Pizza is a hallmark of Italian cuisine, and people go on pilgrimages to Rome and Naples to worship at the altar of the authentic pie. Pizza is practically a tourism bureau in and of itself, drawing visitors to Italy, but also to American pizza capitals like New York or Chicago.
Restaurants the world over serve the dish, and its popularity continues to grow. But is it really an Italian export, or something truly global? We investigate the history of pizza and ask – is it really Italian?
Flatbreads are some of the earliest forms of pizza, as breads with toppings can be found in many of the earliest food cultures. For instance, the Persian army in the 6th century BC ate flatbreads topped with cheese and dates under the command of Darius the Great. Carbo-loading – a tradition throughout history.
There are other references to pizza-like foods in some of the earliest histories, including the Aeneid, where the Trojans eat round bread topped with vegetables.
Historians say that modern pizza in a closer to form to the one we eat today was developed by Roman soldiers more than 2000 years ago when they added cheese and olive oil to matzah.
In Ancient China, people ate bing, a round flatbread. In India, people ate rotis. So, pizza-like foods existed in similar forms in many different cultures around the same time. Thus, we can say that pizza has certainly existed in Italy just as long as anywhere else, but it isn’t the only place where pizza could have originated from.
But maybe it’s tomato sauce that really makes a pizza, you’re thinking? Tomatoes were introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century. For decades if not centuries, Europeans resisted eating the fruit, as many considered them to be poisonous (the original Tom Bradys). But some brave citizens of Naples in the 1700s started to add tomatoes to their flatbreads, and the cuisine eventually turned the city into a tourist attraction. None of us who travel for pizza are original or interesting; as with most things, they did it first in the Renaissance.
By 1807, at least 54 pizzerias existed in Naples. In 2017, UNESCO declared Neapolitan pizza a piece of intangible cultural heritage.
So it seems that we can say fairly definitively that while flatbreads have their origins almost worldwide, the pizza as we know it today does indeed come from Italy, even if other countries have made changes to it.
These other countries include not just America, but Canada, where (fun fact ahead) the Hawaiian pizza was invented by Sam Panopoulis in Ontario. It just goes to show you: pizza might be Italian, but Hawaiian pizza sure isn’t Hawaiian.
These days, pizza is an international food with variations in many different cultures that all add richness to the cuisine.