The History of Pizza

The love story of everyone’s favorite food

Pizza and Italy…the words go together, right? Well, they do to us modern folk. But the truth is, pizza was around in various cultures before it began to be associated with Italy.

How pizza got its name is not completely known. The word “pizza” is believed to be derived from “pizzo,” an Italian word meaning “a point,”. This eventually became the Italian word, “pizzicare,” which means “to pinch” or “pluck,” referring to the action of “plucking” the pizza from the oven. It also may be a derivative of the Latin word “picea,” which ancient Romans used to describe bread as it browned and eventually blackened in an oven. Other theories on the etymology of the word, “pizza” include the idea that it was derived from Old High German origins. The word “bizzo” or “pizzo” meant “mouthful,” and was used in 6th century Italy.

It is uncertain which cultures made the very first pizza-like foods before the Italians, with the Phoenicians, ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans, all having a history of dough-based flat breads heated on hot stones.

What is certain is that the first rudimentary pizzas were simple–flat bread, baked on heated stones in a fire. In Greece, they were usually seasoned after baking, with oils, spices, herbs, and other toppings, including dates. This flat bread was often used as a utensil itself, a way to scoop up soups, broths, or gravies, along with other foods.

One topping you wouldn’t find, however, was the tomato, since these were not brought to the European continent until after Columbus found his way to the New World. At first, the Europeans believed the tomato to be poisonous. Eventually, the braver amongst the population gave it a try and realized how good these tomatoes were.

Finally, in the 18th century in Italy, pizzas began to be sold as street fare. Vendors, often young boys, would walk around the city with small tin ovens on their heads to keep the pizzas warm. There were also many street vendors who sold their pizzas from open-air stands or in pizza bakeries. These early pizzas were often sold without any toppings at all or dressed simply with some herbs and cheese, but that eventually changed. Pizzas gained some fame when Queen Margherita di Savoia discovered them in her own backyard. While traveling through her kingdom with her husband, King Umberto I, she sampled some of this street food in Naples and fell in love with it. She commissioned the famous pizzaioli Chef Raffaele Esposito to create some new flavors, and he decided to honor her with a pizza representing the Italian flag. It had tomatoes for the red, mozzarella cheese for the white, and fresh basil for the green. The queen loved it, and this combination became known as the Pizza Margherita, a classic culinary tradition and an international standard. Soon, pizza making spread across Italy, with chefs in Bologna adding meat, and the Neapolitan Pizza, which features garlic, spices, herbs, and fresh vegetables. The world’s first pizzeria opened in Naples in 1830 and was dubbed, “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba.” It is still in business today.

In the late 19th century, Italian immigrants began an American tradition of pizza making. In the beginning, most pizza in America was made at home, by southern Italian immigrant women in their own kitchens. It was in 1905 that Gennaro Lombardi was given the first license in New York City to make and sell pizza at his grocery store on Spring Street. This was followed by the opening of pizzerias in New Jersey, Coney Island, and New Haven, Connecticut. These places all had large Italian immigrant populations, most of whom were poor. Eventually, pizzerias began opening in large cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia as well. World War II brought many Americans to Italy, where they fell in love with the pizzas they found there. While Italian immigrants in America had been selling pizzas for a while, it was after World War II that drove an increase in demand for these tomato pies.

The modern American pizza industry took off when Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell opened Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943. This was followed by the opening of Pizza Hut in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958, and Little Caesar’s in 1959. In 1960, Tom Monaghan started Domino’s Pizza and began offering a new innovation–home delivery. Chain restaurants became the standard of the industry, with Shakey’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, Bertucci’s, Godfather’s Pizza, and others. The larger pizza chains have focused most of their business of home delivery, with Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, and others leading the pack. And the newest innovation–take and bake pizza–from the likes of Papa Murphy’s and others, have given customers even more choices.