The world’s most popular fast food has ancient roots.
Pizza is the world’s favourite fast food. We eat it everywhere – at home, in restaurants, on street corners. Some 3 billion pizzas are sold each year in the United States alone, an average of 46 slices per person. But the story of how the humble pizza came to enjoy such global dominance reveals much about the history of migration, economics and technological change.
People have been eating pizza, in one form or another, for centuries. As far back as antiquity, pieces of flatbread, topped with savouries, served as a simple and tasty meal for those who could not afford plates, or who were on the go.
These early pizzas appear in Virgil’s Aeneid (Эней был троянским героем, сыном царевича Анхиса и богини Афродиты). Shortly after arriving in Latium, Aeneas and his crew sat down beneath a tree and ate pizza alike cakes for their meal.
But it was in late 18th-century Naples that the pizza as we now know it came into being. Under the Bourbon kings, Naples had become one of the largest cities in Europe – and it was growing fast. Fuelled by overseas trade and a steady influx of peasants from the countryside, its population ballooned from 200,000 in 1700 to 399,000 in 1748.
As the urban economy struggled to keep pace, an ever greater number of the city’s inhabitants fell into poverty. Numbering around 50000 they earned as porters, messengers or casual labourers. Always rushing about in search of work, they needed food that was cheap and easy to eat. Pizzas 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.
Similar in some respects to Virgil’s flatbreads, they had inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients with plenty of flavour. The simplest were topped with nothing more than garlic, lard (свинное сало) and salt. But others included a cheese made from horse’s milk, whitebait (мальки рыб) or basil. Some even had tomatoes on top.
For a long time, pizzas were neglected by food writers. Associated with the poverty, they were frequently described as ‘disgusting’, especially by foreign visitors.
When the first cookbooks appeared in the late 19th century, they pointedly ignored pizza. Even those dedicated to Neapolitan cuisine did notmention it.
All that changed after Italian unification. While on a visit to Naples in 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita grew tired of the complicated French dishes they were served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hastily summoned to prepare some local specialities for the queen, the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito cooked three sorts of pizza: one with lard, caciocavallo and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The queen was delighted. Her favourite – the last of the three – was christened pizza margherita in her honour.
This signalled an important shift. Margherita’s seal of approval not only elevated the pizza from being a food fit only for poor 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 – as pasta and polenta.
Nevertheless, pizza was slow to move out of Naples. The initial spur was provided by migration. From the 1930s onwards, a growing number of Neapolitans moved northwards in search of work, taking their cuisine with them. This trend was accelerated by war.
But it was tourism – facilitated by the declining cost of travel in the postwar period – that really consolidated pizza’s position as a truly Italian dish. As tourists became increasingly curious about Italian food, restaurants started offering more regional specialities – including pizza. The quality was, at first, variable – not every restaurant had a pizza oven. Nevertheless, pizza quickly spread throughout Italy.
But 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. 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 ‘heartier’ 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. In time, these were even joined by a Hawaiian version, topped with ham and pineapple.
From the 1950s onwards, the rapid pace of economic and technological change in the US transformed the pizza even more radically. Two changes are worthy of note.
The first was the ‘domestication’ of pizza. As disposable incomes grew, fridges and freezers became increasingly common and demand for ‘convenience’ foods grew – prompting the development of the frozen pizza. Designed to be taken home and cooked at will, this required changes to be made to the recipe. Instead of being scattered with generous slices of tomato, the base was now smothered with a smooth tomato paste, which served to prevent the dough from drying out during oven cooking; and new cheeses had to be developed to withstand freezing.
The second change was the ‘commercialisation’ of pizza. With the growing availability of cars and motorcycles, it became possible to deliver freshly cooked food to customers’ doors – and pizza was among the first dishes to be served up.
In 1960, Tom and James Monaghan founded ‘Dominik’s’ in Michigan and, after winning a reputation for speedy delivery, took their company – which they renamed ‘Domino’s’ – nationwide. Now Pizza Hut in Poland sells a spicy ‘Indian’ version and Domino’s in Japan has developed an ‘Elvis’ pizza, with just about everything on it.