The History of Pizza: How the Ancient Dish Became a Modern Staple
Have you ever taken a big bite of ‘za and wondered how that delicious combo of tomato sauce, bread, and cheese came to be? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
Jen Causey; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke
Before there was pizza, there was focaccia. An Italian flatbread, focaccia is so old that its roots can’t be pinpointed. Many food historians believe that its earliest recipes were invented by the Estruscans prior to the Roman Empire or, even before that, by the Ancient Greeks.
Focaccia, which is traditionally topped with olive oil and spices, isn’t the only pizza predecessor. Adding extra ingredients to bread to make it more flavorful is a practice as old as, well, bread.
For instance, records suggest that Ancient Persians used their battle shields to bake flatbreads that they topped with dates and cheese.
Some scholars think pizza was inspired by Jewish cookies called pizzarelles, which are more similar to fritters than dessert cookies.
Related: 10+ Flatbread Pizza Recipes
The Turning Point
It wasn’t until tomatoes entered the picture that modern pizza started to take shape.
This wasn’t an easy transition, however. Many pre-16th century Europeans distrusted tomatoes, which were a new and exotic transplant from the Americas. This wasn’t an unreasonable fear: The tomato belongs to the nightshade family, which famously contains poisonous plants.
Over time, though, people began to realize that tomatoes were not only safe, but also added unique flavor to traditionally bland foods.
Tomato-topped flatbread became common in Naples in the 1700s. Soon, tourists actually traveled to the city to sample this new and exciting dish the locals called “pizza.”
Pizza marinara, made with plain marinara sauce and seasoned with oregano and garlic, appeared in 1735. “La marinara” translates to “the seaman’s wife.” Traditionally prepared for sailors before they arrived home from fishing trips, pizza marinara closely resembles something pizza aficionados would recognize today.
Word spread fast and wide. By the early 1800s, more than 50 pizzerias existed in Italy.
Related: 30+ Amazing Pizza Recipes
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Raffaele Esposito, a 19th-century Italian chef and owner of Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi, is considered by many to be the inventor of modern pizza.
According to legend, Esposito was tasked with preparing a dish for King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. At the time, pizza was still considered a poor person’s food—but Esposito was known as the greatest pizza maker of the time.
He created three versions of the local dish for the royal couple. Queen Margherita’s favorite was one made with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella. Its colors reminded her of the Italian flag.
After her trip to Naples, the queen wrote to Esposito, raving about the dish she “found to be delicious.” The restaurateur used her glowing review to promote the new style of pizza (which some say is the first to utilize mozzarella).
Margherita pizza quickly became—and remains—one of the more popular pizzas in Naples and around the world.
Get the recipe: Quick Pizza Margherita
Pizza in the U.S.
A wave of Italian immigrants brought pizza to the U.S. in the late 1800s. It was immediately popular among the large Italian populations in major cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia, but it didn’t become a nationwide hit until after World War II.
When soldiers who were stationed in Italy returned home with a passion for the dish, pizza found an instant market across the U.S.
Pizza Chains and Delivery
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Fast food (food service designed with speed in mind) became a national phenomenon in the 1960s.
By this time, most American families had access to multiple cars. Burger chains like McDonald’s started testing convenient drive-thrus, while some pizza chains began offering delivery services.
Pizza Hut, founded in 1958, was the first large pizza chain in the U.S. The Wichita, Kansas building was so small (hence the name) the owners could only fit 25 people inside at a time.
Domino’s, founded two years later in Michigan, came next.
This ridiculously successful restaurant design started a chain reaction. Now, you can hardly drive through any residential neighborhood at dinnertime without spotting at least one pizza delivery car.
The rest, as they say, is history.