Pizza, the beloved and iconic Italian dish, is a global phenomenon. From the bustling streets of New York City to the picturesque piazzas of Naples, pizza is enjoyed by millions every day. Its simple yet delectable combination of dough, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings has captured people’s hearts and taste buds worldwide. But who can claim the title of the true inventor of pizza? The history of pizza is a fascinating journey through time and culture, filled with myths, legends, and delicious discoveries. In this article, we will explore the origins of pizza, from its humble beginnings in ancient civilizations to its modern-day variations and popularity.
What is Pizza?
Pizza, originating from Italy, is a culinary creation characterized by a typically circular, flattened base made from leavened wheat-based dough. It is adorned with a topping composed of tomatoes, cheese, and frequently an assortment of other ingredients, including various types of sausages, anchovies, mushrooms, onions, olives, vegetables, meat, and ham, which is then subjected to high-temperature baking, traditionally within a wood-fired oven.
The term “pizza” can be traced back to the 10th century, when it was first documented in a Latin manuscript originating from Gaeta, a town in Southern Italy situated on the border between Lazio and Campania. The credit for the modern incarnation of pizza is often attributed to Raffaele Esposito, who is closely associated with its development in Naples. Notably, the European Union recognized Neapolitan pizza as a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed dish in 2009. Moreover, in 2017, the art of crafting Neapolitan pizza secured its place on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Pizza and its diverse adaptations rank among the most widely adored foods across the globe. It is available through various dining establishments, including pizzerias specializing in pizza, Mediterranean eateries, delivery services, and as a popular choice for street food. In Italy, pizza served in a restaurant is typically presented uncut and requires the use of a knife and fork for consumption. However, in more informal settings, it is sliced into wedges to enjoy while hand-held. Pizza is also offered in grocery stores in various formats, including frozen options or as kits for assembly at home, which can then be cooked using a standard household oven.
To understand the invention of pizza, we must travel back in time to ancient civilizations that contributed to its development.
1. Egyptian Flatbreads
The concept of flatbreads with toppings dates back to ancient Egypt. Egyptians were known to bake flatbreads and top them with various ingredients, such as dates, spices, and olive oil. While these creations bear some resemblance to modern pizza, they were not quite the same, lacking the crucial element of tomatoes, which were introduced to Europe much later.
2. Greek and Roman Influences
The ancient Greeks and Romans also had their own versions of flatbreads. Greeks made plakous, a flatbread topped with olive oil and local spices. Romans prepared a dish called placenta, which consisted of thin layers of dough with honey and cheese. These dishes shared similarities with modern pizza but did not yet incorporate the tomato, a key ingredient that defines the pizza we know today.
The Tomato Revolution
The introduction of tomatoes to Europe in the 16th century marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of pizza. Tomatoes, originally native to the Americas, were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers. Initially, Europeans were wary of tomatoes due to their resemblance to poisonous plants. However, they eventually embraced this versatile fruit.
1. Naples: The Birthplace of Pizza
The city of Naples, Italy, is often hailed as the birthplace of pizza. In the 18th century, Naples was a bustling and overcrowded city with a diverse population that included the working class and the urban poor. The locals, known as “lazzaroni,” needed an affordable and easily accessible food source.
Tomatoes, which had become a staple in the Neapolitan diet, found their way onto flatbreads. These early pizzas were simple, consisting of a basic dough topped with tomatoes and local ingredients like garlic, olive oil, and cheese. They were sold by street vendors and became a popular snack among the working class.
2. The Margherita Pizza Legend
One of the most famous legends surrounding pizza is the creation of the Margherita pizza. According to the story, in 1889, Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Naples. To honor her, the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created a pizza with the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella cheese, and green basil. This pizza was named the Margherita in her honor. While the story may have been embellished over time, it reflects the patriotism and creativity of the Neapolitan people.
Pizza Goes Global
The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the spread of pizza beyond Italy’s borders.
1. Italian Immigration to the United States
Italian immigrants brought their culinary traditions, including pizza, to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled in cities like New York and Chicago, where pizza gained popularity among Italian communities. The first pizzerias in the United States served primarily Neapolitan-style pizzas.
2. The Evolution of American Pizza
As pizza gained popularity in the United States, it underwent significant changes to suit American tastes. The traditional Neapolitan pizza evolved into what is now known as New York-style pizza—a thin, foldable slice with a crispy crust. Chicago, on the other hand, developed its deep-dish pizza, characterized by a thick, buttery crust and layers of toppings.
3. Fast Food and Chain Pizzerias
The mid-20th century saw the rise of fast-food and chain pizzerias like Domino’s and Pizza Hut. These establishments standardized pizza production and delivery, making pizza more accessible and convenient for American consumers. While some argue that this led to a decline in pizza quality, it undoubtedly contributed to pizza’s widespread popularity.
Pizza has undergone countless variations and adaptations in countries around the world.
1. Italian Regional Varieties
Italy itself boasts a diverse range of regional pizza styles. In addition to the Margherita and Neapolitan pizzas, there is the Roman-style pizza al taglio, which is baked in rectangular trays and cut into square slices. Sicilian pizza features a thick, spongy crust, while the Ligurian focaccia closely resembles pizza, with its thin, oily crust.
2. Global Fusion
As pizza traveled the world, it fused with local ingredients and flavors, resulting in unique creations. In Japan, you can find Okonomiyaki pizza topped with ingredients like cabbage, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. In India, the spicy tandoori chicken pizza is a popular choice, while in Sweden, the kebab pizza with a creamy garlic sauce is a local favorite.
3. The Quest for Authenticity
In recent years, there has been a movement towards authenticity in pizza making. Pizzaiolos and chefs around the world are using traditional techniques and high-quality ingredients to create pizzas that rival those from Naples. The Neapolitan pizza, with its soft, chewy crust and minimal toppings, has experienced a resurgence in popularity.
Pizza’s journey from ancient flatbreads to the global phenomenon it is today is a testament to the adaptability of food and the power of cultural exchange. While the true inventor of pizza may remain a mystery, the collective efforts of countless individuals and cultures have shaped it into the beloved dish we know today.
Whether you prefer a classic Margherita, a deep-dish Chicago pie, or a creative fusion pizza from a far-off land, there is no denying the universal appeal of pizza. It transcends borders, languages, and backgrounds, bringing people together over a shared love for its irresistible combination of flavors. So, who invented pizza? Perhaps it is the countless hands and hearts that have contributed to its rich history, making it a truly global culinary treasure.