Pizza is one of the world’s most beloved foods because it’s delicious, and you can customize it to have whatever your heart desires on top. You can even get creative with various sauces and dipping options.
Most of us probably grew up enjoying pizza, but what’s the history of pizza, and where did this world-renowned dish come from? It’s normal to assume that this Italian dish came from Italy, but would you believe us if we told you that, technically, the origins of pizza weren’t in Italy?
We were shocked too! But, to boost your spirits, the modern-day pizza we know and love does have roots in Italy, but it’s not as old as you might think. If you’re ready to learn more about pizza or ensure you’ll ace your next trivia night, here’s the lengthy history of pizza.
- When Was the Word "Pizza" First Documented?
- Pizza's Origins
- The Invention of Modern-Day Pizza
- Pizza's History Around the World
- Traditional Italian Pizza
- History of New York Style Pizza
- History of Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
- History of Detroit Style Pizza
- History of Brooklyn Style Pizza
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Thoughts
When Was the Word “Pizza” First Documented?
People have been eating pizza for centuries, but the first time historians saw the specific word “pizza” documented was in 997 AD. It was in Gaeta and other parts of Southern and Central Italy. The galette flatbread was what was initially called pizza and was typically sold as street food or in informal restaurants.
The history of pizza begins in antiquity. There’s archaeological evidence that various cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world ate baked flatbreads with multiple toppings throughout history. Archaeologists even found baked bread over 7,000 years old in Sardinia.
Many people in ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian cultures consumed “pizza” even though it isn’t what we could consider the modern pie now. The word could have Egyptian origins before being translated to English as pizza.
Persian soldiers who served under Darius the Great were known to consume flatbread with toppings in the 6th century BC. They’d eat baked flatbreads with dates and cheese from their battle shields.
Ancient Greek citizens were known to make flatbread topped with herbs, fresh onions, cheese, and garlic. This dish was consumed often amongst the people and was called plakous. Egyptians ate their version of this dish which you can still find in modern-day markets from street vendors when you need fast food.
Some people suggest that modern pizza’s origins can be traced to when Roman Jews would eat Passover cookies after returning from the synagogue. If this is true, it was made over 2,000 years ago and was when the Roman soldiers added olive oil and cheese to matzah.
It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that modern pizza began emerging. A famous Neapolitan pizza, pizza marinara, was created in 1734 and consisted of only a tomato marinara sauce, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and oregano.
The Invention of Modern-Day Pizza
Despite people dining on flatbreads with various toppings throughout the previous centuries, what we consider pizza didn’t become popular until the 18th and 19th centuries. While most traditional pizzas nowadays use a tomato or red sauce, that wasn’t always the case.
Previously, Italians and other Europeans wouldn’t use tomatoes as the base for pizza because in the 16th century, when the Spanish brought them from the Americas to Europe, they believed they were poisonous. Many other fruits in the same family as tomatoes are poisonous, so it wasn’t unusual that they thought this.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that poorer individuals in Naples, Italy began using fresh tomatoes as the base for their flatbreads or pizza. This usage made people associate pizza with poor people’s food. In 1807, there were a little over 50 pizzerias in Italy, but it still wasn’t a widely popular dish.
By the second half of the century, that number increased by over 50%. It was still a poorer person’s dish by this time. That being said, while people in Naples have been doing this for years, there’s one person we can credit with the invention of the modern-day pizza.
Who Invented Modern-Day Pizza?
While people have been consuming pizza or flatbreads for decades, most people associate the invention of the meal with two individuals. First, there’s the Pizza Hawker and Raffaele Esposito. Both are famous in pizza’s history, but for different reasons.
The Pizza Hawker
The Pizza Hawker, also known as pizzaiuolo ambulante, was famous for trading pizza in Italy, but he wasn’t known for making the pizzas himself. While he wasn’t a pizza maker, he’s a notable figure in pizza history.
There are dozens of pizza recipes out there, but if you’re looking for the inventor of one of the most famous pizza dishes, it’s Raffaele Esposito. He invented pizza while creating a delicious and authentic dish for Italian royalty.
King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples to try an Italian dish, and Raffaele Esposito was supposedly the one to create a pizza for the royal duo. It was in Pizzeria di Pietro in 1889 when he made a delicious pizza fit for a queen, specifically Queen Margherita.
One of the most popular pizza recipes today, the Margherita pizza, is named after this queen and features the colors of the Italian flag. The Italian flag colors are red, white, and green. It consists of:
- Tomato sauce
- Fresh basil
It’s simple, yet one of the most delicious recipes you can try, and the queen thought so too.
The queen enjoying this pie paved the way to prove that royalty can dine on cuisine associated with the poor. Once her approval came, pizza became a much more popular dish in Italy, tying with pasta as the most popular.
Pizza’s History Around the World
Pizza is a popular dish worldwide, but it wasn’t always popular everywhere. Besides Italy and Europe, here’s some history about the meal in three different countries.
It’s hard to imagine the United States without its beloved pies, but there was a time when this wasn’t a popular dish here.
Before World War II
Before World War II, most pizza pies in the United States were eaten by Italian immigrants. These people began introducing the meal to the locals in the late 19th century.
There’s evidence that two Italian immigrants from Naples came to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1903 and introduced the people of Boston to Napoleon pizza for the first time. The son of one of these people later brought the dish to Chicago, opening the first local pizzeria there.
This meal later traveled to Trenton, New Jersey, with their first pizzeria opening in 1910. Joe’s Tomato Pies was the first to open in the city and another soon followed after. Pizzerias operated by the same family members who came to Boston continued to pop up over the East Coast, including New Haven, in the early 1900s.
The West Coast of the United States didn’t see pizza appear in their towns until 1939 when the D’Amore family introduced a pizzeria to Los Angeles.
While pizza was beginning to be eaten in the United States during this time, it still wasn’t prevalent. Pizza became popular in the United States after World War II finished. Soldiers who were in Italy were able to eat the famous Italian food and then share the concept with people when they returned home after the war.
After World War II
After the war ended, the pizza industry in the United States exploded. Traditional pizzerias remained open, but the country saw an influx of chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John’s in the late 1990s.
In the 1960s, people in the United States could enjoy pizza at home without ordering out or eating at a restaurant. Tombstone and Totino’s began selling frozen pizzas in supermarkets. Frozen pizza is still a popular choice for people in the US as it makes for an easy and delicious meal.
Popular American pizza recipes include meat lovers with tons of pepperoni, sausage, bacon, or a classic cheese pie. Other famous American pizzas include:
- Veggie pizza
- Four cheese
- Hawaiian pizza
- A traditional pepperoni pizza
Pizza wasn’t famous in Canada until 1948 when their first pizzeria opened in Montreal. Pizza ovens began entering Canada in the late 1950s, and the dish became popular throughout the 1960s, with more and more pizzerias and pizza restaurants opening throughout the country.
Something important to note in pizza’s history that comes from Canada is the Canadian and Hawaiian pizza. Yes, Hawaiian pizza was officially invented in Canada, not Hawaii. Canadian pizza consisted of tomato sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, and Canadian bacon and was invented in 1960.
Shortly after the invention of the Canadian pizza came the Hawaiian pizza. The invention came from a Greek immigrant, Sam Panopoulos, in 1962. It consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pineapple, and ham. Now, it’s one of the most popular foods in the country.
You can find great places to eat this Italian meal around the world. While Italian cuisine wasn’t as popular in China in earlier years, China has seen a rise in the popularity of pizza since the late 1900s. Pizza was revolutionary in introducing cheese to Chinese culture as an ingredient in meals.
Thanks to the rise in pizza chain restaurants, more people in China can enjoy the dish.
Pizza Hut opened its first restaurant in China in 1990 and has since opened over 2,000 restaurants under Yum Brands across the country. Domino’s Pizza is also expanding into China, with over 200 stores currently and a plan to have 1,000 in China by 2025.
Traditional Italian Pizza
Today, there are several varieties of this dish, other than the Margherita, that are popular in Italy. When eating a slice or pie in Italy, if the food comes from a pizzeria, it has a round shape, is made to order, and they’ll cook it in a wood-fired oven.
Besides pizza Margherita and pizza marinara, other popular Italian pies have roots in this country. Pizza capricciosa is a pie with many toppings like:
- A boiled egg
Veronese has mushrooms and prosciutto, and puliege pie uses local olives and capers on their pies. Traditionally, when you order a pie from Sicily, you’ll find a more extensive range of toppings like green olives, hard-boiled eggs, peas, and various seafood ingredients.
Not counting the regional styles and preferences, you’ll find more popular varieties around the country. Quattro formaggi is a four-cheese pie that combines fresh mozzarella and three local kinds of cheese. Typically, this includes ricotta, parmigiano reggiano and gorgonzola. Sometimes, they’ll use more pungent cheeses, like taleggio and fontina.
Seafood is also a widely popular pie topping in Italy. You’ll see Italian tuna, anchovies, smoked salmon, shrimp, and other shellfish as toppings in Italy. There are hundreds of different recipe combinations to try, but this is a quick glimpse at popular options in Italy.
Something very traditional to Italy is the Neapolitan pizza, and there are even rules that those making the dish have to follow, according to the Real Neapolitan Pizza Association.
The Neapolitan Pizza Association opened in 1984 with strict goals in mind. This association is there to preserve the essence of this type of pie, and only Margherita pizza and marinara pies are officially considered authentic Neapolitan pies. Some of the rules that the association puts forth about these types of the pie include:
- The dough must contain Italian wheat flour
- You can only use natural Neapolitan salt, water, and yeast
- You can’t add additional ingredients to the dough
The Italian wheat flour dough must also be type 0, 00, or a combination.
History of New York Style Pizza
New York-style pizza became popular when Gennaro Lombardi legally opened New York City’s first pizza spot in 1905. The pizzeria was located in the Little Italy neighborhood, and patrons could purchase the pizza by the slice or the pie.
What makes New York-style pizza different from traditional pizza is that the crust is always hand-tossed, and the pies are made quite big. The crust is relatively thick but always crispy. The large pie allows the employees to cut the pizza into large, wide slices. What makes the crust specific to New York-style pizza is the high-gluten flour they use to make the pizza.
When someone makes a New York-style pizza correctly, the crust should be crispy yet malleable so that you can fold it in half to eat easier since the slices are so big.
History of Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
Another favorite type of pizza in the United States is Chicago deep dish pizza. Longtime friends Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell created this iconic pizza in 1943 when they wanted to combine their love of pizza and business.
Also known as Chicago style, this type of pie is when you prepare the pizza in a deep pan, load in the toppings and cheese, then top it with a tomato sauce. It’s a favorite pizza in the city of Chicago. The pie is baked in an oven and comes out with thick slices of pizza that can only be eaten with a fork and knife. The soft crust is a characteristic of this pie.
The drastic difference between this style and Neapolitan pies is what made people associate this style of pizza more with Chicago rather than an Italian favorite.
History of Detroit Style Pizza
Detroit-style pizza isn’t nearly as popular as pizza from Italy, Chicago style, or New York style, but it’s a part of this beloved dish’s history. This pizza style originated in the 1940s when Gus Guerra created the model for Detroit-style pizza.
He borrowed a dough recipe from his wife’s Sicilian mother, added cheese, and topped it with sauce afterward. This creation was the model for the modern pizza we know as Detroit style.
Traditionally, this pizza gets baked in a square pan, which is very different from most pizzas we know and love. The square edges allow a crispy cheese crust to form on the edges and create a great, sturdy structure to hold.
The classic Detroit-style pizza recipe associated with this style is this square pie with tomato sauce, cheese, and crispy pepperoni with a little char on top.
History of Brooklyn Style Pizza
Many people don’t know there’s a difference between New York-style and Brooklyn-style pizza since they both have origins in New York City. But, there’s a fundamental difference between the two pizza styles.
While Brooklyn-style pizzas are large and have a thick yet crispy crush like New York-style pizza, Brooklyn-style pizza has a much thinner and crispier crust. It’s crisp and could break if you bend it in half to eat like you could a New York-style slice.
As for the rest of the pizza, you can top it with whatever you want, much like other styles, but on a Brooklyn-style pizza, the toppings extend to the edge of the pizza.
Frequently Asked Questions
There’s so much to learn about the history of pizza! Below you’ll find some other questions other pizza lovers are asking.
When did Papa John’s open?
Papa John’s is a popular pizza place in the United States and has been ever since it opened its doors in 1984.
What is deep dish pizza?
A deep dish is a type of pizza with all the toppings underneath the sauce, sauce on top, and cooked in a deep pan.
What’s the most popular pizza restaurant in the United States?
Domino’s pizza is the most popular pizza restaurant in the United States. In 2021, they estimated their revenue to be 4.36 billion, putting Domino’s pizza in first place among all other chain pizza restaurants in the country.
What is the most popular pizza topping in the United States?
Americans love a lot of toppings on pizza, but the general consensus is that the most popular pizza topping in the country is pepperoni.
How many pizzerias are there in Italy?
It’s no surprise that there are over 25,000 pizzerias in Italy with more than 100,000 pizza makers.
Before pizza’s worldwide popularity, people considered this meal fast food or convenience food because it was associated with poorer individuals. It wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 1900s that this meal began rising in popularity in Italy.
Whether you’re ordering pizza, making pizzas at home, or feasting on a frozen pizza, there’s nothing quite like when that perfect pizza is on your plate. Now, next time you enjoy your favorite pie, you can know the history of pizza and enjoy it with more appreciation.