Pizza, like so many other foods, did not originate in the country for which it is now famous and in fact, the idea for pizza is older than Italy itself. In its most basic form, pizza in ancient times was more similar to a seasoned flatbread and enjoyed by several cultures including the Greeks and the Phoenicians. Made from flour and water, the dough would be formed into round flat shapes, seasoned with herbs and then cooked by placing it on a hot stone. Referred to as plankuntos, the Greeks would use this flatbread as an edible plate that would be topped by anything from stews and a thick broth to meats and fruits.
Eventually, these plankuntos made its way to Italy and were renamed “pizzas.” The word pizza is thought to have come from the Latin word “pinsa”, which means flatbread. There’s still an ongoing debate as to whether this is true or not. Pizzas were sold on the streets and in the markets as street food to the poor all over Naples. The street vendors (typically young boys) would walk around the city with small tin stoves on their heads, calling out to attract customers. Cheap to make, these pizzas were only topped with olive oil and herbs and yet, they were tasty and filling. Before these pizzas would become more similar to modern day pizzas, two ingredients had to come into play: tomatoes and cheese.
Tomatoes were introduced to Italy in the 16th century by the Spaniards who brought them from Mexico and Peru, but they were thought to be poisonous and were originally grown only for decoration. It wasn’t until the 18th and early 19th centuries that fears were overcome and tomatoes started having more of a presence in Italian cuisine. When mozzarella cheese, which was made from the milk of Indian water buffalo, came to Italy also in the 18th century, pizza with tomato sauce and cheese was truly born.
Eventually, this peasant food started tantalizing the taste buds of the aristocracy which meant that the street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with a variety of toppings. By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and is still in business today. In the 1800’s, the tools of the typical pizzerias included shelves lined with ingredients, a marble counter where the pizza crust was prepared and a large brick oven to cook the pizza in. Pizzaioli (makers of pizza) often assemble the entire pizza on a marble counter right before the customer’s eyes.
When it comes to the pizza known as the Margherita, it actually owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita. In the late 1800s, the Italian monarch King Umberto and his wife, Queen Margherita were touring the Naples area and decided to make a stop at Pizzeria Brandi. On duty for that visit was Rafaele Esposito and to show his patriotism created a pizza that best represented the colors of the Italian flag: red tomato, white mozzarella cheese and green basil. This pizza became such a favorite of the queen that it was named after her. Pizzeria Brandi, now more than 200 years old, still proudly displays a royal thank-you note signed by Galli Camillo, “head of the table of the royal household”, dated June 1889.
By the beginning of the 1900’s pizza made its way to the inner cities of the United States due to Italian immigrants, most notably New York and Chicago, which already had large Italian populations. Pizza was also sold as street food, similar to what was done in Naples and than small cafes began offering the Italian favorite. In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi, is thought to have opened the first US pizzeria in New York simply called Lombardi’s, which were followed by other pizzerias in other parts of New York, New Jersey and even Connecticut, but it wasn’t until after World War II ended that pizza really came into its own. Returning American soldiers having been exposed to pizza while serving on the Italian front were hooked and they were the ones who really drove up the popularity of this one time Italian only known and eaten food.
In 1943, Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell opened up Pizzeria Uno in Chicago and in 1948, the first commercial pizza-pie mix called “Roman Pizza Mix” was produced in Worcester, Massachusetts by Frank A. Fiorillo. Chain pizza restaurants were soon on the rise as well. Leading early pizza chains were Shakey’s Pizza, founded in 1954 in Sacramento, California and Pizza Hut founded in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas. Both are now national companies.
While the American pizza business is dominated by companies that specialize in pizza delivery, such as Domino’s, Papa John’s Pizza and Pizza Hut, don’t discount your local pizzerias. Whether take-out only, a Mom and Pop joint or even a gourmet restaurant, pizza is truly a food for the masses and is versatile enough for any palate. So be sure to enjoy a slice or two tonight and below are pizza joints you may want to check out.
Bollini’s Pizzeria Napolitana
2315 S Garfield Ave
Monterey Park, CA 91754
Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511
730 N Rush Street
Chicago, IL 60611
32 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012
641 N Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036