The Delicious History of Pizza

The world’s most popular fast food has ancient roots, but it was a royal seal of approval that set it on the path to global domination.

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.

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.

All that changed after Italian unification. While on a visit to Naples in 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita grew tired of the complicated French dishes they were served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Hastily summoned to prepare some local specialities for the queen, the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito cooked three sorts of pizza: one with lard, caciocavallo and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The queen was delighted. Her favourite – the last of the three – was christened pizza margherita in her honour.

Pizza was slow to move out of Naples. The initial spur was provided by migration. From the 1930s onwards, a growing number of Neapolitans moved northwards in search of work, taking their cuisine with them. This trend was accelerated by war. 

When Allied soldiers invaded Italy in 1943-4, they were so taken with the pizza they encountered in Campania that they asked for it wherever else they went. But it was tourism – facilitated by the declining cost of travel in the postwar period – that really consolidated pizza’s position as a truly Italian dish.

From the 1950s onwards, the rapid pace of economic and technological change in the US transformed the pizza even more radically. Two changes are worthy of note. The first was the ‘domestication’ of pizza. As disposable incomes grew, fridges and freezers became increasingly common and demand for ‘convenience’ foods grew – prompting the development of the frozen pizza. 

Designed to be taken home and cooked at will, this required changes to be made to the recipe. Instead of being scattered with generous slices of tomato, the base was now smothered with a smooth tomato paste, which served to prevent the dough from drying out during oven cooking; and new cheeses had to be developed to withstand freezing. 

The second change was the ‘commercialisation’ of pizza. With the growing availability of cars and motorcycles, it became possible to deliver freshly cooked food to customers’ doors – and pizza was among the first dishes to be served up. In 1960, Tom and James Monaghan founded ‘Dominik’s’ in Michigan and, after winning a reputation for speedy delivery, took their company – which they renamed ‘Domino’s’ – nationwide. 

They and their competitors expanded abroad, so that now there is scarcely a city in the world where they cannot be found.