History Lesson: The Origin of Pizza

When considering the history of pizza, its various evolutionary stages must be taken into consideration. Pizza is known by today’s standards as a baked crust covered with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and a variety of toppings. Although different varieties are created and advertised each year, these four basic elements remain the same. Naturally, the first signs of pizza lacked these now “mandatory” characteristics, but at least pizza has always been an Italian food, right?

Wrong! In fact, the modern idea of pizza did not fully emerge until the 1800s. A big reason for this was inaccessibility of two primary ingredients, those being mozzarella and tomatoes. Mozzarella had to be imported from India and it was not presented to Italy until the 18th century. Tomatoes, on the other hand, were introduced to Italy in the 16th century, but for fear that they may be poisonous, they were not used for pizza. According to Linda Stradley, the author of I’ll Have What They’re Having- Legendary Local Cuisine, the poor people of Naples began to incorporate tomatoes in their yeast dough, creating a simple version of the pizza that has now gone mainstream.

So pizza comes from...

In order to give proper attribution to the origins of pizza, its definition must be understood. Stradley remarks how, during the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C., soldiers of Darius the Great “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates.” Although this sounds reminiscent of an early pizza crust, it is in fact the Greeks who are credited with the earliest actual pizza. In her essay “History of Pizza,” Genevieve Thiers writes about how the Greeks first baked bread “in round, flat shapes” and dressed it with various toppings. Far from the number of toppings available in modern times, the Greeks generally used potatoes, selected meats, olives and fruit.

Although pizza has Greek origins, it has become strongly associated with Italy. Considered a peasant’s meal, street vendors sold it to the poor people of Naples for all three daily meals. This is similar to how modern college students have adopted pizza as a favorite meal due to its low cost and great taste. Even with the sale of pizza being around for a century, it took until 1830 for the world’s first pizzeria to open. Its name was Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba. It opened in Naples and it is still open today. This helped establish Naples as having the world’s greatest pizza.

The Royal Pizza

Raffaele Esposito is credited for creating the modern pizza. Genevieve Thiers writes, “He first experimented with adding only cheese to bread, then added sauce underneath it and let the dough take the shape of a large round pie.” As his pizza began to gain recognition in Naples, he was asked to make pies for the visit of the Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita in 1889. Esposito is said to have made three pies, but the one that the Queen favored was designed to express his loyalty to Italy, sharing the colors of the Italian flag. He used basil for green, mozzarella cheese for white and tomatoes for red. He named this invention Pizza Margherita in honor of the Queen. This pizza is what is commonly referred to in modern times as “cheese pizza.”

Nearly 20 years later in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi opened the first American pizzeria in New York. Still, the food’s popularity had not yet experienced the impact in the United States as it had in Italy. That all changed, however, following World War II. American soldiers who had been in Italy during that time came home to the States talking about pizza. The demand for pizza grew, as did the number of pizzerias in America. Advertised as an Italian food straight from Italy, pizza began to get the support of Italian celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Dean Martin.

“When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”- Dean Martin