Why Do We Call It Pizza, Anyway?

You wouldn’t take pizza for granted, would you? Neither would we. Still, knowing a bit about your history can’t hurt, so today we’re going to talk about why pizza is called pizza.    

Like pizza itself, the word “pizza” feels right. Maybe because each z looks like it could contain two slices of pizza. Of course, as you know, and as we definitely learned more than five minutes ago, that’s not how etymology works. If it were, pizza would just be called “zz.”

So, why do we call it pizza? Well, that’s what it’s called in Italian, too, and we couldn’t think of anything better. There are a few explanations as to why the word pizza sprung up in Italian, including:

  1. The Latin word pix, meaning “pitch.” That’s pitch as in tar or asphalt, not pitch as in  baseball or pitch as in, “You’ve heard of dough. You’ve all heard of cheese. You’ve heard of tomatoes. Are you ready for a cutting edge culinary solution that combines all three?”
  2. Though this doesn’t explain why, the first known mention of pizza in writing occurred in 997 AD, in the Italian village of Gaeta, about 60 miles northwest of sacred pizza site Naples. A church document required the tenants of a mill to bring “duodecim (12) pizze” to the bishop every Christmas and every Easter as a condition of using the mill – basically a rent payment. That also marks the first documented pizza delivery. Our understanding is the bishop was a lousy tipper. Apparently, he was annoyed that the modern form of pizza hadn’t been invented yet and what he received was more like a seasoned flatbread, but he did once invite them in to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. We’ve all had worse landlords.
  3. Pizza might come from the Langobardic word “pizzo,” meaning “mouthful.” (I’ll say!) Langobardic was the language of the Lombards, a Germanic people who settled in the Italian Peninsula in the 6th century. So, if you wanted to confuse someone and be, like, 3% right, you could say, “Did you know the word ‘pizza’ comes from German?”
  4. The Ancient Greek πικτή, or “pitke,” which means “fermented bread.” It’s possibly the same word “pita” and the Turkish “pide” are derived from. This explanation actually makes perfect sense, which is sort of disappointing.
  5. Okay, but really, you can’t deny each z looks like it could contain two slices of pizza*.

*We said the explanations exist, not that they’re credible.

As a bonus, if you’ve ever wondered about the Margherita of “Pizza Margherita,” it’s Margherita of Savoy, who was the Queen of Italy in the late 19th century. In honor of her 1889 visit to Naples, a Neapolitan pizzaiolo crafted a pizza topped with basil, mozzarella and tomatoes, meant to represent the national colors of Italy. That may have been the first and possibly only time in history the sheer deliciousness of a festive dish overshadowed its gimmicky presentation — no offense to Halloween cupcakes.


— Ethan Spielman

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