The Delicious History of Pizza

Not only is pizza one of the most popular foods in the world, but it also has a fascinating history.

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Growing up 90 minutes north of Chicago, I first discovered deep dish pizza as a teenager. It was thick, rich, ooey gooey, and full of everything I loved. Well, call me a traitor in the Chicago vs. New York pizza war, but 17 years in New York City has solidified my preference for a thinner crust. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still demolish a deep dish and have a great appreciation for the sort of crust and topping variety the person who invented pizza probably never imagined. But since my Chicago days, I’ve come to appreciate the simpler things in my pizza-loving life.

Given that I travel about four months out of the year, I’m lucky to be able to try pizza around the world, including in Naples, Italy. There, I experienced Italian pizza for the first time. Unlike American-style pies that often come loaded with a dozen types of meat, cheese, and vegetables, the two-ingredient pizza I discovered in Naples was made with nothing more than good dough and great sauce.

To answer your question: Yes, it was delicious. But that should come as no surprise, considering Naples is the birthplace of pizza. As for the genius Italian who invented pizza, well, his or her identity is—much like the person who invented ice cream and the person who invented the hamburger—a bit of a mystery. While the origin of the first-ever pizza restaurant may never be known, there are some fun food facts about the dish that we do know.

Where was the first pizza made?

Though most people point to Italy when they think of the first-ever pizza, historians agree the dish has an even longer history—provided you define pizza broadly. Consider, for instance, flatbreads. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians ate these topped with various oils and herbs. Even as far back as the sixth century BCE, Persians were baking flatbreads covered in cheese and dates, pizza toppings that would be at home at a modern artisanal pizza place.

But pizza as we know it today started off as a sort of flatbread that was popular in poor sections of Naples, Italy.

When was pizza originally invented?

Historians haven’t pinpointed an exact date for the creation of pizza, but they’ve been able to narrow down the window quite a bit. Tomatoes originated in the West but didn’t make their way to Europe until around the 1500s (they weren’t initially embraced because they were thought to be poisonous), so pizza couldn’t have come into existence until after that time.

A book from 1799 narrows pizza’s birthday even further: It describes pizza as being a dough with tomato sauce and cheese, so we know it was invented by at least then.

And thanks to an Italian census taken in the late 1700s, which listed a handful of people as “pizolas” (pizza makers) in Naples, we know the dish was well enough known to give rise to a profession.

Who invented pizza margherita?

Like many of the greatest origin stories, the creation of this pizza is a little murky. One version of the story claims that your favorite Friday night meal was created when the soon-to-be king and queen of Italy visited Naples in 1889. In an attempt to be a sort of “queen of the people,” the future monarch insisted on eating as the common folk did. And that meant pizza: the food of the poor.

Margherita of Savoy summoned the preeminent pizza maker in Naples, Rafael Esposito, and tried several of his pies. One topped with garlic. Another dotted with anchovies. And yet another covered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with mozzarella cheese and basil. The final pizza (which conveniently had the colors of the Italian flag), was her favorite, so Esposito named it “pizza margherita” after his future queen.

Granted, some of these details can’t be confirmed, and other versions state that Margherita was already the queen and tried pizza because she was bored with the French cuisine at court. The former story does seem just a little too good to be true, but the establishment (known as Pizzeria Brandi today) still features a plaque pronouncing it the birthplace of pizza margherita.

When did pizza come to America?

Close-up of Pizza Pies at Lombardi's Pizza Restaurantmark peterson/Getty Images

Pizza could be found in the United States as early as the 1910s. It popped up on the East Coast and in the Midwest—places like Omaha, Nebraska, and Racine, Wisconsin. But if we’re talking about where pizza became famous in the United States, then we’re talking about New York City, even if it’s not always ranked number one for the best pizza in America.

While Lombardi’s in Manhattan became the first licensed U.S. pizzeria in 1905, pizza historian Peter Regas says there’s no evidence to confirm that it was the first pizzeria in New York City. He believes that pizzerias may have first opened across the river in the borough of Brooklyn.

Who invented pepperoni pizza?

Unlike the origin of pizza, which can be traced back to Naples, the origin of pepperoni pizza couldn’t be further from Italy. In fact, Italians frown upon pepperoni, which you’ll never find as a topping in the country.

Michael Harlan Turkell, host of the Modernist Pizza Podcast, says the Ezzo family began making the sausage in Canastota, New York, in 1906, and may have been the first to sell it pre-sliced. But food historians believe it wasn’t until the 1950s, when a pizza place in New Haven put pepperoni on a pie, that the spicy sausage became a pizza topping.

Still, it wasn’t a national phenomenon—at least not yet. The rise in popularity has Domino’s to thank. Yes, that Domino’s. It may not be America’s favorite pizza chain or the best pizzeria in your state, but it certainly became a major player.

“In the 1980s, Ezzo [Sausage Company] began making pepperoni for a small chain called Domino’s,” Turkell says. The rapid growth of Domino’s pizza, combined with the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, firmly positioned pepperoni as a favorite pizza topping. According to Turkell, some statistics show pepperoni being used as a topping on nearly 50 percent of pizzas nationwide these days.

How did Hawaiian pizza originate?

Love it or hate it, Hawaiian pizza is sure to spark debate, and not just about taste. There’s a dispute about its origin as well.

You’ve probably guessed that, unlike Italian pizza, Hawaiian pizza didn’t come to your local pizzeria by way of Italy. But you’ll probably be surprised to learn that the dish—which is typically topped with canned pineapple and ham, but may also include peppers, bacon, and/or mushrooms—doesn’t come from Hawaii either. The sweet and savory pie is actually believed to have originated in Canada. Yes, Canada.

According to the Modernist Pizza book collection, French Canadian Sam Panopoulos is often credited as having invented the Hawaiian pizza in 1962. But the authors note that a 1957 ad for Francine’s Pizza Jungle in Oregon advertised a Hawaiian pizza topped with pineapple, papaya, and green peppers. Who gets credit for inventing it first: the earlier Oregonian version that included various fruits but no ham, or the Canadian version that may have pioneered what we now consider to be the standard Hawaiian pizza? You be the judge.

If the idea of chowing down on pineapple-topped pizza is off-putting, go with a classic like green peppers, mushrooms, or eggplant. Or pick a pizza topping based on your zodiac sign the next time you decide to order a pie or pick up a frozen pizza.

Sources:

Cassandra Brooklyn
Cassandra writes about travel, accessibility and sustainability for various national publications and travel guides. In addition to Reader's Digest, her work appears regularly in National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Sierra Club, AAA, Moon Travel Guides and Roadtrippers, as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast, Forbes and TIME. She is the author of Cuba by Bike, a cycling guidebook that premiered at the No. 1 spot on Amazon. Cassandra also founded and runs EscapingNY.com, a travel company specializing in small, ethically run group tours in Cuba, Mexico and Jordan.