Get a Slice of the History of One of America’s Favorite Foods – The Humble Pizza
What’s thought to be the first evidence of humans eating pizza was found by archaeologists in Sardinia – remains of a flattened bread that dates back to the 1st millennium BC. Further evidence that our ancient ancestors loved pizza as much as we do was found in 6th century BC writings by Darius the Great, who wrote that his soldiers enjoyed baking flatbread and covered it with toppings and cheese. A few hundred years later on, the Roman historian Cato talked about lots of flatbread with herbs, honey, and olive oil that were baked on stones. Perhaps this is the first explicit reference to stonebaked pizza!
Gaeta is the home of the first documentation of the word ‘pizza,’ which was first recorded in 997 AD. The name then spread to Central and Southern Italy.
It’s thought that pizza is a successor to focaccia, and that early pizzas were similar to focaccia in consistency and creation. Also, it’s not just in ancient Italy where we find references to pizza-like foods. In ancient Greece, they ate a type of flatbread called ‘plakous’ which was also topped with herbs, cheese, and garlic. Early pizza also made an appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid, where the characters were served round bread-type cakes topped with cooked vegetables.
We know that even in ancient Rome, people ate pizza. But then, when did it become what we now recognize as modern pizza?
The first tomatoes were imported to Europe in 1522, and began appearing on these flatbread products very shortly after. These were the first modern pizzas and were invented in Naples. Some 300 years later, Naples got its first pizzeria, the Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, which was opened in 1830. Throughout the 19th century, pizza’s popularity exploded. By the end of the century, the people of Naples were eating it three times a day. There were pizzerias everywhere, and you could even buy pizza from street vendors. The key figures of this time were pizzeria owners, pizza sellers who sold pizzas in return for a payment for seven days, and the pizza hawker who sold pizzas but didn’t make them.
Soon, pizza became a tourist attraction as visitors to Naples ventured into the poorer areas of the city to try this tasty local specialty. The story goes that margherita pizza was invented in 1889 to honor the then-Queen Consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. The three key ingredients of tomato, mozzarella, and basil represent the colors of the Italian flag (red, white, and green). The inventor was baker Raffaele Esposito, who worked at Pizzeria di Pietro. The margherita was one of three different pizzas he made for the Queen and her husband, King Umberto I.
Another early Naples pizza topping is marinara. This method, comprised of tomato, oregano, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil, is named so because it was traditionally prepared by the wife of a seaman – a ‘marinara,’ ready for her husband to eat when he came back from fishing trips.
Unsurprisingly, given its status as the original hometown of modern pizza, Naples has specific rules about what constitutes a genuine Neapolitan pizza. The True Neapolitan Pizza Association (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana), founded in 1984, states that for a pizza to be authentic, it must have been hand-kneaded, not even with a rolling pin, and must have been baked in a wood-fired oven. The pizza must be no more than 35 cm in diameter, and a maximum of one-third of a centimeter thick. Some pizzerias in Naples keep things even stricter. They use only a certain type of tomato, added in only a clockwise direction, and a specific style of olive oil drizzle. The base comes out of the oven soft and flexible, not like the thin, crispy bases of some other areas. The Neapolitan pizza was granted Protected Designation of Origin status in 2009. Any pizza not made to these specifications can’t call itself Neapolitan.
Italian migration to the United States at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century brought pizza to our shores. Late in the 19th century, pizza was sold mostly by street peddlers who walked up and down the streets carrying tubs of pizza on their heads, which they sold for just a couple of cents a slice. As well as New York, pizza was trendy in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago. These are all cities with large populations of Italian immigrants.
The first license for a pizzeria was awarded in 1905. The licensee? Gennaro Lombardi, in Spring Street, NYC. This original Lombardi’s closed in 1984, but reopened ten years later a few doors down and is now run by Gennaro’s grandson. Pizza became even more popular outside Italy after World War 2, as Allied troops who had been stationed in Italy became familiar with it.
One of the oldest American pizzerias that’s still open is Papa’s Tomato Pies, located in Chambersburg, Trenton, New Jersey. It has been open since 1912.
As pizza became increasingly widespread in the United States, Americans created their own innovations. The now world-famous Chicago deep dish-style pie was invented in 1943. In 1957, the Celentano Brothers created the first frozen supermarket version. Also in the 1950s, the first Pizza Hut opened (1958, Kansas). Kraft created self-rising dough in 1995. Canada got in on the pizza innovation, too, inventing the divisive ‘Hawaiian’ (ham and pineapple) pizza in 1962.
As pizza’s popularity exploded, pizza chains began springing up across the country. The first major pizza chain was Josey’s Pizza, founded in 1943, then Shakey’s Pizza, founded in California in 1954, followed by the aforementioned Pizza Hut, and Little Caesar’s. Later, several other chains opened. You can eat pizza at Bertucci’s, Monical’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Papa John’s, Godfather’s, Happy Joe’s, and many more chain restaurants all over the United States. It’s estimated that as much as 15% of the population of the United States eats pizza on any given day. Then, there’s home delivery! All you have to do now is to pick up the phone. There will be a Domino’s Pizza home delivery with you within an hour.