Pizza has a long history. Filled flatbreads were eaten by The ancient Egyptians, Romans And The Greeks. (The latter ate an herb-and-oil version, similar to today’s focaccia.) But the modern birthplace of pizza is the Campania region in southwest Italy, home to the city of Naples.
Founded around 600 BC as a Greek colony, Naples was in the 1700s and early 1800s a thriving riverside city. Technically an independent kingdom, it was known for its crowds of poor workers, or lazzaroni. “The closer you got to the bay, the denser their population was and much of their life was spent outdoors, sometimes in houses that were little more than one room,” explains Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: a global story and associate professor of history at the University of Denver.
These Neapolitans needed food that was cheap and could be consumed quickly. Pizzas – flatbreads with various toppings, eaten at any meal and sold by street vendors or informal restaurants – met this need. “Critical Italian authors often called their eating habits ‘disgusting,’” notes Helstosky. These first pizzas eaten by the poor of Naples featured the delicious toppings enjoyed today, such as tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies, and garlic.
Italy was unified in 1861 and King Umberto I and Queen Margaret visited Naples in 1889. Legend has it that the two travelers grew tired of their constant diet of French haute cuisine and requested an assortment of pizzas from the city’s restaurants. Pizzeria Brandi, the successor to the Da Pietro pizzeria, founded in 1760. The variety that the queen liked most was called pizza mozzarella, a pie topped with soft white cheese, red tomatoes and green basil. (It may not be a coincidence that his favorite pie featured the colors of the Italian flag.) From then on, the story goes, this particular topping combination was dubbed Margherita pizza.
Queen Margherita’s blessing could have been the start of a pizza craze across Italy. But pizza remained little known in Italy beyond the Neapolitan borders until the 1940s.
However, an ocean away, immigrants from Naples to the United States were replicating their trusty crispy pizzas in new York and other U.S. cities, including Trenton, New Haven, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. Neapolitans came looking for work in factories, as did millions of Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; they weren’t looking to make a culinary statement. But soon enough, the flavors and aromas of pizza began to intrigue non-Neapolitans and non-Italians alike.
One of the first documented pizzerias in the United States was G. (for Gennaro) Lombardi’s on Spring Street in Manhattan, licensed to sell pizza in 1905. (Before that, the dish was either homemade or provided by unlicensed vendors. ) Lombardi’s, still in business. today, although no longer in its 1905 location, “has the same oven as originally,” notes food critic John Mariani, author of How Italian cuisine conquered the world.
Debates over the best slice of pizza in town can be heated, as any pizza lover knows. But Mariani credits three East Coast pizzerias for continuing to make pies in a century-old tradition: Totonno’s (Coney Island, Brooklyn, opened in 1924); Mario’s (Arthur Avenue, Bronx, opened 1919); and Pepe’s (New Haven, opened 1925).
As Italian Americans and their food migrated from city to suburb, east to west, especially after The Second World War, the popularity of pizza in the United States has exploded. It’s no longer considered an “ethnic” treat, but increasingly a quick and fun food. Regional, decidedly non-Neapolitan variations emerged, eventually including gourmet California pizzas topped with everything from grilled chicken to smoked salmon.
Postwar pizza finally reached Italy and beyond. “Like jeans and rock and roll, the rest of the world, including Italians, adopted pizza simply because it was American,” says Mariani.
Today, international outposts of American chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut thrive in about 60 different countries. Reflecting local tastes, pizza toppings from around the world can run the gamut, from Gouda cheese in Curacao to hard-boiled eggs in Brazil.