If you’ve ever wondered how pizza gained its fame, then you’re sure to enjoy this little slice of history. The origins of pizza reach far back into history. Maybe even further than you think.
ANCIENT ORIGINS OF PIZZA
Before there was pizza, there was flatbread. Flatbreads with toppings are known to have been consumed by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. In particular, the Romans and Greeks were known to incorporate herbs and olive oil, like modern day focaccia. You can still find traditional focaccia in Italy and around the Mediterranean today, but it’s the recipe that seems to resemble pizza in its earliest form.
THE MISSING INGREDIENT
As focaccia gained popularity, variations of the recipe soon began to follow. However, there’s one ingredient in particular that helped to transform the Italian flatbreads of old into the style of pizza we now recognize.
Tomatoes, an ingredient we generally associate with Italian foods like pizza and pasta, are not in fact native to Italy. The plant was actually introduced by the Spanish in the mid-16th century, who had returned with it from their expeditions to the Americas. It wasn’t long after that Italians began incorporating tomatoes in their own recipes.
PIZZA BEGINS TO EMERGE
Naples was one such place where tomato-topped flatbreads quickly became popular. The locals soon began to call these flatbreads by a new name, “pizza”. As the popularity for the dish continued to grow among Neapolitans, they too began trying new versions of the recipe.
Right around 1735, a new style of pizza emerged onto the scene. Made with plain marinara sauce and seasoned with oregano and garlic, this dish soon became known simply as pizza marinara. This style of pizza most closely resembles something you pizza aficionados would recognize today.
Pizza continued to gain popularity throughout Italy and by the early 1800’s there were roughly 50 pizzerias spread across the country.
Italy was unified in 1861, which meant that Sicily and Naples officially became part of the country. Naples was already becoming a hot spot for its innovative pizza styles. However, a certain visit by Italian royalty in 1889 helped cement the region as the pizza capital of Italy.
King Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita of Savoy were on a visit to Naples, which was formerly the capital of the southern kingdom of Italy. Legend has it the Queen had grown tired of the gourmet French cuisine widely popular among European royals at the time. So, she commissioned the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito to create three different pizzas.
The pizza the Queen most enjoyed was topped with mozzarella, red tomatoes, and green basil. Coincidentally enough, the ingredients also represented the national colors of Italy. The recipe was soon dubbed as Pizza Margherita and it’s remained one of the most popular styles of pizza in both Italy and across the world ever since. However, the Queen’s endorsement of the pizza, as great as it was, wasn’t what transformed the food into what it’s become today.
PIZZA IN THE US
Millions of Europeans began to immigrate to America right at the turn of the 20th century, Italians included. The wave of Italian immigrants brought pizza to the US, where it quickly became popular in places with larger Italian populations like New York, Chicago, and Boston. However, it wouldn’t become popular nationwide until the 1940’s at the end of WW II, when soldiers who had stationed in Italy began returning home in droves. One thing most of them seemed to come home with was a particular craving for pizza, so the dish had an instant market across the US.
Pizza’s popularity boomed in the US following the war. It was no longer viewed as an “ethnic” treat, but rather as fast, fun food. As the fast food industry emerged in the US, so did domestic pizza chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut. They quickly expanded as demand for pizza exploded, but the success wasn’t limited to just the US. Today you can find international outposts of American chains like Domino’s in about 60 different countries across the world.