The origin of the word pizza is uncertain. It is Italian for ‘pie’ and may have come from Latin pix ‘pitch’ or Greek pitta. It is common belief that pizza was an invention by the Italians. However, the history of pizza goes back to the ancient times in the Middle East. The Greeks, Egyptians, Armenians, Israelis, and Babylonians were making some derivative of pizza in the ancient times. They would cook flat bread in mud ovens. Workingmen and their families ate it because it was a thrifty and convenient food. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians specifically, were topping the bread with olive oil and spices, now known as focaccia.
In 1522, tomatoes were brought back to Europe from Peru in the New World. Originally thought to be poisonous, tomatoes eventually found their way into the diets of poorer people of Naples, as they placed the tomatoes on to their yeast dough, thus creating the first simple pizza we know today. These early pizzas were quite popular because these workingmen usually had only flour, olive oil, lard, cheese, and herbs with which to feed their families. All of Italy proclaimed the Neapolitan pies to be the best.
Founded around 600 B.C. as a Greek Settlement, Naples, Italy was a thriving waterfront city, and as we can see, the home of the pizza we know and love today. Although known as a well-off city, the kingdom was densely packed with throngs of working poor, who typically had only tiny homes to call their own. The workers required inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly, since they were consistently busy. Thus, pizza, flatbreads with various toppings, eaten for any meal and sold by street vendors or informal restaurants, met this need. Legend has it that pizza developed in Naples when bakers needed to use up their excess dough for the day, or when they needed something in the oven to keep it warm. By throwing this extra dough into the oven, and selling it to poorer people, they developed a food that years later is, ironically, extremely popular with a wide variety of customers. Evidently, the people in Naples were eating some of the earliest pizzas, and they often garnished them with tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies and garlic, just like many do today.
During that time, it is believe that Raffaele Esposito made the first pizza with tomato, cheese, and other toppings and seasonings. The first known pizza shop opened in Port Alba in Naples and is still there today. Esposito was called to make some pizza for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Italy in the late 1800s. In this taste test, Queen Margherita liked the pizza with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes so much, that Esposito named it “Pizza Margherita.” Interestingly, if the queen didn’t venture to try this “peasant bread,” then pizza may have never spread to become the phenomenon it is today. Evidently, pizza became a great success and spread to America, England, France, and Spain during World War Two when American and European soldiers tasted this new dish while occupying Italian territory.
Gennuardo Lombardi opened the first American pizza shop on Spring Street in New York City in 1905. Up until the 1950s, pizza was still seen as a foreign food. It seems that since then, pizza has become a staple food in New York. Pizzerias began opening in New York and borrowed non-Italian ingredients and non-Italian restaurants began serving the pizza until it formed a league of its own. Soon there were stands on the streets in Little Italy that served English muffin pizzas which categorized itself as “the traditional pizza with Thomas’s English Muffin as its base.”
In the sixties, pizza really hit it big. In particular, the invention of frozen pizza spread the cheesy gospel far and wide, even to places without pizzerias. By the seventies, the Famous Ray’s Pizza, at Eleventh and Sixth Avenue seemed a proxy for the vitality of the city itself. The Famous Ray’s has since been renamed The Famous Roio’s, after it was sued, famously, by a coalition of other Rays.
The end of the sixties marked a change in pizza and divided into two eras – pre-delivery and post-delivery. In the post-delivery era, all of the big stories involve delivery pizza, which expanded pizza’s reach in all sorts of surprising ways. In the late sixties, for example, the U.S. Army’s 113th Military Intelligence Unit used fake pizza deliveries to spy on reporters and politicians. And in 1991, Pizza Hut delivered free pizza to the group which was holed-up in the Russian White House, resisting the coup against Gorbachev.
Pizza has come down a long road and is still a common love for New Yorkers and people all around the world, alike. Since becoming popular in New York, all different styles of pizza have been created and sold. There are pizza parlors that cater to pizza from Milan, Naples, Pompeii, and Palermo, but also pizza has taken its own New York style. Many other cultures have adopted pizza to their own liking whether it be different cities in Italy, New York pizza, Mexican pizza, or Greek pizza, we can find many different examples throughout the city with their own unique twist.