Despite its long history, the most consumed fast food in the world owes its rise to prominence to a royal endorsement.
Everyone agrees that pizza is the best fast food option. Whether at home, in a restaurant, or on the go, food is always within reach. In the United States alone, annual pizza sales are somewhere over $3 billion, or 46 pieces per person. However, the narrative of how the lowly pizza grew to enjoy such global supremacy tells much about the history of migration, economics, and technological transformation.
Pizza has been a staple of human diets for generations. Pieces of flatbread topped with savories have been a simple and enjoyable supper for individuals without plates or who are on the road since ancient times. Virgil’s Aeneid includes references to these pizza precursors.
Aeneas and his men dined soon after touching down in Latium, setting out “thin wheaten cakes as platters for their meal” beneath a tree. After topping them with wild mushrooms and herbs, they ate them, crust and all, leading Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, to scream, “Look! The plates have been cleared.
Pizza for breakfast
However, the modern pizza as we know it was developed in Naples in the late 18th century. Naples, under the Bourbon kings, expanded rapidly to become one of Europe’s major metropolises. Its population exploded from 200,000 in 1700 to 399,000 in 1748, thanks to an influx of peasants from the countryside and increased international trade.
The city’s economy was unable to keep up, and as a result, more and more people were forced into poverty. The lowest of these people were called lazzaroni due to their tattered look, which was thought to match that of Lazarus. They managed to get by on the few wages they received as porters, messengers, and temporary workers, and their numbers were estimated at roughly 50,000. They were often on the go, looking for jobs, so their diet had to be simple and inexpensive.
Pizza satisfies my craving. Instead of being sold in stores, they would be peddled by peddlers who lugged around enormous boxes that were chopped to size depending on the customer’s budget or appetite. According to Alexandre Dumas’s Le Corricolo (1843), two liards will get you a decent breakfast pizza, but two sous will get you a pizza big enough to feed a family of four.
There was nothing overly intricate about any of them. Though they were comparable to Virgil’s flatbreads in some ways, they were now characterized by inexpensive, easily-accessible ingredients that were packed with flavor. Garlic, fat, and salt were all that topped the simplest. But there were also options like white bait (cecenielli), horse-milk cheese (caciocavallo), and basil. Some were even topped with tomatoes. These were a novelty to modern diners because they had only just been brought over from the Americas. However, they were inexpensive because of their lack of demand.
Pizzas have long been looked down upon by chefs and food critics alike. Because of their abject poverty, the lazzaroni were often vilified as “disgusting,”, especially by tourists from other countries. In 1831, telegraph pioneer and inventor Samuel Morse called pizza a “species of the most nauseating cake” that “looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer” due to its “covering” of tomato slices, fish, black pepper, and who knows what else.
Cookbooks didn’t include pizza when they first emerged in the late 19th century. Although the rising popularity of the lazzaroni led to the opening of the first pizza parlors, even Neapolitan food enthusiasts avoided bringing it up.
After Italy’s unification, everything shifted. King Umberto I and Queen Margherita were bored of the elaborate French delicacies given to them during their 1889 visit to Naples. The pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito, who had been called upon at short notice to produce some regional specialties for the queen, made three different pizzas: one with lard, caciocavallo, and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. The queen expressed her joy. The final pizza she tried became an instant hit and was later named pizza Margherita in her honor.
An enormous change was being heralded by this. With Margherita’s permission, pizza went from being a dish reserved for lazzaroni to being served to the royal family, and from being a regional specialty to a national staple. It popularized the idea that pizza, like spaghetti and polenta, is a traditional Italian dish.
But the pizza was sluggish to spread beyond Naples. Migration served as the initial impetus. Beginning in the 1930s, an increasing number of Neapolitans relocated to the northern United States in pursuit of employment, bringing their cuisine with them. War hastened this pattern.
In 1943 and 1944, when the Allies invaded Italy, their troops were so impressed by the pizza they had in Campania that they demanded it everywhere else. Pizza’s status as an authentically Italian meal was cemented by tourism, which was made easier by the falling cost of travel in the postwar era.
To satisfy the palates of its patrons, restaurants across the peninsula began serving pizza and other regional specialties. Initially, quality varied because not all eateries had pizza ovens. Nonetheless, the popularity of pizza swiftly swept across all of Italy. As it did so, it adapted to local tastes by incorporating additional components at a higher price point.
Pizza goes west
Pizza, however, found a second home in the United States. The first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, debuted in New York City in 1905, and Italian emigrants had reached the East Coast by the end of the nineteenth century. Pizza quickly became a cultural staple in the United States.
As urbanization swept the country, it was swiftly adopted by enterprising restaurateurs (who were not necessarily of Italian descent) and altered to suit regional preferences and demographic shifts. Shortly after the United States entered World War II, a Texan named Ike Sewell opened a pizzeria in Chicago.
He hoped to attract new customers by serving a “heartier” version of the dish, one with a thicker crust, more cheese, and more sauce and other toppings. The Rocky Mountain Pie was also created at the same time in Colorado. It was designed to be eaten as a dessert with honey and was not as deep as its Chicago counterpart. To the consternation of Neapolitans everywhere, these were eventually joined by a Hawaiian variation topped with ham and pineapple.
The tremendous rate of economic and technical change in the United States beginning in the 1950s had an even more profound effect on pizza. There have been two noteworthy adjustments. The ‘domestication’ of pizza comes first. Frozen pizza was created because of the rising use of refrigerators and freezers and the rising desire for “convenience” goods as people gained more discretionary cash.
Modifications were made to the original recipe so that it may be carried home and prepared whenever desired. To keep the dough from drying out in the oven, tomato paste has replaced chunks of fresh tomato, and new cheeses have been devised to keep their texture even after being frozen. The ‘commercialization’ of pizza was the second major shift. Pizza was one of the first foods to be delivered to consumers’ doors as the availability of vehicles and motorcycles made it possible.
After establishing a name for themselves in the Michigan market under the moniker “Dominik’s,” brothers Tom and James Monaghan changed the company’s name to “Domino’s” and expanded it nationally in the 1960s. They, along with their rivals, grew internationally to the point where there is hardly a city on the planet where their products are not available.
These adjustments paradoxically resulted in a more standardized pizza that was also more open to individual interpretation. While the basic pizza form of a dough base covered in tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella cheese became more widely accepted, the need to satisfy customers’ cravings for novelty drove the development of increasingly complex variants. Today, Pizza Hut in Poland offers a spicy “Indian” pizza, and Domino’s in Japan offers an “Elvis” pizza that has, well, everything.
Many pizza purists, especially in Naples, frown upon some of the more exotic toppings that are now available on modern pizzas since they are so different from those used by the lazzaroni. The social, economic, and technological shifts of the past several centuries may not be immediately apparent, but they are nonetheless baked into every slice of pizza.