A Brief History of Pizza

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Every year, each man, woman, and child in the United States eats an average of 46 slices of pizza, cumulatively consuming over an acre of pizza each day. If you’re one of the millions of Americans who contributes each year to the $30 billion industry that is pizza, you probably take the delicious dish for granted as a go-to meal or snack throughout your week. But how did this American favorite come about? How and where did pizza originate?

It’s widely agreed upon that pizza was first created in Naples. Through the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a vibrant, waterfront city notorious for its working poor population, a group of people commonly referred to as lazzaroni. The areas closest to the water were often the most densely populated, with people living in houses that would, nowadays, barely qualify as a room. Considering their collective poverty and poor living conditions, these poor Neapolitans required food that was cheap to make and easy to eat, and thus the pizza was born. These ‘pizzas’, which were flatbreads topped with various ingredients were readily available by street vendors and were suitable to be eaten for any meal. These toppings included cheese, oil, tomatoes, garlic, and anchovies, all ingredients still desired by pizza-lovers today. Wealthy Neapolitans looked down on the eating habits of the lazzaroni and dubbed their eating habits disgusting.

margherita pizza
Margherita pizza was named after Queen Margherita for whom the first green, white, and red Italy-inspired pizza was made.

So how did pizza go from being a peasant dish to being one of the most popular foods in the world today?

There are several different versions of the story, but there are a few constants to the story. After Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited the city of Naples in 1889. As the story goes, the royal couple grew tired of eating gourmet, French cuisine everywhere that they travelled so, when they arrived in Naples, they requested a variety of pizzas from local establishments. A Neapolitan restaurateur named Raffaele Esposito created a special pizza to honor their visit that consisted of green basil, white mozzarella, and red tomatoes, the respective colors of the Italian flag. Apparently the Queen was so taken by this particular pizza that the topping combination was named after her and is still known today as Margherita pizza.

Although pizza in Italy didn’t become prevalent until the 1940s, an ocean away it was about to boom. As factory jobs in the United States increased near the turn of the 20th century, so did immigration from European countries, including Neapolitans from Italy. With them they brought their flatbread pizza recipes. Soon pizza began to incite the curiosity of non-Neapolitans and the food craze was born. 16 years after Queen Margherita was served her signature pizza for the first time, the first documented pizzeria, G. Lombardi’s, opened its doors in 1905. Although it no longer resides at its original location, Lombardi’s is still around, and still uses the same coal-fired pizza oven that it did when it originally opened.