The History of Pizza

Updated on June 26, 2019
Lissa Clason profile image

Melissa loves learning about history, and also enjoys learning about the people making history today. She is always reading something new.

Pizza is a food that appears everywhere in modern culture, from parties to dinners at home. It is very hard to find someone that doesn't like pizza in some variety, as this food has spread all over the world using a variety of ingredients that will appeal to the locals. For example, in China many people do not like cheese or are lactose intolerant, and tomatoes are not typically grown over there, so the local Pizza Huts will serve pizzas topped with soy sauce and chicken, corn, tuna, and crab.

People like pizza so much that they will have it delivered to their homes, leading to the creation and worldwide expansion of chains such as Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, Little Caesar's, and Marco's Pizza. We have developed an entire culture around pizza, with online debates over whether pineapple is an acceptable topping, and taking children to Chuck E. Cheese's for their birthday, where they can play arcade games and eat pepperoni pizza to their heart's content.

Even in our media, pizza is a hot topic. Pizza is the favorite food of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who are seen devouring pizza in many episodes of the 1990s cartoon. Pizza the Hut is a hilarious parody of Jabba the Hut in 1987's Spaceballs. In the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Spicoli, played by a young Sean Penn, orders a pizza to his classroom. Pizza has even made an appearance in Beyonce's wardrobe!

But why is pizza such a popular food? Who invented it, and where did it come from? This article will chronicle the history of the pizza and its journey across the globe.

Focaccia, invented circa 700 BC by the ancient Etruscans, is one of the ancestors of pizza that is still eaten today.
Focaccia, invented circa 700 BC by the ancient Etruscans, is one of the ancestors of pizza that is still eaten today.

Pizza's Forefathers in the Ancient World

The basic concept of pizza is way older than you think. People have been putting toppings on bread for centuries:

  • People have been eating focaccia, a leavened flatbread made with olive oil, since the time of the ancient Etruscans, who lived in northern Italy before the formation of the Roman Empire, between the 8th and 3rd century BC. Sometimes the focaccia was topped with cheeses, onions, garlic, and for the rich, pork.
  • The soldiers that served in the army of Darius I, a king of ancient Persia who ruled around the 6th century BC, baked flatbreads with cheese and dates on their shields when they stopped for lunch.
  • The Ancient Greeks made plakous, a flatbread which was topped with herbs, onion, cheese and garlic.
  • The Aeneid, written between 29 and 19 BC, refers to a food that is similar to pizza. Celaeno, queen of the harpies, gives a prophecy that the Trojans would not find peace until they were so hungry that they ate their tables. Later on in the story, Aeneas and his men are fed round pita bread with cooked vegetables on top. The breads topped with vegetables were the tables in the prophecy.
  • Pinsa, a food created in ancient Roman times, is perhaps the most pizza-like pizza ancestor. People formed a mixture of water, millet, barley and oats (and later spelt) into a flatbread, and then cooked it on hot ashes and a stone. Pinsa dough uses a wheat/soy/rice flour, more water, and less salt than pizza, creating a lighter, airier crust. Instead of a round shape, pinsas are typically oval, but are topped with similar toppings to pizza. They are lighter and less calorie-dense, making them a good alternative for people on a diet.

Margherita pizza was designed in the late 1800s by Raffaele Esposito. It was designed to resemble the colors of the Italian flag, and was served to Queen Margherita of Savoy, who it was named after.
Margherita pizza was designed in the late 1800s by Raffaele Esposito. It was designed to resemble the colors of the Italian flag, and was served to Queen Margherita of Savoy, who it was named after.

Italian Pizza Is Invented

The invention of modern-day pizza was spurred by the import of tomatoes from the Americas to Europe in the 16th century, around the year 1522. At first, Europeans were wary of the fruit, because many fruits of the nightshade are poisonous and the tomato was thought to be poisonous too, but by the late 18th century it became common for poor people around Naples to add tomatoes to their yeast-based flatbread. Tomatoes were inexpensive and easy to prepare, so the modern pizza was invented as a way to feed the poor. Word spread of how delicious pizza was, and tourists flocked to the poor districts of Naples to try the varieties of the dish that had developed there.

One such variety was the marinara pizza, topped with tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and extra virgin olive oil. This variety of pizza was named for the seamen who fished in the Bay of Naples; their wives would prepare marinara pizza for them to eat when they returned home after a long day's work.

Another variety of pizza that is popular in Italy is the Margherita pizza, of royal origin. Raffaele Esposito, who worked at the "Pizzeria di Pietro" established in 1880, is the inventor of margherita pizza, topped with green basil leaves, white mozzarella cheese, and flavorful red cherry tomatoes. The Pizzeria di Pietro became a very popular and widely known pizzeria, and in 1889, Raffaele was called to bake several varieties of pizza for the King and Queen of Italy, Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy. The one that Queen Margherita loved the most was accentuated in the green, white, and red colors of the Italian flag, and the pizza was named in her honor.

By the 19th century, pizza was widely sold on the streets of Naples, and people would eat pizza for all meals, even breakfast. Pizzerias became centers of socialization, where people could meet to eat, drink, and talk, much like bars are now. As the culinary tradition around pizza grew, more and more toppings were added. The pizza became one of the ultimate expressions of a chef's creativity: utterly customizable and capable of supporting any flavor profile.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore...

— Dean Martin, in his 1952 hit song, "That's Amore"

Pizza Spreads Around the World

The spread of pizza around the world can be accredited to two things: Italian immigration and World War 2.

In places like Boston and New York City in the late 19th century, Italian immigrants would walk the streets and sell pizzas in a metal washtub for two cents a slice. When this started catching on, cafes and grocery stores began hiring these street vendors to make pizza in-house, and pizzas were sold to customers of all backgrounds.

There are conflicting stories out there, but the first pizzeria in the US is thought to have been opened by Filippo Milone, who sold it to Gennaro Lombardi, the man who is known for receiving the first business license for a pizzeria in 1905.

Pizzerias were popular in areas with a lot of Italians, but it took World War 2 for other countries to realize how great pizza is. Soldiers that were part of the Italian campaign tried the local food, loved it, and brought it home. Songs were written about pizza pie, and it was featured in cartoons such as Popeye. With the spread of pizza, new varieties such as the Chicago deep dish pizza were invented, and pizza became an important part of the chain restaurant and delivery trends.

In many countries, pizza is served using ingredients that are popular with the locals. In Iceland, bananas are added to the Hawaiian pizza to make an Icelandic pizza, and in Korea bulgogi is often used in place of pepperoni. In Japan, pizza crust is sometimes made using mochi instead of pizza crust, and if you order pizza in India they will probably give you packs of spices instead of parmesan cheese. Places with large Jewish populations will make kosher pizza, and similarly pizza makers in areas with a large vegetarian population may offer pizzas made with imitation meat. The spread of pizza around the world has lead to a lot of interesting varieties, and allowed billions of people to enjoy this wonderful food.

Unique Pizzas From Around the World

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is a Japanese variety of pizza using mochi as the crust.In Iceland, banana slices are very popular as a pizza topping.Russia takes fish on pizza to a new level with mockba, a style of pizza that uses mackerel, tuna, sardines, and salmon, along with a heaping helping of onions.Australia's most famous animal is the kangaroo, and some Australians think kangaroos make a delicious pizza topping.In the Florida Everglades, a restaurant called Evan's Neighborhood Pizza sells a pizza made with python, frog's legs and alligator sausage.
This is a Japanese variety of pizza using mochi as the crust.
This is a Japanese variety of pizza using mochi as the crust. | Source
In Iceland, banana slices are very popular as a pizza topping.
In Iceland, banana slices are very popular as a pizza topping. | Source
Russia takes fish on pizza to a new level with mockba, a style of pizza that uses mackerel, tuna, sardines, and salmon, along with a heaping helping of onions.
Russia takes fish on pizza to a new level with mockba, a style of pizza that uses mackerel, tuna, sardines, and salmon, along with a heaping helping of onions. | Source
Australia's most famous animal is the kangaroo, and some Australians think kangaroos make a delicious pizza topping.
Australia's most famous animal is the kangaroo, and some Australians think kangaroos make a delicious pizza topping. | Source
In the Florida Everglades, a restaurant called Evan's Neighborhood Pizza sells a pizza made with python, frog's legs and alligator sausage.
In the Florida Everglades, a restaurant called Evan's Neighborhood Pizza sells a pizza made with python, frog's legs and alligator sausage. | Source

Share Your Thoughts!

What are your favorite pizza ingredients? How do you feel about the pineapple on pizza debate? Discuss in the comments!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Melissa Clason

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      • PAINTDRIPS profile image

        Denise McGill 

        4 months ago from Fresno CA

        What a great history lesson. You made me so hungry I ran right into the kitchen and started the dough for my own homemade pizza vegan style. Thanks for sharing.

        Blessings,

        Denise

      • lizmalay profile image

        Liza 

        5 months ago from USA

        This is really great article about pizza! Thanks for sharing!

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        I have learned a lot about pizza from your article. Mouth-watering illustrations too.

      • mackyi profile image

        I.W. McFarlane 

        5 months ago from Philadelphia

        Very informative and rather interesting.

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