history of pizza

Who Invented Pizza?

The next time you take a bite of gooey, topping-laden pie, stop for just a moment and ask yourself “Who invented pizza?” The Romans? The Greeks? The Italians?

The answer might be less straight-forward than you think, so feel free to read on as you take another bite of that delicious slice in your hand (you’ve got a little sauce on your chin).

The Invention of Pizza: Greeks vs Italians

In this timeless battle, some people give credit to the Ancient Greeks, while others vehemently argue the Italians gave us what is now one of the most popular foods in the world. The truth is that both sides are right – sort of.

Historical evidence confirms Greeks ate a flatbread called plakous. On top of this round dough sat toppings that many of us are still familiar with: garlic, onions, herbs, olive oil, and cheese (of course). The bread then went into a mud oven for baking. But pizza as we know it today has more humble origins, as a staple of the poor in Naples, Italy.

Early Naples

This waterfront city is one of the oldest in the world. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, which also coincides with when pizza was invented, Naples thrived as an independent kingdom. But this is not to say all Neapolitans prospered, because they didn’t.

A dense population of working-class poor lived near the bay. Many of these citizens lived outside; those who did have homes often shared just one room with as many as seven others.

neapolitan pizza

The solution to finding inexpensive food reflects the industrious nature of these people. Street vendors and informal restaurants sold tasty and easy-to-eat pizza made with water, flour, and a little tomato paste.

When available, the Neapolitans topped their confection as the Greeks had done with flatbreads, using items like cheese, anchovies, and tomatoes. Neapolitan pizza is still a popular style today. 

The Unification

The Italian Unification in the mid-18th century meant Naples no longer enjoyed independence. The poor also became poorer, as the crown invested little in its southern region where Naples sits. But one bright light did emerge: the widespread popularity of pizza Margherita, named for Queen Margherita who, in 1889, visited Naples with King Umberto I.

During their travels, this royal duo called for a variety of pizzas to be brought to them. It’s said they had grown bored with their traditional French cuisine and, upon sampling a bite of pizza with mozzarella cheese, basil, and tomatoes, Queen Margherita declared that her favorite.

Pizza’s Worldwide Domination

In the late 19th century, millions of Europeans left their homes and families in search of work. More specifically, these people immigrated to the United States for factory jobs. They landed in such booming cities as Chicago, Boston, and New York hoping to flee the famine, rising taxes, and job shortages faced in their home countries.

Neapolitans were among the masses who sought to reinvent themselves in the land of opportunity. They brought their food traditions with them, including pizza.

It didn’t take long for these foreign flavors to seduce non-Italians, and one of the earliest documented pizza shops opened in Manhattan in 1905 under the name G. Lombardi’s. Before this, Italian-Americans made the dish in their home kitchens and sold it without a license.

The Popularity Continues

cutting pizza

Pizzerias steadily grew in number, opening in cities like Brooklyn and New Haven throughout the early 20th century. As Italian-Americans moved west, away from the east coast, they took pizza with them. The dish finally spread around the world after World War II, thanks to Americans who were happy to share.

The Origins of Pizza: Points to Remember

Many people think Italy is the answer to the question, “Where was pizza invented?” But whether you agree that the Greeks or Neapolitans founded this delicious pie, that answer is incorrect. Remember that Naples was an independent region before Italy’s Unification. The correct answer, therefore, is Naples (we give Greeks credit for their flatbreads).

Today’s American pizza differs from Italian in a few ways. Italian crusts are thinner, baked until they’re light, crispy, and golden brown. These pies also have less sauce and cheese, and basil is a star ingredient to lend the perfect balance of sweet and savory.

Notable Differences

American pizzas have more toppings with diverse choices you can’t find on an Italian slice (like pineapple – it’ll never happen in Italy). We even eat our pies a little differently. They’re served piping hot in Italy, where delivery isn’t as common, so a fork and knife are commonly used.

Who invented pizza? The next time somebody asks, show-off a little with your newfound knowledge. You might even spark a lively debate, although, at the end of the day, we can all agree pizza is food to celebrate.

Erin Betzler

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