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A History of Pizza: How Cultures Around the World Have Adapted Pizza

As one of the most recognizable and popular dishes globally, pizza has been adapted in some way, shape, or form by nearly every country around the world. Many of pizza’s ingredients and toppings have evolved quite a bit since its early days in Italy. While in modern times it’s one of the most mainstream foods, pizza wasn’t always the global phenomenon that it is today. At one time, pizza was barely known outside of Naples—the birthplace of modern pizza.

From Humble Beginnings in Naples, Italy 

Who exactly invented pizza? Pizza has its roots in antiquity. Early records indicate that pizza originated as a flatbread with toppings in ancient Egypt. A precursor of pizza was also eaten by Romans and Greeks that resembled more of a focaccia-type food. This version of pizza didn’t include tomatoes, which weren’t available in Europe until the sixteenth century after Spanish conquistadors brought them from Mesoamerica. Believe it or not, many Europeans feared eating tomatoes because they believed they were poisonous! It was only in the 1700s that tomatoes began to be added to pizzas, turning it into what we know and love as pizza today.

 Historians largely agree that the birthplace of modern pizza was Naples, Italy. A bustling port city in Italy’s Campania region, Naples was founded in 600 B.C. by Greek explorers. By the 1700s and 1800s, Naples was a thriving port and commerce city. It was an independent kingdom that was at the center of major shipping routes and trade. Despite being a wealthy city, Naples was known for its large working poor population, called lazzaroni. They couldn’t afford fancy dishes and needed to eat inexpensive food on the go, so pizza became a popular dish. Known as a poor person’s food or as street food, pizza wasn’t consumed by the elite and was often looked down upon as a pauper’s meal.

Some historical records place the opening of the first pizzeria in 1760 by Napolitano Pietro Colicchio, who opened Pizzeria di Pietro e basta così, which translates to “Pietro’s Pizzeria and that’s enough.” Then, in the 1800s, Italian chef and baker Raffaele Esposito took over the pizzeria, which became known as Pizzeria Brandi. He is often credited with creating the famous Margherita pizza.

 After Italy unified in 1861, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Naples in 1889. Legend has it that the royals were bored of eating upper-class French cuisine and wanted to try the well-known Naples pizza. They invited Raffaele to make the pizzas. Queen Margherita’s favorite was the simple pizza of mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh basil. Pizza officially had the blessing of the royal couple, and a new culinary legend was born. The food became very popular in Naples, and visitors to the city sought out this street food so they could try it.

Immigrating Outside Italy 

Despite impressing the king and queen, pizza remained largely unknown in Italy outside Naples and practically non-existent in other parts of the world until the 1940s. While Italian immigrants brought pizza to the U.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s, pizza wasn’t very popular outside their restaurants and homes. Napolitano immigrants brought their pizzas to American cities including Boston, New York, Trenton, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and New Haven. The first documented American pizzeria was G. (short for Gennaro) Lombardi’s on Spring Street in Manhattan, which was licensed to sell pizza in 1905. While many pizzerias opened across the country, pizza was largely eaten by Italian immigrants and their descendants. It wasn’t mainstream until the 1940s.  

 Following World War II, American soldiers who fought in the Italy campaign were introduced to pizza and other Italian foods during their tour. They brought their love for pizza home to the U.S. and other parts of the world. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower raved about the pizza he had in Naples.  When he tried New York City pizza in the 1950s, he declared that it was even tastier than the Neapolitan version.

Pizza’s popularity in the U.S. really took off in the latter twentieth century. It was featured in popular TV shows in the 1960s. Then entrepreneurs founded pizza chains like Shakey’s Pizza in California, Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, Pizza Hut in Kansas, and Little Caesars in Michigan. In the U.S., the evolution of pizza has created the Chicago Deep Dish, New York Style, Greek pizza, Rocky Mountain pie, California style, Sicilian, Detroit pizza, Tomato Pie, St. Louis pizza, and Neapolitan pizza. Pizza is truly a melting pot food in America.

How Pizza Evolved Around the World?

Pizza transcends cultures. Popular food has evolved quite a bit since its early days in Naples. Neapolitan pizza, or in Italian, pizza Napoletana, often had similar toppings that its modern version has today, including raw tomatoes, garlic, cheese, basil, olive oil, and anchovies. The pizza was prepared simply with fresh ingredients and would have more tomato sauce than cheese. As pizza moved across Europe, each country has created its own special versions. For example, Sweden’s “Margherita” pizza has a thicker crust that is softer in texture than its Italian predecessor, with a more spiced sauce, and uses hard Swedish cheese instead of mozzarella and dried oregano instead of basil. Other famous Swedish pizzas are the kebab pizza with shawarma meat and the banana curry pizza with ham.

Other parts of the world have created their own, distinct versions of pizza. In Canada, pizza makers are credited with creating the “Canadian pizza,” which is usually prepared with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms, and bacon. In 1962, a Canadian invented the Hawaiian pizza by placing canned pineapple and ham on a tomato sauce-based pizza. Mexico has its own style of pizza, often made with local ingredients such as jalapeños, chorizo, grilled or fried onions, chili pepper, shrimp, avocado, tripas, scallops, beef, bell peppers, and cheeses like Oaxaca and pepper jack. 

Looking at South America, Argentina had a massive Italian immigration wave in the late 1800s, bringing the Neapolitan pizza with them. It has evolved into the Argentinian style, which has a thicker crust that is often made from Genovese chickpea flour and has triple cheese, oregano, and olives.  The most famous Argentinian pizza is the fugazza, which is a thick-crusted pizza topped with onions, cheese, and sometimes olives.

Pizza has even made its mark in Asia. Japan has its own unique pizza culture. One of the most popular pizzas in Japan is the Mayo Jaga—a combination of mayo, corn, cheese, potato, pork sausage, and parsley flakes. Some pizzas even have other distinctive toppings such as squid and eel. Korea has an amazing pizza culture. Their pizza is often found with non-traditional toppings, such as bulgogi, corn, potato wedges, sweet potato, shrimp, or crab, and savory sauces such as ranch with wasabi and gochujang, the spicy fermented soybean and chili paste. In India, pizza is often made with toppings such as pickled ginger, paneer, and tandoori chicken as well as with their traditional curry spices.

Pizza has been adapted to unique culinary traditions in every part of the world. Each country has made pizza uniquely their own. Pizza has come a long way since its early days in Naples, Italy, but has now become one of (if not THE) most popular foods in the world.

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