10 Interesting Pizza History Facts Over the Years

Today, pizza is a worldwide phenomenon. It has been estimated that 1 in 8 people in the United States eats one piece of pizza on any given day. You’ve probably had a slice recently. If not, statistically you are probably going to have one soon. The numbers tells us that 93% of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. However, Americans are not the world’s most avid pizza consumers. Surprisingly, Norway is the world’s leader in pizza eating. Per capita, Norwegians consume pizza at a rate of 11 pizza pies per Norwegian per year. Even though the majority of these Norwegian pizzas are frozen, that’s a lot of pizza.

Pizza has always been easy to prepare but difficult to perfect. Available in thin crust, classic pepperoni, deep dish, frozen, Kosher, Halal, vegetarian, vegan, creamy dessert, and many other varieties, pizza is a versatile food that changes with the times while remaining a staple. Having “the best pizza” is a point of pride for pizzerias, towns, and countries all over the world.

Without weighing into those heady matters, here’s a fun review of some little known pizza history facts offered in celebration of one of the most popular foods in the world: pizza!

1. Disputed origin

One of the most important pizza history facts has been heavily debated – the origins of pizza. Nobody is exactly sure where pizza comes from. Pizza is said to date back to ancient times. Many cultures produce flatbreads that are often topped with sauces, vegetables and meats.

Even the origin of the word “pizza” is fraught with controversy. Italian for pie, it is suspiciously close to the Greek word “pita.” Focaccia popular in Ancient Greece, Roman, and Egypt is a likely predecessor to the modern pizza.

2. Modern pizza

Modern pizza owes its existence to networks of trade and exchange. Despite today being staple of Italian cuisine, tomatoes came from the New World, first arriving in what would become Italy from Peru in 1522. Locals believed them to be poisonous, so it took some time for the tomato. The poor people of the port city of Naples are said to have first put tomatoes on an oven-baked yeasty dough–inventing the first simple modern pizza.

3. The arrival of the pizzeria

The city of Naples and the history of pizza are deeply intertwined. Naples’ Antica Pizzeria Port ‘Alba is thought to be the world’s first pizzeria. Originally a street vendors market stand opened in 1738, in 1830, Antica Pizzeria Port ‘Alba opened in 1830 in Naples town center at the address Via Port ‘Alba 18.

Pizzas made in their wood-fired oven would be brought out into the street. The oven’s walls are lined with rocks of lava taken from nearby Pompeii-destroyer Mount Vesuvius, giving the pizza its coveted flavour.

4. Pizza Margherita

The story goes that in June 1889 a Neapolitan pizza chef named Raffaele Esposito made the Pizza Margherita to honour the Italian unification under the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. The pizza’s red, white and green toppings of tomato, mozzarella and basil are thought to represent the new national flag.

Unfortunately, a pizza of those toppings was already popular in Naples at the turn of the 19th century. Today the pizza is made with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil, salt, extra-virgin olive oil, and fior di latte (a mozzarella made from cow’s milk instead of the more common buffalo mozzarella).

5. The birth of New York Pizza

Between 1900 and 1915, more than 3 million Italians immigrated to America, many of them hailing from Naples. The pizzeria in America on Spring Street in New York’s Little Italy was opened by a Neapolitan immigrant named Gennuardo Lombardi in 1905. Lombardi’s pies were introduced by his employee, Antonio Totonno Pero. By 1924, Pero had opened Totonno’s in Coney Island, which was newly accessible by expanding subways. In the last decade, new research has found even earlier pizza places in Red Hook, New Jersey.

The basics of the Neapolitan pizza were there, including the classic outdoor pizza oven, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. However, chefs adapted these ingredients in the New World. New York pizza is typically hand-tossed for a thin crust and cut into wide foldable slices, which are often sold individually.

6. Deep Dish Chicago

Historically, Americans are not always quick to embrace immigrant populations and their native cuisine. Olive oil was still largely an exotic “ethnic” product well into the 1950s! Because American pizza is the product of the exchange and adaptation involving new immigrants, there’s very little documentation to prove who made what first.

Such is the case with Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. It seems to date to the 1920s, when the streets of Chicago ran red with gang warfare. Deep-dish pizza is baked like a cake in an oiled steel pan, allowing for deep texture and thick crust.

7. Pizza hits the big time

Viewed as an exotic foreign food until the 1950s, cycles of imitation and innovation lead to pizzerias to follow Italian migration into cities all over North America. Many soldiers from the Second World War had been exposed to pizza.

A boom in chain restaurants in the postwar period spread the popularity of pizza. By the 1960s, it was full-blown pizzamania! Frozen pizza brought helped make this once exotic treat a readily accessible meal. Today, pizza is big business with earnings estimated at $32 billion a year in the US alone.

8. The original fast food

The first franchise pizza chain in North America was Shakey’s Pizza. Opened in 1954 in Sacramento, California by two WWII veterans, Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson and Ed Plummer, the chain still has 500 stores around the world. Shakey would even entertain at the piano in the original location. Other popular pizza chains would soon follow with Pizza Hut from Kansas beginning in 1958, Dominoes from Michigan in 1960, and Papa John’s in Indiana in 1984.

9. Garfield Pizza

Today, pizzas come in all shapes and sizes. There’s even a Garfield Pizza. GarfieldEATS opened in 2019 in Toronto making pies shaped like the lasagna-loving comic strip cat. Why not lasagna? It is on the menu, too. The company plans to expand to other cities.

10. Beatlemania meets Pizzamania

On his complicated Dark Horse tour in 1974, Beatle George Harrison brought along his friend Ravi Shankar and group of Indian musicians. To make them feel at home, Harrison paid for an elaborate Indian kitchen to follow the tour making Indian meals. However, Harrison soon discovered that all the Indian musicians preferred pizza.

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