Pizza origins can be traced to ancient cultures as far back as the flatbreads of the Roman Empire. But when it comes to the pizza that we know and love today, food historians and cultural anthropologists alike trace this dish back to the Naples region of Italy. The debate over the origins of this beloved cuisine have yet to resolve, however, as a recent discovery by food historian Giuseppe Nocca uncovered that the first appearance of pizza may have actually originated in the neighboring region of Lazio.
Upon examination of old church records from the town of Gaeta, Nocca discovered an ancient rental agreement in which patrons of the church were to provide the bishop with a land-usage payment each Christmas and Easter. The document instructed that the payment was to include 12 pizzas, which Nocca claims to be the earliest usage of the word.
The People’s Pizza
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During the eighteenth century, Naples was one of the primary producers of pizza as it was a dietary staple of the working class at the time. Not only was pizza easy consume on the go, it was a complete meal, typically consisting of bread and toppings like tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and cheese. As a classic street food option for poor and working-class Italians, pizza was typically frowned upon by the more affluent members of society.
While pizza at this time was considered the fare of the working class, it was a visit to Naples by Margherita of Savoy, wife of King Umberto I, who eventually made pizza popular in the region and throughout Italy. Upon her arrival to Naples in 1889, the royal consumed a pizza that consisted of ripe tomatoes, soft white cheese, and fresh basil leaves – representing the colors of the Italian flag. Legend has it that Queen Margherita favored this pizza so much so that it was dubbed Pizza Margherita in her honor.
The Great Pizza Migration
You may be wondering how pizza went from a working-class status symbol of economic inferiority to a beloved staple of the American diet. As Italians emigrated to the United States from Naples, Sicily, and Liguria during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they brought with them the flavors of their homeland. Pizza not only became a way to preserve their culture in a new land, but it also provided a source of sustainable income. Italian emigrants began arriving in regions across the US including New York, Chicago, Boston, and California with family recipes in tow. It wasn’t long before this Italian export was soon adopted by Americans across the country.
As American as Pie
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As the pizza obsession ignited in the west, it inspired a resurgence of this classic peasant food across Italy. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that pizza gained national and international popularity, moving out of the local scene and into the world of corporate mass production to keep up with the demand. “Food fast” was the new name of the game in the States, and with the McDonaldization of food production, pizza chains cropped up in towns and cities across the country.
Despite the rise and continued popularity of corporate pizza, it’s the mom and pop shops from New York City to Newport Beach that are keeping the traditions of authentic pizza alive in the US. Recipes passed down from generations of nonnas continue to inspire pies that are as delicious as they are diverse. And while the debate over pizza’s true origin may continue, it’s Italy that we can thank for this culturally transcendent dish.
— Melissa Ford