A Cultural History Of Pizza

Something, something, ‘big pizza pie’ — that’s amore!
May 1, 2020
A Cultural History Of Pizza

A wise person once said, “You can’t make everyone happy. You’re not pizza.” And it’s true — how could any mortal hope to compare? It’s got universal appeal. It’s simple. It’s perfect. It’s comforting. It’s iconic. It hits the spot plain, and it can serve as a cheesy canvas for your culinary imagination. And the history of pizza is long, which means it’s as timeless as civilization itself.

Pizza has been around since the days of the ancients, but its cultural significance has shifted along with the sands of time. American pizza was preceded by Italian pizza, which was preceded by flat, round bread with toppings that people snacked on in Ancient Rome and Greece. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of ground to cover between the simple flatbreads consumed way before Jesus’ time and the pepperoni slices served at Chuck E. Cheese, but it’s worth the ride.

In a way, the history of pizza is the history of how Italian culture cemented its modern-day identity — and then went on to leave an indelible mark on the culture of the United States as well.

The Ancient History Of Pizza

Way before we arrived to the crust-sauce-cheese formula we’re familiar with today, there existed the simple (but effective) precursor that was simply, well, a round disk of bread. A flatbread, if you will. And these flatbreads had toppings. The ancients thought they were so clever with their edible plates. (No, really: in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas and co. eat a meal of “thin wheaten cakes as platters for their meal” topped with mushrooms and herbs. His son Ascanius then says, “Look! We’ve even eaten our plates!”)

These flatbreads were around in the days of the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. In fact, the Greeks prepared theirs in a way that’s very reminiscent to modern-day focaccia — with herbs and oil. Persian army soldiers all the way back in the sixth century BCE would eat theirs with cheese and dates, and they even used their shields to cook the bread. Have any hipster restaurants tried to bring shield pizza back yet? That’s not a rhetorical question — I’m actually curious.

The Fertile Crescent Of Naples

The version of pizza we’ve come to know and love is widely believed to come from the southwestern Italian city of Naples. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the population of Naples grew considerably due to its status as a waterfront trade city. The population growth put strain on the local economy, which contributed to the growth of a large class of working poor known as lazzaroni.

The lazzaroni adapted the flatbread format to meet their need for cheap, filling food they could eat on the fly while they moved around town looking for work. They often topped them with ingredients like tomatoes, oil, lard, garlic, basil, cheese, and anchovies — a standard that has largely remained in place to this day.

At the time, tomatoes were a relatively new import from the Americas. Most Italians were still pretty skeptical about this weird fruit because they were seen as “poor people food,” partly because they grow low to the ground and also, in a twist of circular logic, because poor people actually ate them due to their unpopularity and low price.

Similarly, upper-class Italians looked down on pizza as “peasant” food (even deeming it “disgusting” — imagine!) until a high-status person made it fashionable. Italy’s Queen Margherita and King Umberto I visited Naples in 1889 shortly after Italy unified as a country. Bored with fancy French food, they visited a local pizzeria and asked to try a couple pies. They liked the pizza, and the queen especially loved the one topped with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. This pizza henceforth came to be known as pizza margherita. And in the broader history of pizza, this moment signified pizza’s acceptance into the ranks of national Italian cuisine.

Coming To America

Big waves of Italian immigrants to the United States around the turn of the 20th century brought big waves of crowd-pleasing carbs with them. As far as historical records can tell, the first official U.S pizzeria — Lombardi’s in Manhattan — got its license to sell pizza in 1905. It didn’t take long for more pizzerias to crop up around New York, New Jersey, Boston and beyond.

At some point between then and the post-World War II era, pizza came to be recognized as a quintessentially American food in the United States. This was not only the result of the pizza being eaten at home, but also the affinity American soldiers developed for pizza while stationed in Italy. The postwar tourism boom followed also brought a lot of foreigners to Italy. And at the same time that pizza was becoming more popular in the United States, it was also becoming more widespread in Italy, too.

With the “naturalization” of pizza as an American food came the emergence of distinct styles of pizza that didn’t quite look like the more rustic variety that came out of Naples. Some of these were topped with unorthodox ingredients (like ham and pineapple). Others had a thicker crust, like Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, which was actually invented by Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill founder Ike Sewell.

Even tri-state pizza — where it all started — began to diverge from the Neapolitan norm. Today, New York-style pizza is steeped in mythos and is hard to fully recreate elsewhere. Is it the water that makes New York pizza taste the way it does? Hard to say. Just don’t eat it with a fork and knife. Ever. Please.

Eventually, we also came up with frozen pizzas that Americans could stock their freezers with, which required adapting the ingredients slightly to make them more hospitable to being frozen and reheated. That’s not to mention the creation of national chains like Domino’s (founded in 1960) and Pizza Hut (1958), as well as the advent of delivery food.

A Panorama Of Pizza-bilities

Today, pizza is a global phenomenon, and you can satisfy just about any kind of craving that abides by the crust-and-topping doctrine.

You can be a staunch traditionalist and get a delicious Neapolitan-style pizza topped with basil. You can be a different kind of staunch traditionalist and get an enormous, dripping-in-grease New York-style slice from a shop window in Manhattan.

You can also try pizza topped with Gouda cheese and hard-boiled eggs in Brazil. Or go to Scotland, where they deep fry their pizzas in the same batter they make fish and chips with. The Turks have adapted pizza into a more Middle Eastern–style flatbread with toppings like lamb and peynir cheese. You can get bulgogi pizza in Korea, and in Iceland they even put bananas on their pizza (and you thought pineapple was weird).

It’s impossible to quantify how many different kinds of pizza exist around the world today. There are a handful of major regional varieties in the United States alone, but that’s to say nothing of the infinite topping possibilities.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the history of pizza? If it tastes good, the world will come to acknowledge and love it eventually — even if they snub their noses at it initially. This doesn’t mean I’m necessarily about to become a banana pizza advocate, but, you know, whatever works for Iceland.

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Author Headshot
Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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