A Not So Brief History of Pizza: How an Unforeseen Marriage of Cultures Created the World’s Most Popular Food

Aguilar, Ana. Cover Image Pizza, 2020. PNG file. 

Written by Eric Witiw | Edited By: Carol Coutinho

December 31, 2020

Introduction

Aguilar, Ana. Pineapple Chasing Pizza, 2020. PNG file.

Nearing the end of 2020, the election is finally over yet the divide between our country has never been more apparent. With celebrities, politicians and the rest of the population all voicing their opinions, this rivalry began to boil over in 2017 when Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the president of Iceland told a student that if he could, he would ban pineapples from going on pizza across the country (7). Before long, all hell broke loose. Your pizza toppings were no longer a private matter and everyone had something to say. In defense of one of his nation’s most controversial creations, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau tweeted this response:

Before long, Gordon Ramsey joined the fight, stating:

Truthfully, pizza has come a long way since its inception. And before your Italian ancestors start rolling over in their graves, understand that this article will explore both why and how a hot, cheap meal for the poor people of Naples has turned into an international debate tearing apart once allied countries, splitting families during the holidays and causing pizza toppings to run rampant with no regard for human decency. It will challenge the modern ideal of authenticity in genuine, rustic Italian food in America and map out important cultural parallels from Italian-American history to explain why some modern pizza has divulged so far from its Neapolitan roots.

History of the Tomato in Italy

Aguilar, Ana. History of the Tomato in Italy, 2020. PNG file.

Tomatoes are a new world fruit that were historically thought to be inedible throughout the streets of Europe. While now they are a fundamental ingredient in Italian cuisine, they first arrived in the nation of Italy in the year 1548 as a gift to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, from Peru. While unsure of what they were, a fellow Tuscan and renowned physician, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, suggested that a relative of the eggplant had just entered their country for the first time. At the forefront of botanical medicine, Mattioli was the first to publish the name of the fruit in one of his books, he called it the pomi d’oro, which means “the golden fruit” and tomatoes have been known as such in Italy to this day (3).

It was not until 1773 when Italian chef, Vincenzo Corrado, declared in his cookbook, “tomatoes should be enjoyed”, that a specific date could be marked in Italian history where tomatoes started to truly enter Italian cuisine (3). The widespread use of this ingredient is thanks to the impoverished in Italy at the time. Religious institutions were known to grow food in their own gardens and with their ease to produce, pomodori became a popular crop for many clerics (3). Italy only became a unified nation in 1861 and despite this political triumph, the divide between the north and the south was still very apparent. One city in particular, Naples, transitioned towards greater consumption of fruits and vegetables in the coming years as they were more affordable than meat (3). From here, the pomodoro made its first appearance on pizza in Naples sometime between the mid and late 19th century (3).

The Pizza Margherita

Aguilar, Ana. Pizza Margherita, 2020. PNG file.

The creation of the classic pizza margherita is a story of unity in a once divided Italy. The margherita is best known as a flatbread topped with tomato, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves. Perfection and simplicity all in one. At a time when there was great tension between the newly united North and South of Italy, this dish was representative of the green (basil), white (mozzarella cheese) and red (tomato) of the Italian flag and has always been charged with a sense of national pride. 

The history of the margherita dates back to the Royal House of Savoy and their time spent in Naples. In 1878 when King Umberto I visited Naples, the Neapolitan people named a tomato, the ‘Re Umberto’ (King Humbert), in honor of the king and his trip to their part of the country. This specific tomato became a sense of pride and recognition in the South as it represented their place in the country and their attempt to be accepted by their northern compatriots (3). Years later, in 1889, King Umberto returned to Naples, but this time with his wife, Queen Margherita. The queen, allegedly, grew unhappy with their private chefs’ French style of cooking and requested dishes more representative of the Neapolitan people. As a result, she was served three pizzas, with her favorite containing just tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and fresh basil. From this point on, the people of Naples began to refer to this pizza as the pizza margherita in honor of the shared tastes of nobles from the north and the poor in the south (3). Many Italians living in or around Naples could not afford to have ovens in their homes, and as a result, cheap, easy and hot street food became quite popular. Pizza fit all these metrics and soon, margheritas were all the rage food amongst the urban poor (5).

Italian Immigration to America at the Turn of the Century

Aguilar, Ana. Italian Immigration, 2020. PNG file.

The start of the Industrial Revolution made the U.S. an appealing location for many impoverished Italians to start a new life. Distinguished by their olive skin tone and darker hair, Southern Italians stuck out as poor immigrants immediately upon entering the U.S. Desperate for work, most Italian immigrants settled in East Harlem in the late 1800s. This was a part of New York City that was home to other immigrants and opportunities for cheap labor. An estimated two thirds of the Italian migrants entering this neighborhood were “unskilled laborers from Southern Italy and Sicily” (2). 

Before Italians, Irish were often seen as the lowest pillar on the ethnic totem pole of the U.S., so the sudden influx of Italians to New York allowed them to cede massive amounts of xenophobia towards their new neighbors instead. Black communities quickly grew disdain for them too, as Italians began to steal jobs as barbers, shoe shiners and waiters, by offering to work for much less pay. In addition to the bigotry from these communities, the federal government passed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 which banned all Italians from immigrating to the U.S.; which then meant that most Italian-American communities would begin to predominantly consist of people born in America (2).

First generation Italian-American children felt racism early on too, often at school (2). As they grew older, they desired to be accepted in their new home and began to dress more American, lie about the neighborhoods they were from and make a strong effort to speak proper English (2).  My own grandmother was the first person in her family lineage who didn’t learn to speak Italian. When I asked her why, she told me her father said “you’re an American and you’ll speak English”, even though he was fluent in Italian, despite being born in America himself.

During the 1930s, one in six New Yorkers was a first or second generation Italian-American (2). When the stock market crashed in 1929, nutritionists and public health officials were scrambling to provide the poor with an affordable and healthy diet. Desperate for change, by the early 1930s they turned to the Italian diet and began to promote it as economically feasible and nutritionally balanced (2). Throughout the Great Depression, ethnic cuisine, in general, became much more popular in the U.S., as it offered diversified, tasty and satiating meals for low costs (1). As more people gained an appreciation for the frugality and balance of an Italian-style diet, the revolution truly began with an Bel Paese classic, spaghetti.

Early Italian American Cuisine

Aguilar, Ana. Early Italian American Cuisine, 2020. PNG file.

When the Great Depression hit and meat was scarce, spaghetti offered a cheap, filling alternative. Spaghetti houses began to pop up across the U.S. throughout the 1930s and were so well received that within the decade, Italian food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the nation (5). With their continued popularity, Italian-American restaurateurs began to shift dishes to include more American ingredients to attract more customers. The three dishes best recognized from this shift were: spaghetti and meatballs (added meat); fettuccini alfredo (added butter); and veal parmigiana (added meat) (5). Many second-generation Italian-Americans were comfortable with losing some cultural identity if it meant assimilation into middle-class America. They had a lot of pride that their Italian foundation for food had become so beloved even if the recipes had acculurated themselves (5).

New York Pizza

Aguilar, Ana. New York State of Pizza, 2020. PNG file. 

You’re probably wondering where pizza fits into all of this, and to no surprise, it starts in the Big Apple. The first pizzeria in America was started by Genaro Lombardi in 1905 when he became the first grocer to apply for a mercantile license to sell pizza at his store. Pizza was such a big hit amongst Italians in New York that he shut down the rest of his grocery and focused exclusively on pizza. His pizzeria, Lombardi’s, used to be open for 22 hours a day and Italian laborers would come in at 5am to buy a pie before work that they would later heat up for lunch by placing it next to hot equipment at their jobs. This pizza already took a slight variation to the classic Neapolitan style because America predominantly had coal stoves as opposed to the wood fired ones most common in Naples. Also, mozzarella was difficult to import because of its perishability, so Lombardi’s had to make their own cheese from cow’s milk instead of the buffalo milk that was more prevalent in Italy. Similar to the aforementioned dishes, pizza maintained its Italian pedigree, while also adapting to American ingredients. (9).

Lombardi’s first pizza chef was Anthony “Totonno” Pero, who eventually left to start his own pizzeria, Tottono’s, on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. With the success of both Lombardi’s and Tottono’s, many other pizzerias began to open around New York and other Italian hubs like Trenton, New Jersey; New Haven, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and Chicago, Illinois. For many years, the earliest pizzerias only sold full pies, but in 1933 Patsy’s was opened their doors and marketed to the poorer Italians in New York by selling the first pizza by the slice (9). As Italian families began to settle outside of New York, they shared food in their communities and this actually became the first time many immigrants from Northern Italy ever even tasted pizza. From its inauguration in America, pizza had already begun to deviate from its humble roots as street sustenance in Naples. Fortunately for all of us, Italians, unlike many other immigrants, were comfortable with the slow Americanization of their culture.

Mid-Century Boost in Popularity

Aguilar, Ana. Midcentury Boost, 2020. PNG file. 

During World War II, American troops stationed overseas became more attracted to ethnic foods when compared to the alternative; their standard rations. After the war ended, they brought these new tastes back to their friends and families in the U.S. One such affinity was for pizza, and this helped to further adapt it to the American palate. With this explosion of interest from non-Italian Americans, pizzas began to contain less garlic, more meat toppings, oregano in place of basil and were overall larger in size (5). This period also marked a cultural shift in American food, as drive in culture became much more popular and convenience eating was in high demand (10). By 1953 pizza was so popular in America, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower claimed he had better tasting pizza in New York City than in Naples itself (5). This massive boost in national recognition caused the rest of the world to take notice. 

In the 1960s, during the liberal-counterculture-hippie era, a large flux of Americans began to celebrate acceptance of foreign cultures and people. Because the dish of pizza was Italian in nature, it became more liked in America by being un-American (5). It was around this time when pizza finally became a dish of interest in Northern Italy. If Americans were enjoying Neapolitan food, certainly the rest of Italy could as well. The 1960s American food dynamic had developed a desire for fast, filling, frugal and foreign dishes and pizza fit those parameters quite well.

Pizza Chains

Aguilar, Ana. Pizza Chains, 2020. PNG file.

Before any of you groan about them, the “big four” have an important part in pizza’s history. The first of its kind was Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut was founded by Frank and Daniel Carney in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, an area of the country which had limited Italian influence (5). Being the first in the Midwest meant that they could establish the taste of pizza for those people, but they struggled to expand into the already pizza-saturated North-Eastern market. At the time, McDonald’s was famous for tasting exactly the same at every location, but Pizza Hut decided to take a different approach and develop flavors and styles unique to each location. They introduced a new “thick n chewy” crust and North-Easterners began to take a liking to Almost a microcosm of the original adaptation of Italian foods for American palates, the desired style of pizza was now specific to regional pockets within America (5). By the 1960s, Pizza Hut had moved further away from the traditional methods of making pizza and began to offer franchisees access to a giant pizza stock house. These facilities were filled with pre-prepared ingredients and the stores were fitted with conveyors that just applied heat to ready to cook pizzas (5). Pizza Hut’s transition embodied the first major push to cut inefficiencies in the pizza making process and also helped to spread pizza to more Americans as a result.

Not far behind their competitor, Tom and Jim Monaghan bought a pizzeria named “Domi-Nick’s” in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960. Domi-Nick’s quickly became Domino’s and was established on the principles of fast, convenient food at scale. The Monaghans were Irish-Americans who cared more about the potential profits of pizza than they did about any ancestral bigotry (5). It did not take long for Domino’s to further change the structure of pizza in America either. Offering no dine in service, the only items on the menu were pizzas and drinks. They also developed larger ovens and created more durable pizza boxes than had existed previously. Instead of areas with large Italian-American communities, their target demographic became college students and military towns (5). Ironically, two men of Irish descent now owned one of the largest Italian food chains in the country and thus dictated the perception of this type of ethnic cuisine for many. This juxtaposition truly is a testament to the American spirit that has influenced modern pizza. 

Founder, Tom Monaghan funded copious amounts of research into creating the most efficient serving process possible. Domino’s quickly had the best hot boxes, hot bags and the first pizza carriers with portable heaters on the market. By 1967, Domino’s was so quick that they created the infamous pledge of a 30-minute guaranteed delivery (5).* This movement greatly paralleled the need for cheap, quick sustenance that drove many Neapolitans to first consume pizza in the late 19th century too. Thanks to this revolution, college students and military members had acclimated to a bread-cheese-and-sauce-based fuel that matched both their lifestyle and budget.

The final two of the “big four” followed very different trajectories. Little Caesar’s was built around the premise of frugality. They are famous for their hot and ready pizzas which can be picked up for a few dollars within minutes of entering their stores. While once popular, they have since become dwarfed by the other three (10). The youngest of the quartet, Papa John’s, was founded by John Schnatter in 1984. Schnatter built his brand around the dearth of quality, stating “We realized early on that Domino’s had the speed, Little Caesar’s had the price and Pizza Hut had the variety.” (5). They focused on making an affordable pizza that just had to feel more authentic than the competition at that price. By 2001, Papa John’s became the fastest growing pizza chain in the world and it continues to remain very popular today (10). 

As pizzas continued to be refined for American interests, the 1980s distinguished the start of the ‘healthy’ pizza trend. In 1985, California Pizza Kitchen was founded in an attempt to market classier pizza to health-conscious consumers. The concept stuck and similar restaurants began to open across the country. They started trends such as serving more vegetables on pizzas and offering variations such as gluten-free crusts or sometimes even dairy-free cheeses (5,10)

This distancing from the classic margherita then swung the pendulum back and drove demand for the modern version of “authentic” pizza, starting in the 1990s. Independent pizzerias suddenly became popular again because the market now saw them as artisanal or gourmet outside of areas with large Italian-American populations (5). While people expressed a desire for rustic Italian cuisine, these lineages and authenticities were likely closer to New York pizza rather than true Neapolitan pizza from Italy. To this day, pizza still seems to balance the flavor preferences of the individual with the terroir of a romanticized Italian culture.

*Due to a series of lawsuits resulting from delivery driver accidents, the 30-minute guarantee was quietly retired in the 1990s

Nutritional Shifts in Pizza

Aguilar, Ana. Nutritional Shifts, 2020. PNG file. 

Pizza was and is a fast food, but it has escaped from the criticism many other convenience dishes receive due to its ethnic roots. The idea of ethnic cuisine is more associated with baking, charbroiling, grilling and stir frying whereas fast food is more akin to deep frying (5). This methodology helps to psychologically put pizza into a different category for many people. In 1960, the USDA approved pizza as being “healthy enough” for school lunches (5). A food which stemmed from an ethnic cuisine that was once lampooned for its perceived health issues had, ironically, become indoctrinated into the school lunch program just as its quality of ingredients really began to decline.

The rise of heavily processed foods in fast food chains became popular in the 1970s and pizzas began to incorporate many of these same changes in quality (5). This was furthered the next decade when frozen pizzas became popular. With the semblance of a home cooked meal, this helped to mask the quality of the ingredients they contained (5). 

 Pizzas have also grown in size. From 1977-2006 increasingly larger portions of pizza were credited with being the greatest contributor to increased caloric intake amongst adolescents of all ages (8). In 2013, pizza was estimated to contribute to 6.3% of the sodium in the diet of the U.S. population. The fact that Americans took an Italian dish and modified to create exactly what it once preached so vehemently against, in terms of health, just goes to show how pizza’s journey was just as much a cultural one as it was culinary.

Conclusion

Aguilar, Ana. Conclusion Pizza, 2020. PNG file. 

 You might be waiting for me to claim that pizza is more Italian or American. And just like with pineapples, I’m not sure if there’s a clear answer because pizza is a different experience everyone. What I will say is that we’re extremely fortunate that Italian-American communities felt the need to assimilate so much so, that they were willing to adapt their dishes. Pizza is a symbol of their history, but also a testament to the American opportunity for growth. This remarkable relationship between two cultures occurring the way it did is likely the only reason that Canada ever had the chance to mess it all up (kidding). So I encourage my fellow purists to understand that without the Pizza Huts, the CPKs and even the frozen pizzas of the world, the pendulum might not have swung back towards the bucolic 800 degree wood-fired margheritas we so strongly desire today. Most of us Americans only have a history in this country dating back a few generations and what we have today came as a result of what our ancestors brought. For some of us that was our food. For me, pizza is both a reminder of where my family came from and what they went through here in the U.S. I think I speak for many Italian-Americans when I say this; the absolute best aspect of our culture is how much we love to share it with others. Above all else, pizza allows us to do just that, each and every day.

References

(1). Bégin, C. (2016). Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America’s Food. Retrieved from https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/65tkf8yq9780252040252.html

(2.) Cinotto, S. (2013). The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City  . University (1st ed.). University of Illinois Press. 

(3.) Gentilcore, D. (2010). Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy (1st ed.). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from http://cup.columbia.edu/book/pomodoro/9780231152068

(4.) Levenstein, H. (2003). Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. University of California Press. Retrieved from https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520234390/revolution-at-the-table

(5.) Miller, B., & Helstosky, C. (2014). The Evolution of a Fast Food Phenomenon: The Case of American Pizza. In C. Helstosky (Ed.), The Routledge History of Food (1st ed.). 

(6.) Nickle, M., & Pehrsson, P. (2013). USDA Updates Nutrient Values for Fast Food Pizza. Procedia Food Science, 2, 87–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.profoo.2013.04.014

(7.) Olgeirsson, B. (2017, February 16). Guðni myndi banna ananas á pizzur. Vísir. Retrieved from https://www.visir.is/g/2017170219117/gudni-myndi-banna-ananas-a-pizzur

(8.) Piernas, C., & Popkin, B. M. (2011). Increased portion sizes from energy-dense foods affect total energy intake at eating occasions in US children and adolescents: patterns and trends by age group and sociodemographic characteristics, 1977–2006. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94(5), 1324–1332. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.008466

(9.)Pinello, F. (2017, January 2). The Original New York Slice – VICE Video: Documentaries, Films, News Videos. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8pCMoL_b_s

(10.) Schlosser, E. (2001). Fast Food Nation (1st ed.). Houghton Mifflin.

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