The History Of Pizza - The Urban Menu
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The History Of Pizza
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Conversation, Food

The History Of Pizza 

We talked about The History of Beer – mans’ favorite drink, now let’s talk about man’s favorite food – Pizza. 

The world’s most popular fast food. We eat it at home, in restaurants, and on street corners. In the United States alone, three billion pizzas are sold each year, with an average of 46 pieces per person. However, the narrative of how the modest pizza came to have such worldwide supremacy exposes a lot about migration, economics, and technological change.

The Need For Pizza

Pizza as we now know it, originated from Naples in the late 17th century. Naples had risen to become one of the most populous cities in Europe, and it was continually growing. Its population increased from 200,000 in 1700 to 399,000 in 1748, thanks to overseas trade and an influx of peasants from the countryside. 

As the city’s economy struggled to keep up, an increasing percentage of its residents sank into poverty. Lazzari were the most destitute of these. They numbered roughly 50,000 people and survived on the meager wages they received as porters, messengers, or casual laborers. Always rushing about in search of work, they needed food that was cheap and easy to eat. Pizza met this need. Sold not in shops, but by street vendors carrying huge boxes under their arms, they would be cut to meet the customer’s budget or appetite. 

None of them were complicated. They were now defined by inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients with plenty of flavors. The simplest were topped with nothing more than garlic, lard and salt. But others included caciocavallo (a cheese made from horse’s milk), cecenielli (whitebait), or basil. Some even had tomatoes on top. Only recently introduced from the Americas, these were still a curiosity, looked down upon by contemporary gourmets. But it was their unpopularity – and hence their low price – that made them attractive.

The Uprising 

At the time, food writers loathed pizza. They were commonly denigrated as ‘disgusting,’ especially by European visitors because they were associated with the Lazzari’s terrible poverty. When the first cookbooks appeared in the late 19th century, they pointedly ignored pizza. Even those dedicated to Neapolitan cuisine disdained to mention it – despite the fact that the gradual improvement in the Lazzari’s status had prompted the appearance of the first pizza restaurants.

History of Pizza, The Urban Menu
Photo by Freepik, author: valeria_aksakova

Everything changed after Italy’s unification. King Umberto I and Queen Margherita grew bored of the complex French dishes they were served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner during a visit to Naples in 1889. Raffaele Esposito, a pizzaiolo, was summoned quickly to produce some local delicacies for the queen: one with lard, caciocavallo, and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. The queen was overjoyed. Her favorite pizza, the third, was named Margherita in her honor.

This signaled an important shift. Margherita’s seal of approval not only elevated the pizza from being a food fit only for Lazzari to being something a royal family could enjoy but also transformed pizza from a local into a truly national dish. It introduced the notion that pizza was a genuinely Italian food – akin to pasta and polenta.

The Pizza As We Know It Today

It was in America that pizza found its second home. By the end of the 19th century, Italian emigrants had already reached the East Coast; and in 1905, the first pizzeria – Lombardi’s – was opened in New York City. Soon, pizza became an American institution. Spreading across the country in step with the growing pace of urbanization, it was quickly taken up by enterprising restaurateurs (who were often not from an Italian background) and adapted to reflect local tastes, identities and needs. 

Shortly after the US entered the Second World War, a Texan named Ike Sewell attempted to attract new customers to his newly opened Chicago pizzeria by offering a much ‘healthier’ version of the dish, complete with a deeper, thicker crust and richer, more abundant toppings – usually with cheese at the bottom and a mountain of chunky tomato sauce heaped on top of it.

History of Pizza, The Urban Menu
Photo by Freepik, author: Luiz Ribeiro

At about the same time, the Rocky Mountain Pie was developed in Colorado. Although not as deep as its Chicago relative, it had a much wider crust, which was meant to be eaten with honey as a dessert. In time, these were even joined by a Hawaiian version, topped with ham and pineapple – much to the bewilderment of Neapolitans.

These adjustments had the paradoxical effect of making pizza both more standardized and more susceptible to variation. While the form – a dough base topped with thin layers of tomato and cheese – became more firmly established, the need to appeal to customers’ desire for novelty led to ever more elaborate varieties being offered, such that Pizza Hut in Poland now sells a spicy ‘Indian’ version and Domino’s in Japan has developed an ‘Elvis’ pizza, with just about everything on it.

Pizzas today are distant from those of the Lazzari, and many pizza purists, particularly in Naples, object to some of the more bizarre toppings that are currently available. However, pizza remains recognizably pizza, and centuries of social, economic, and technological development are baked into every slice.

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