The Internationally Confusing History of Pizza
Has there ever been a more perfect food than pizza? It serves as a delivery vehicle for every food group, can be as healthy or as disturbing as you want it to be, and arrives at your door pretty much anywhere in the world in under 30 minutes. But it wasn’t always so popular, especially in its “native” Italy, although in truth, pizza existed in some form for thousands of years before an Italian ever saw a tomato.
As far back as the sixth century B.C.E., Persian soldiers ate flatbreads topped with cheese and dates, which honestly sounds delicious. Let’s bring that back.
The Ancient Greeks ate a similar food, though their toppings of choice were herbs and oils. It was closer to the Italian bread we now know as focaccia, which is probably actually Etruscan, just to confuse things further.
The Roman Empire
Pizza even plays a role in the epic poem Aeneid, from the time of the Roman Empire. A harpy tells the Trojans they won’t find peace until they get so hungry that they eat their plates, because harpies are cryptic like that, which comes to pass when they sprinkle random forest plants on the “thin wheaten cakes” they used as platters, inadvertently reinventing pizza.
Pizza as we know it really got going in 18th-century Naples, then still an independent kingdom. Its exploding trade industry led to an exploding population, which led to exploding poverty, which was addressed by street vendors who catered to people who couldn’t afford to eat anything fancier than “stuff on bread.” The most basic of these early pizzas was just garlic, lard, and salt, which again could really hit the spot under the right circumstances.
The Neapolitan Big Mac
For a long time, pizza was regarded by the wealthier of Naples and greater Italy much as the culture snobs of today view something like a Big Mac, a “disgusting” fat bomb that only people with no money and even less self-respect would deign to eat. Foreign visitors were even more critical. Samuel Morse -- you know, the guy with the code -- said it looked like “a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer,” predicting the Ninja Turtles by more than a century.
White and green and purple sauces may be all the rage today, but pizza isn’t pizza without tomato sauce, which is weird because tomatoes aren’t native to the Italian area or even Europe. No Italian ever saw a tomato until they started fucking shit up in the Americas, and they were initially regarded with suspicion back home, which is exactly what made them cheap enough to become a popular pizza topping.
You might assume margherita pizza -- that’s the one that’s just cheese, tomatoes, and basil -- was probably named after some lady Roberto Pizza had a crush on or something, but it was named after the queen of Italy after the royal family visited Naples in the late 19th century and (supposedly) demanded a local specialty after tiring of foofy French food. The queen loved her pizza, and the people of Naples were so grateful for the royal decree that their food wasn’t literal garbage that they named it after her.
The American Pizza Revolution
Italians were still reluctant to make pizza night a regular occurrence, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Naples pizza men began immigrating to the United States. Those stupid Americans had no idea bread and cheese wasn’t supposed to be amazing, so its popularity soared in areas with large immigrant populations like New York City.
World War II
Outside such cities, pizza was still little known and littler liked, but after World War II, two things happened. The first was American soldiers who served in Italy came home to Middle America raving about the sauce dough they’d eaten in Naples, turning pizza into the avocado toast of the postwar era.
At the same time, pizza was finally gaining traction in Italy outside Naples, but for the opposite reason. They liked it because, perhaps in a show of doth protesting too much, all things American were the latest craze, and pizza was perceived as American. As always, Naples could apparently go fuck itself.
The Domestication of Pizza
In the decades immediately following the postwar pizza boom, the American pizza industry evolved in two important ways. The first was the “domestication” of pizza. Food in the ‘50s was largely a nightmare because it was all about convenience, hence the popularity of Spam, TV dinners, and naturally, the frozen pizza.
The Commercialization of Pizza
By the ‘60s, cars had become so available and sidewalks so destroyed that the food delivery business took off, and pizza was a natural fit. This was the “commercialization” of pizza. That’s right: Delivery pizza actually came after frozen, so DiGourno’s whole marketing campaign is based on a lie.
It might be the standard now, but pepperoni pizza wasn’t really a thing until a New Haven pizzeria had a spicy lapse in judgment, and it didn’t become popular until Domino’s and, yes, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went all in on it in the ‘80s. Asking for pepperoni pizza in Italy is still grounds for deportation.
Meanwhile, the most maligned pizza wasn’t invented in either Italy or Hawaii. It was the creation of a Greek immigrant living in Canada in 1962, inspired by the sweet-and-savory pairings of American Chinese cuisine, so really pinning down its ethnic history is more of a thought experiment than a matter of record.
For as much as they disparaged it until America decided it was good, the Italian government began lobbying the European Union in 2004 to grant protected status to margherita pizza, which would prohibit anyone from using the name unless their pizza was made with specific regional ingredients, much like Champagne and Buffalo Wild Wings. It was a big victory for Italy when it was granted five years later, which is kind of like your dirtbag ex crawling back and insisting you were the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Be strong, Naples.
Top image: Damian Barczak/Unsplash