Versions of pizza have existed for centuries. First popular among the working classes of Naples in the 18th century, pizza remained a local dish until after World War II , when it exploded in popularity around the world. As a food of the poor, pizza had few chroniclers until very recently, which means there’s no archive of pizza history, filled with details about important firsts or crucial developments. So there’s little agreement and significant mythology surrounding this beloved food, which we seem to like talking about almost as much as we like eating.
In 1945, few Americans had heard of pizza. But a decade later, newspaper articles were touting it as a new food trend sweeping the nation. Media accounts attributed pizza’s growing popularity in the United States to soldiers who had tried it in Italy during World War II. This story thrives online, on Wikipedia and in published histories of pizza, including Ed Levine’s “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.”
While it’s possible that soldiers ate pizza in Italy during the war, and some may have sought it out upon their return to the United States, it’s unlikely that this accounted for its increasing popularity. Pizza was in short supply in Italy during the war; soldiers there encountered brutal poverty and food shortages thanks to fascist misrule. Americans, including soldiers, probably sampled pizza in Italy in the years after the war, but what they ate bore little resemblance to the varieties of pizza made in the United States in the 1950s, which were described in the New York Times in 1956 as thick-crusted “pies,” the pizzaret (an English-muffin pizza), the pizza bagel, and pizzas topped with sour cream, cinnamon or sliced bananas.
Between 1870 and 1970, more than 26 million Italians left Italy in search of work, heading to other parts of Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. Almost any attempt to explain the spread of pizza credits these immigrants with introducing the food to their new countries. “Pizza became as popular as it did in part because of the sheer number of Italian immigrants,” explains the Encyclopedia Britannica. And indeed, Neapolitans and southern Italians opened bakeries and pizzerias that fed other Italian immigrants in cities like New York and Buenos Aires; however, few non-Italians had even heard of pizza until the 1950s. While pizza definitely went global, the mechanisms by which this happened are poorly understood.
Between 1950 and 1980, pizza became a global favorite because of a variety of factors — not solely because of Italian migrants. Pizzerias required minimal investment and had low overhead costs, making them attractive options for immigrant entrepreneurs from many countries. For instance, the 1970s witnessed an explosion of pizzerias in the Northeast, almost half of which were operated by Greek Americans . Changes in technology also enabled the dramatic transformation of pizza preparation and delivery: Steel ovens with rotating shelves, pre-shredded cheese and toppings, pre-cut delivery boxes, and a rising car culture all facilitated the delivery industry, bringing pizza to more consumers who lived outside cities or on university campuses or military bases. In addition to delivery, pizzas prepared at home fed hungry American suburbanites, with the invention of the pizza kit in 1948 and the appearance of frozen pizzas in 1957. Both of these innovations were created, manufactured and distributed by Italian and non-Italian American entrepreneurs.
Pizza devotees have long fretted about delivery chains: that outlets like Domino’s and Pizza Hut have ruined the creative spirit of pizza-making as they extend their global reach, and that their pizza is, well, terrible. Mashable divides pizza into “good pizza” and “Trash Pizzas” — aka delivery pizza. Fear that global chains will put local pizzerias out of business looms large for small proprietors, who have struggled to implement the online ordering systems that the chains have mastered.
Yet the history of pizza consumption in the past few decades tells a different story. Pizza embodies “glocalization,” the practice of conducting business according to both local and global standards. When Domino’s expanded east, executives found that their cracker-thin Midwestern crust did not appeal to Northeastern consumers, who preferred a chewier, thicker crust. Both chains readily adapted to local tastes and changed their recipes, a practice they continued as they expanded globally. When Pizza Hut opened in the Soviet Union in 1990, it relied on local suppliers, and offered toppings like salmon and sardines alongside cheese and pepperoni.
Pizza fans can criticize the large chains for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to make the case that they are replacing high-quality local options with generic, lousy pies, or that they are replacing independent pizzeriazs. Consider the curious phenomenon that happens when a large pizza franchise opens in a neighborhood: It does not necessarily put local restaurants out of business. In fact, the opposite has been observed, as the presence of franchise pizza prompts consumers to try local fare, as Donna R. Gabaccia noted in her book “We Are What We Eat.”
The naming of the pizza margherita, a Neopolitan staple, remains one of the most celebrated myths of pizza lore, cited in Italian histories like Roberto Minervini’s “Storia della Pizza” and Giuseppe Porcaro’s “Sapore di Napoli: Storia della Pizza Napoletana,” along with numerous pop-history books and countless websites. Few scholars dispute the existence or popularity of pizza in 19th century Naples; it was sold by ambulatory vendors to sailors, soldiers and workers. Considerably more controversy is attached to what has become the first pizza of “national” significance: the pizza margherita, topped with San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo milk mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil and basil.
Legend holds that King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. After they grew tired of French cuisine, then a staple for European royalty, Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi was summoned to prepare a variety of pizzas for the bored queen. Her favorite: the pizza alla mozzarella, known thereafter as the pizza margherita. Pizzeria Brandi proudly displayed the thank-you note, signed by Galli Camillo, head of the table of the royal household, dated June 1889.
But historians (as well as other pizzamakers) dispute the authenticity of the note and cast doubt on this encounter between Italian royalty and a pizzamaker. Pizza historian Antonio Mattozzi calls Esposito’s claim that he invented the margherita a “half-truth” at best and suggests that we ignore the “picturesque elements” of the story about the encounter between Margherita and Esposito, attributing the supposed event to Esposito’s “keen sense of marketing.”
The numerous websites and books dedicated to pizza attest to our enduring respect and love for the dish and its history, perhaps best summed up by Jeff Ruby and Penny Pollack’s book, “Everybody Loves Pizza.” Restaurants and home cooks have elevated pizzamaking to an art, and the simple versions of Neapolitan pizza now warrant protected status as an authentic Italian food.
Yet pizza emerged from humble origins, as a food of the poor, topped with whatever ingredients were on hand — in Naples, this might have been herbs, lard or small fish. Indeed, not everyone who sampled pizza enjoyed it. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, described pizza in 1831 as “a species of most nauseating looking cake . . . covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatos, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients, it altogether looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.” Italians outside Naples did not think much better of the dish. Carlo Collodi, the author of “The Adventures of Pinocchio ,” commented that the haphazard and unsanitary quality of the toppings gave pizza “the appearance of complicated filth.”
Today, we may not regard pizza with such disdain, though it is likely that all of us can remember at least one awful pie we ate when we were desperately hungry or nothing else was available. Indeed, pizza has become so much a part of life in the United States that we may not even think about how it tastes or why we like it. Some of us hanker for artisanal pizza, lovingly made with fresh local ingredients, but many of us are more familiar with “junk food” pizza: the squares served in school cafeterias, frozen pizza stuck in the oven on weeknights when everyone is too tired to cook and cheap pies delivered to our dorm rooms while we scrape together cash to pay the delivery person. So-called “junk food” pizza has more in common with the pizza of 19th-century Naples, inexpensive and filling food for the poor. Do we really love pizza, or — like the working poor of southern Italy two centuries ago — do we eat it because it’s available and affordable? This notion will, no doubt, spark anger among pizza devotees. But pizza’s appeal often has nothing to do with taste; it rests instead with our individual and collective memories, the myths we create about pizza, and the many arguments surrounding the lowly, fabulous food.