When we hear the word pizza, our minds travel first to the delicious flat bread that comes out of the oven topped with melted cheese and other delicious ingredients.
The food is also indelibly linked in popular culture to the country of Italy, and when we speak of Italian restaurants, a big portion of the menu is occupied by the beloved pizza.
Yet, the idea of a flat piece of dough topped with herbs and cheese seems to have originated in ancient Greece.
There is historical evidence that ancient Greeks ate a flat bread called “flat,” or πλακούς (plakous) in Greek, baked in a mud oven and topped with olive oil, herbs, onion, cheese and garlic.
Romans adapted ancient Greek pizza
The Romans, who adapted many Greek customs and habits, naturally adopted the idea of baking plakous topped with ingredients of their choice.
Italian folklore has it that pizza as we know it today originated in a primitive form in Naples as the food of the poor.
The original ingredients were simply flour, water, and a tiny bit of tomato paste on top. If more ingredients were available, those would be added on top, too.
As it is such a significant national symbol, Italians naturally had to specify it’s origins.
Raffaele Esposito, a Naples baker, is often credited with creating the first pizza pie containing both cheese and tomato paste.
Italian historians, however, note that flat breads with various toppings had been available at street vendors and consumed by poor workers of Naples before Esposito’s time.
Legend has it that Esposito had been invited to make a grand pizza for Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita upon their visit to Naples in 1889.
That pizza, which featured fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and basil, is known today as a Margherita pizza.
As travelers to Italy have surely noted, Italians are very quick to point out that the red, green, and white colors of the Margherita are reflected in the nation’s flag.
Pizza brought to the US
In the 19th century, Italian immigrants took the concept of the pizza with them to France, England, and the United States.
Pizza as a street food became very popular in the United States and New York City in particular, and following WWII, it was exported back to Europe and the rest of the world.
G. Lombardi’s, the very first pizzeria in the world, was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi at 53 1/3 Spring Street in New York City. Amazingly, it is still open today and uses its original oven although the restaurant has changed locations.
Today, pizza is one of the most beloved foods worldwide; yet, American-style pizza has been met with mixed feelings in Italy.
In traveling to Italy and going to a traditional Italian restaurant removed from tourist areas, one becomes aware that pizza is found nowhere on the menu.
However, in tourist areas throughout Italy, pizza is advertised at every eatery. This is mainly because American tourists cannot imagine Italy without their beloved version of pizza.
In contrast, Greece has wholeheartedly accepted the American-style innovation to the ubiquitous food.
In the place where pizza had its ancient, humble origins, American-style pizza has undoubtedly become a favorite food for many.