The history and origins of Pizza
The history and origins of Pizza
Posted on
February 19, 2024
achilleas petris


In 1954, Vittorio De Sica – one of Italy’s most important 20th century film directors – released L’Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples). It was his ode to his city where both his parents were from and where he grew up absorbing the sights, smells, sounds and, of course, the tastes. In his film, De Sica casted the irresistible Sophia Loren to play the role of the  pizzaiola. She would prepare fresh pizzas with her husband on their doorstep to passersby  who would be drawn in by the food as well as the woman preparing it. They painted an evocative picture of simple life in Italy in the 1900s. The couple would knead the dough, cook it and hand the finished pieces in hastily wrapped brown paper to customers who would immediately dig into them. De Sica was paying tribute to everything which Naples was famous for and aside from Loren (who was also Neapolitan), pizza was born in the heart of the city. 

Just like many of the world’s most coveted foods, pizza’s origins are humble. It appeared on the scene in the 18th century among the poorest communities of Naples. During that period, the city was thriving from its seabound trade and the working poor – known as ‘lazzaroni’ because their dishevelled appearance recalled scenes of Lazarus - would flock from surrounding areas in search of labour. Their days were long and strenuous, and they needed to live off cheap, calorific food that could be consumed on the go. As the pillar stone of all  civilisations since the beginning of time, it is no surprise that they turned to bread as the foundation of their comforting and nourishing meal. The first pizzas were uncomplicated. The base was always the same, an unleavened flat bread, whilst the toppings depended on  what was readily available and affordable at any given time. If a citizen had a little extra cash to spare, he might have indulged in a pizza adorned with fish, lard or cheese. If money was tight, he would simply eat it with oil, garlic or tomatoes smattered on top. 

Just like in L’Oro di Napoli, pizza was eaten as soon as the coins left the customer’s hands, and the warm brown paper packet entered them. Pizza was originally a street food, eaten whole and never sliced. They were much smaller than what we are used to now and there was  certainly no choice between a 9-, 12- or 16-inch diameter! You got what you were given, you  ate it in a flash, and you enjoyed it because you survived off it. Pizza became such a staple  necessity among the Neapolitan working class that it was consumed for breakfast, lunch and  dinner. Indeed, when the French novelist Alexandre Dumas travelled to the city in the 19th century, he bemused that the lazzaroni were just eating watermelon in summer and pizza in winter.  

Eventually, pizza reached other corners of society and went from influencing the rags to the riches to the royals. In 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita arrived in Naples. Tired  of their unchanging, French fine dining cuisine, they wanted to take their tastebuds to the  streets. The monarchs requested an array of pizzas to be transported to their residence. These came from Pizzeria Brandi whose initial eatery was established in 1760. Mounds of pizzas  with different toppings arrived at the King and Queen’s quarters and with that, the first pizza  delivery service was carried out. Among the various options, the queen settled on her favourite flavour. It was a tomato-based pizza with dollops of fresh mozzarella and aromatic basil leaves. With this, the Pizza Margherita was conceived.

Despite Queen Margherita's seal of approval, it would still be a few more years before pizza took the country, and then the world, by storm. Some foreign lands experienced the first wafts  of the delicacy in the early 20th century. A few Neapolitans who had relocated overseas to  America had set up shop on the east coast. One of the first documented pizzerias in New York was called G. Lombardi and was founded in Manhattan in 1905. But it was only after the Second World War where mass-migration and media booms gave pizza the platform to  flourish. The word was out and pizza was no longer hastily scoffed down on the streets of Naples in between arduous working hours. Other parts of Italy began producing the dough and adapting the toppings based on local produce. Meanwhile, in the States, Italians were living the American dream selling pizzas to the masses who were not consuming them as a means of survival but as a means of enjoyment. Soon, they were not just eaten on the go but expanding businesses would set up tables and chairs and invite their clientele to dine in with them. With its travelling influence, pizza became an important cultural relic which took on different meanings in different places. Carol Helstosky, author of ‘Pizza: A Global History’,  explains that “for Neapolitans, pizza was a way to survive but later it became part of the  city’s mythic history. For the rest of Italy, pizza became an adopted favourite meal,  representing a part of Italian cuisine to be celebrated, commemorated and protected. For Italian emigrants pizza became a way to connect back to one’s homeland as well as a way to earn a living.” 

Today, pizza has shifted entirely from a dish of basic necessity to one of convenience but the fundamental principles behind this remain the same; it is cheap, quick to prepare and even quicker to eat. Naples still remains its rightful home and undoubtedly prepares the best you will ever have. But in the meantime, the widespread availability leaves all cravings satisfied. It has been calculated that 350 slices of pizza are eaten every second in America across  kiosks, pizzerias and at home. However, ardent food delivery fans can rest assured that a pizza delivery is not so shabby as one might think. It is rather, a meal that is fit for a queen.

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Words by Antonia Fest

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