The Origins of Pizza
The first bread baked was a pizza crust. The Neolithic-era cooks who prepared grain paste and baked it into flat rounds over burning coals probably didn't call it that, but a hot, crispy, chewy pizza crust by any other name is still a pizza crust.
Leavened flatbreads — made lighter by the introduction of wild yeast spores — appeared in Egypt around 4000 B.C. It's a good bet that condiments of the day — honey, onion, garlic, goose fat, herbs, and plant extracts — found their way onto and into doughs made from wheat, barley, and other grains. After that, it was just a matter of time, improved culinary technology, and the discovery of new ingredients before the now-classic pizza was born.
Ancient Greeks can claim credit for the first pizza-like dishes, which included flat breads — some no doubt similar to modern pita — topped with herbs and spices. But similar thrifty meals were being eaten by workers and their families in countries around the Mediterranean. Food historians say that in the sixth century B. C., Persian soldiers baked flatbread on their shields and topped it with dates and cheeses.
In his third-century B.C. history of Rome, Cato the Elder speaks of flat rounds of dough baked on hot stones and dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey. Meanwhile, Etruscans in Central Italy baked focaccia-like bread with toppings.
The first Italian cookbook author, Marcus Gavius Apicius, included in his first-century A.D. book a recipe for a hearth-baked bread topped with chicken, pine nuts, cheeses, herbs, peppers, and oil — a precursor to chicken pesto pizza.
A step toward the familiar bread-tomato-cheese pie formula came in the sixteenth century when Columbus's voyages brought Peruvian tomatoes to Europe. Most Europeans eschewed the fruit, fearing them poisonous.
The poor men and women of Naples, however, decided to risk a little in order to add variety to their monotonous diets. They added tomatoes to their hearth-baked dough rounds. By the seventeenth century, diners from all over Italy were venturing into Neapolitan bakeries and trattorias in search of the country's best pizzas.
Naples, the Italian birthplace of the modern pizza, was once a Greek settlement known as Neopolis, further cementing the connection between pizza and ancient Greek culinary arts.
Pizza as most people know it first appeared in 1889 with baker Raffaele Esposito of Naples. In honor of a visit by Queen Margherita of Savoy, he prepared a patriotic pizza in the colors of the Italian flag: green basil, white mozzarella cheese made from water buffalo milk, and red tomatoes. He named it Pizza Margherita, a variety of pie still served today. In fact, the descendants of Esposito and his wife Maria Brandi still operate Brandi Pizzeria in Naples.
Pizza in America
In 1897, Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant in New York, opened a store in Little Italy where one of his employees made pizza. It became so popular that by 1905 Lombardi had opened New York's first pizzeria. Lombardi's on Spring Street in Little Italy eventually spawned more “Lombardi's” pizza outlets in the city. By 1924, Lombardi's original pizzaiolo (the Italian word for pizzamaker), Antonio Totonno Pero, opened his own shop on Coney Island.
Descendants of Pero and other Lombardi employees eventually launched pizza enterprises up the East Coast in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and, eventually, Boston. In 1929, Italian immigrants in South Philadelphia opened Marra's on Passyunk Avenue, which served thin-crust pizzas baked in brick ovens built with stone bricks imported from Italy. It remains the oldest surviving restaurant in the neighborhood.
Until World War II, pizza in the United States was largely an ethnic affair, served by Italians to Italians. During the war, soldiers and sailors — sick of rations — sought out local dishes and discovered the Italian food of the masses, pizza. They came home with a taste for the stuff and began making pilgrimages to Italian restaurants in their own cities. By the 1950s, a boom in pizza consumption had begun that has not abated to this day.
Roman Pizza Mix, a pizza kit in a box, was introduced in 1948 as the first home pizza convenience product. The first frozen pizza was marketed in 1957 by the Celentano Brothers. Eventually, pizza became the top-selling frozen entrée in the United States.
The first truly American pizza was born in 1943 when Chicagoan Ike Sewell introduced deep-dish pizza to the Windy City. Pizzeria Uno offered pies worthy of oversized appetites, with a thin crust lining a cake pan filled with many layers of cheese, meats, veggies, and sauce.
Shortly thereafter, the development of gas-fired pizza ovens made pizza entrepreneurship easier and more affordable, resulting in mom-and-pop pizza shops springing up around the U.S.
The next major change in American pizza-dom was the advent of fast-food and delivery-focused pizza chains. Shakey's Pizza opened in California in 1954, Pizza Hut opened in Kansas in 1958, Little Caesar's launched in Michigan in 1959, and Domino's began in Michigan in 1960. The major chains have served billions of pizzas around the world since that time, making pizza more accessible but less of an artisan product.
Perhaps as a backlash, “gourmet,” or California-style, pizzas emerged in the 1980s. Spago founder Wolfgang Puck created a small, thin-crust pie with toppings as varied as caviar, artichokes, crème fraiche, and Gorgonzola cheese. In 1985, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield, two Beverly Hills attorneys, traded the courtroom for the dining room. They founded the California Pizza Kitchen chain, most notably the creator of the Barbecue Chicken Pizza.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italians migrated to countries throughout South America, Australia, Central Europe, and Northern Africa, as well as North America. Those families brought their pizza recipes with them, and eventually pizza vendors raised their shingles, attracting neighborhood folk as well as adventurous visitors.
Those Italian neighborhood shops got a boost after World War II. American GIs weren't the only world citizens who acquired a taste for pizza during their time abroad. Many Australians, Canadians, and Northern Europeans sampled pizza for the first time as well. When they returned home, they sought out their own countries' pizzerias. Their appetites fueled pizza booms and reinforced the pizza traditions of Italian immigrant families in far corners.
Pizza-loving soldiers and their families also created a market that attracted global food purveyors. American corporate pizza giants like Pizza Hut and Domino's spread across North America and onto other continents, which in turn helped build an even wider interest in pizza. As pizza became more entrenched in local cultures, the toppings and styles became more varied.
Today, one can order pizza topped with kimchee (fermented vegetables) in Korea, with potatoes and mayonnaise in Japan, with Russian or Thousand Island dressing in Hong Kong, with bananas and nuts in Brazil, with tandoori chicken in India, with corn in China, and with Gouda cheese in the Netherlands. In Canada, “Punjabi- style” pizza refers to pies topped with hot peppers, with Ranch dressing as a popular dip. In Ireland, some pizza toppings are piled onto soda bread, and in Scotland, deep-fried pizzas are served with fries, while in Iran pizzas come with a side of ketchup.