Pizza is one of the most popular “fast foods” in the United States. It’s both a great unifier (almost everyone enjoys a slice) and a great divider (consider the recent pineapple pizza debate and the longstanding rivalry between New York and Chicago style pies). And although this staple of suppertime is a fairly recent addition to the American dinner table, its roots are deep in history.
Over 2,000 years ago, Persian, Greek, and Roman workers ate flat breads topped with herbs, oils, and spices baked on stone in wood-burning ovens. This was a simple and thrifty choice, as flour and the other ingredients were readily available. A shop with implements and ovens similar to those found in classic pizzerias was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii. And De Re Coquinaria, a cookbook by Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius, included a recipe for a flat bread topped with chicken, pine kernels, cheese, garlic, mint, pepper, and oil - not much different than a sauce-less, white pizza you can order today.
But wait, what about the tomatoes? Tomatoes originally hailed from South America and were a staple of the Aztec diet. Spanish Conquistadors brought back the fruit in the 1500s, but superstition held they were poisonous and would turn one’s blood to acid. It would be a couple more centuries before tomatoes would be considered food and in the 17th and 18th Centuries, poor and working class people of Naples added them to their flatbread dough. The dish became popular with visitors and this “Neapolitan pizzaoli” became a sought-after recipe that even local nobility was known to enjoy from time to time.
The pizza we largely know and love today, however, was crafted to be fit for a queen - literally. While on holiday in Naples In 1889, Umberto I, King of Italy called upon the best regarded pizzaioli (pizza chef), Raffaele Esposito, to bring his work to the palace to sample. Esposito and his wife Maria designed three pies and the king and his wife chose the pie made with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and sprinkled with basil for Italy’s flag colors as their favorite. In fact, Queen Margherita was so taken with the dish, she sent a letter of thanks that is posted in the restaurant to this day. In return, the Espisitos named their creation “pizza margherita.”
During the 20th century, pizza made its way across the Atlantic with Italian immigrants. And in 1905, Gennaro Lombardi bought the grocery store he apprenticed in and opened the first American pizzeria. While common in the Italian enclaves of cities like New York and Trenton, few outsiders knew much about pizza and it wouldn’t be until after World War II that it would become famous in the United States. American soldiers stationed in Italy were exposed to this simple, yet tasty dish, and they brought the demand for it back with them when they finished their service. Italian-American celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Joe Dimaggio also raised the profile of pizza. And in 1957, the creation of a frozen pizza ready to cook and eat by the Celantano Brother made it available all over the country.
These days, pizza is as much an American institution as hot dogs and apple pie. You can get it frozen, order it quickly at a chain pizzeria, and enjoy specialty versions made for specific tastes and dietary requirements. You can even visit the longest-operating pizzeria in the country, Papa’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville. Or, you can whip up some tasty pizza at home. Need some help? We’ve got a few books that offer tips for making your own culinary masterpiece.