Many people know that American pizza derived from Italian pizza. What many people don’t know is the history behind Italian pizza and how Italian and American pizza developed. Italy, as it turns out, is not the first source of the pizza concept. Sources attribute that honor variously, including to Egyptian flatbread creations. It may have been Greek invaders in the first century A.D. who brought pizza to southern Italy.
Early pizzas were made of a roundish bit of dough with various seasonings, toppings, drippings, gravy, or whatever was around. The evolution into a standard, predictable “dish” seems to have come about as a result of the export of tomatoes from the New World to Naples, and — unknown to most people — this makes the first recognizable pizza style something of a joint Italian-American venture.
Apparently the first named pizza to spring up was what is now known as Pizza Margherita — a pizza topped with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. This was the favorite of Queen Margherita of Savoie, who visited Naples and tasted this pizza — subsequently named for her — in 1889. Now Italy had a particular and recognizable dish, endorsed by royalty and sporting the colors — red, white, and green — of the Italian flag. At this time, there was still no such thing as American pizza.
This pizza, along with other Neapolitan variations, including oregano and anchovies, came to American with immigrants at about the same time that Queen Margherita got her first taste of it. Reportedly, the first pizza sold commercially in the US was focaccia, a thick-crusted version of pizza that may also be referred to as “pan pizza.” These pizzas were available in Italian bakeries. The first pizzeria in the Little Italy section of New York City was apparently opened by Gennaro Lombardi, originally of Naples, in 1895.
Pizza increased in popularity both as a cheap meal-in-one food during the Great Depression and with the return of US servicemen from Italy at the end of World War II. The opening of pizzerias in this period mirrored the spread of pizzerias in Naples after the tomato first became available and pizzas experienced their first wave of popularity. Standardized fast-food version of pizza emerged, but with the growing interest in cuisines of other cultures that blossomed in the late twentieth century, pizza was affected as well.
Not only did experimentation lead to American pizza appearing in forms previously unimagined — featuring ingredients such as ham and pineapple, chocolate, Cajun shrimp, venison, the so-called “garbage” pizza topped with many different meats and vegetables, and “white pizza” made without tomato sauce. But also, the freedom to choose one’s toppings took pizza full circle — back to its beginnings in which a bit of dough and whatever one has on hand to bedeck it with enjoys the name of pizza. In the end, the difference between Italian and American pizza and the similarities between Italian and American pizza depend on the same, most important ingredient: the pizza maker.