Pizza has been America’s favourite fast-food for decades. But, where did pizza originate from? Are you surprised to find out that the pizza as we know it originated from the kingdom of Naples, now a city in modern-day Italy? It's even more surprising that the pizza's origins come from far older civilizations!
A Slice of Pizza’s Ancient History
The great-grandfather of today’s pizza is the flatbread. The ancient civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome all made a variation of the flatbread with savoury toppings. In Egypt, olives and oil topped the oven-baked dish, in Rome cheese and dates topped the bread.
You see pizza in movies and shows all the time in today’s world, but the delicious dish’s debut in pop culture dates back to 19 B.C., when the poet Virgil immortalized the portable flatbread in his poem Aeneas.
The closest ancestor to today’s pizza was the Greek πλακούς (plakous). The plakous was a flatbread baked in a mud oven covered in cheese, olives, olive oil, and herbs and spices found in the Greek empire.
Even in ancient days, pizza was loved for its portability. The ancient Greeks and Romans used pizza as the poor man’s portable lunch. It was easily carried packed and served, with the crust serving as the plate.
The portability of pizza is part of why it spread so far through the ancient world.
- 6 B.C. The soldiers of Darius the Great, the King of Persia, baked pizza-like flatbreads on their marches to conquer the world using their shields as an oven! They covered the dish with toppings of oil, honey, cheese, and dates.
- 1 B.C. The portability of pizza became immortalized by Virgil in Aeneas, when after eating a flatbread covered in mushrooms and herbs, the son of Aeneas said, “See, we devour the plates on which we fed.” Talk about an easy cleanup!
- 79 B.C. Mount Vesuvius erupted, leaving the city of Pompeii frozen in volcanic ash. Archaeologists discovered pizza making tools in the city during an excavation in restaurants of ancient Pompeii.
Where Did Pizza Get Its Name?
Pizza’s name is as ancient as its origins. The word pizza was first recorded in 997 A.D. in Gaeta, Italy. The word itself is thought to originate from the old Italian word pizzicare, which means “to pinch” or “a point.”
Pizzicare evolved into a term used to describe chefs who specialize in the dish, earning them the title pizzaiolo. It was a pizzaiolo who gave Queen Margherita di Savoia a dish he called “Pizza Margherita” in 1889. From there, the name pizza became a part of food history!
The Story of Modern Pizza
The modern pizza is typically described as a delicious combination of yeasted crust, tomato sauce, and cheese covered with other such savoury toppings like pepperoni, onions, and the oh so controversial pineapple.
Pizza as we know it today traces its origins back to Raffaele Esposito and Naples, Italy.
Founded in 600 B.C., Naples began its days as part of ancient Greece and continued making the flatbread of their ancestors into the modern age. The pizza of the modern age began as a staple of the working man’s food, just as its ancient Greek and Roman forebearer did.
The baked dish that would become pizza was cheap and easily accessible to the working class of Naples and was primarily considered a dish meriting disgust by the rich because it needed no silverware. But, despite the prejudice, it did not take long for it to become food for the royalty of Italy.
The story goes that Queen Margherita and King Umberto had grown bored eating fancy French food all the time. They called on their chefs to make something savoury and local to the province they were visiting - Naples.
Enter Raffaele Esposito, the head pizzaiolo, and father of modern pizza. He created for the Queen a dish that has been immortalized - a flatbread covered in mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil, christened the Pizza Margherita.
The pizza’s ingredients symbolized the three colours of the Italian flag and became a favourite of the monarch. The approval of a queen launched pizza into the food hall of fame. After the dish became famous, Italy adopted pizza as Italian cuisine.
But, pizza did not reach the rest of the world right away. The dish remained mainly exclusive to Italian cuisine until the 1940s.
When Did Pizza Come to America?
Pizza and soda are practically synonymous with American cuisine these days. What birthday party is complete without a slice of cheese? What movie night is more fun than one with pepperoni pizza? Pizza has become a big part of American food traditions, but when did it start?
The 1900s saw the rise of immigration to America, and with it came the traditions of immigrants that created the Melting Pot of America. Pizza was one such traditional cuisine to arrive with Italian immigrants.
In America, pizza started as a pizza pie or tomato pie. The Italian-American cuisine was famously found in the Italian quarters of New York City, Chicago, and Boston.
- 1905 - The First American Pizzeria Opened. The first pizzeria to open its doors in America was G. Lombardi’s, which opened in 1905 in New York’s Little Italy.
- 1910 - The Second American Pizzeria Opened. More pizzerias soon followed Lombardi’s. Joe’s Tomato Pies opened in 1910 in Trenton, New Jersey and became famous for tomato pizza pies.
- The 1940s - Pizza Becomes Popular. However, it was not until after WWII that pizza became a staple in American cuisine. American troops returned home from the war looking for the delicious dishes they had enjoyed during their time in Europe.
- The 1940s - Pizza Sub-types Develop in America. - The pizza soon spread across the United States. A Texan named Ike Sewell invented the Chicago crust pizza in the 1940s and served it at his restaurant Pizzeria Uno at about the same time that the Colorado crust pizza saw its beginnings and grew into a dish enjoyed with copious amounts of honey.
- The 1950s - Pizza Becomes a Celebrity. - The pizza pie was all the rage by the 1950s when pizzerias could be found in most towns and cities. Famous American celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Joe Dimaggio shared their love of pizza, furthering its fame.
When Did Pizza Come to the UK?
Rome brought the wide-spanning culture of its empire to Britain, or Britannia, in 43 A.D. Archeologists theorize that ancient Roman cities of the U.K. like Londinium (modern-day London) and Camulodunum (modern-day Colchester) consumed the flatbread ancestor of the modern pizza.
However, the pizza phenomenon did not hit the United Kingdom until about the same time it arrived in the United States. Immigration of the late 1800s and early 1900s led to the spread of Italian culture in the West, but the dish didn’t become popular until after WWII.
In the United Kingdom, the Olivelli restaurant opened in 1934 and is thought to be the first Italian restaurant in Britain to serve the famous Margharita pizza. The rest was history. By 1965, pizza chains were opening across the kingdom, starting with Pizza Express.
The Pizza of the 21st Century
The pizza phenomenon grew even more popular with the advent of delivery pizza as automobiles became central to American culture in the 1960s. By then, most American and U.K. families had two cars or more to a household and could spare one for delivery jobs.
The age of delivery increased the popularity of pizza, creating the hallmarked image of the pizza delivery boy arriving with a piping hot pizza pie. Pizza became the movie-night, family-night, any-night option for an easy and delicious dinner for the family.
As pizza popularized, hometown pizzerias found themselves competing with restaurant chains. Entire empires of pizza restaurants have developed, like the one Domino’s Pizza holds with well over 17,000 stores in over 90 countries.
There was a time when frozen pizzas were considered a threat against the classic restaurant pizza. Developed in 1957 by the Celentano Brothers, frozen pizzas were supposed to be easier and cheaper for families to have in their homes.
Frozen pizzas quickly became the Western world’s favourite frozen take-home food. But despite their affordability, frozen pizzas could not stop the restaurant pizza’s growth. Instead, the two pizza types grew in popularity together.
In 2009, the European Union (EU) returned the story of pizza back to its roots. The EU chose to recognize Neopolitan Pizza as truly European cuisine.
On the same day, the EU granted the Neopolitan Pizza heritage status. Since then, any store creating true Neapolitan pizza must use specific ingredients, using only San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese, to name a few.
The story of the pizza began over a thousand years ago, but the delicious tomato-y, cheese-y dish remains a beloved classic today.
The legacy of the pizza pie is impressive and continues to grow every day. Nearly every region of America and the United Kingdom has its unique take on the pizza pie, but its roots remain the same. From ancient Rome to Little Italy, pizza has become an immortal food.