pizza with tomato sauce and cheese—as we typically think of it—originates in Naples, Italy. The Southern Italian immigrants to the United States opened pizzerias and made pizza the world’s most favorite food. Let’s trace its history.

Like many variations, the origin of Chicago style deep dish pizza is cloaked in a bit of mystery. Some food historians say it was invented in 1943 at Pizzeria Uno.

The Etruscans, Romans, Greeks, and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures had various flatbreads that accompanied a meal or were the meal. Toppings in those days included olive oil, herbs, cheese, honey, or fish.

Where did the word “pizza” come from? Some say the Greek word “pita/pitta.” Or possibly Arabic, Hebrew, Lombard, or Latin. The first mention of the word “pizza” is from a Latin text in southern Italy in AD 997.

In my book, Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, where I devote an entire chapter to pizza, I write that it comes from the Greek word pitta. I compare the word “pizza” with the city of Pozzuoli near Naples. Pozzuoli was founded by ancient Greeks, but the Romans moved there later. Pozzuoli’s Latin name was Puteoli. The town’s Neapolitan name was Pezzulo. The volcanic sand in the area was called pozzolana. In Latin, it was pulvis puteolanus, “dust of Puteoli.” I think the “t” sound became double z’s in Neapolitan pronunciation, and the same happened to the word “pita,” becoming “pizza” in Neapolitan.

When did pizza start to resemble the pie we know and love today? Sometime after Columbus, when the tomato was brought to Europe from the Americas. According to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana/AVPN (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) website, pizza marinara, pizza with tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic, dates to 1734. However, there were pizzerias in Naples earlier in the 1700s. Neapolitan food writer Anna Pernice says the pizzeria N’tuno dates to 1725 and Zi’Ciccio’s, 1727. Pernice also mentions a 16th/17th-century predecessor of “soft” pizza called “mastunicola” that had basil, lard, cheese, and pepper. (The addition of lard makes this very Neapolitan. Because she says it was soft, I think it was more like a pizza and not a lard bread.)

You’ve probably heard the story of the queen of the newly united Italy, Queen Margherita, visiting Naples in 1889. Pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi made her pizzas, one with tomato, mozzarella, and basil, that we know as the Margherita. However, Pernice writes that documents from the mid-1800s prove that pizza with mozzarella existed before this mythic visit.

Handmade Margherita Pizza with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, millions of Italian immigrants, mostly from Southern Italy, migrated across the globe. They made their traditional foods wherever they settled. In New York City, in 1905, Neapolitan Gennaro Lombardi opened what is recognized as the first pizzeria in the United States. In 1910, Joe’s Tomato Pies opened in Trenton, New Jersey; in 1912, Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton; in 1914, O’Scugnizzo’s in Utica, New York. In the next two decades, pizzerias opened in Italian neighborhoods everywhere—Chicago, New Haven, Philadelphia, Ohio, etc. Bakeries also made pizza and Italian immigrants built bread ovens wherever they settled, so there could be a bakery/pizzeria that predated these.

The immigrants came from different Italian regions and often moved to areas where other villagers from their town lived. That’s why you see Sicilian influence in New Orleans or Chicago, Neapolitan influence in the New York area, Genovese influence in California, etc. The Italian regions had their own types of flatbreads like Sicilian sfincione, a thick rectangular pizza with tomato and sometimes, onion. Like I write in my book, many Northern Italians settled in Argentina, and that is likely why they have a focaccia-like pizza called fugazza. Some pizzas in America do not have mozzarella but only grated cheese or provolone—this is probably because the immigrants used that cheese in Italy and continued using it wherever they settled in the United States. An example is the tomato pie, a rectangular, focaccia-like bread with tomato and grated cheese or only tomato—especially found in Philadelphia (not to be confused with the Trenton tomato pie, which is a round, Neapolitan-style pizza).

Aficionados list a myriad of pizza styles. Adam Kuban of Serious Eats’s Slice lists 30. Some lists, like this one, include things that are clearly not pizza—like lard breads and tortes (think pizza chiena) that may have “pizza” in their name but aren’t pizza.

To me, there are two styles of pizza, Neapolitan and Sicilian, with slight variations on each. For example, I classify New York and New Haven styles as Neapolitan. Both New York and New Haven styles started out (and some still are) cooked in coal-fired ovens. The more modern New York style is cooked in a gas oven.

These days, thin crust New York City pizza comes piping hot out of gas ovens.

Which brings me to a myth often repeated about pizza—GIs returning home from Italy during World War II brought pizza back to the United States with them and that is how pizza became popular. American GIs couldn’t “discover” something that already existed in America. As early as 1903, the NY Tribunenmentioned pizza. In the October 31, 1937 issue of Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star, comedian Milton Berle lists pizza as one of his favorite foods. NY Herald Tribune food columnist Clementine Paddleford recommended taking out-of-towners for pizza in 1939. So Americans who were not Italian were discovering, eating, and loving pizza before World War II.

Gas ovens were easier and cheaper to operate, so pizzerias sprouted in the 1950s. Commercialization followed—fast food pizza made from cheaper ingredients, pizza shops owned by non-Italians who wanted to capitalize on pizza’s popularity, pizza delivery, and pizza made with newer technologies like frozen pizza.

For decades, Italian immigrants and their descendants kept their family businesses open through recessions—like many other American entrepreneurs—while chain restaurants served cheaper renditions of their food at competitive prices.

No wonder the AVPN from Naples was established in 1984 to protect the integrity of pizza. However, it says the only “true” pizza is Neapolitan (“Verace Pizza Napoletana”), and there are strict guidelines about wood-fired ovens; dough manipulation; and types and origin of flour, tomatoes, and cheese. For example, the cheese should be mozzarella di bufalaor fior di latte and tomatoes should be San Marzano from Campania. These guidelines even keep out some of the famous pizzerias in Naples—like Da Michele, owned by the Condurro family whose pizza-making tradition dates to 1870!

These days, Neapolitan-style pizza is a trend among hipsters and restaurant groups, who travel to Naples, sample pizza, and open shop back in the United States. Or Italian expats, who import ingredients from Italy or make their own here in America—just like their cousins started doing over 100 years ago!


For Dina’s more in-depth discussion of pizza, see Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People.

Dina Di Maio is a writer and lawyer who has enjoyed pizza in Naples, New York, New Haven, Chicago and beyond.

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