BY JACQUELINE G. GOODWIN, Ed.D
Pizza. We eat it everywhere – at home, in restaurants, on street corners. Some three billion pizzas are sold each year in the United States alone, an average of 46 slices per person.
People have been eating pizza, in one form or another, for centuries. As far back as antiquity, pieces of flatbread were topped with savories and served as a simple and tasty meal for those who could not afford plates, or who were on the go. These early pizzas even appear in Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic poem, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy. Shortly after arriving in Latium, Aeneas and his crew sat down beneath a tree and laid out “thin wheaten cakes as platters for their meal.” They scattered them with mushrooms and herbs they had found in the woods and guzzled them down, crust and all, prompting Aeneas’ son Ascanius to exclaim: “Look! We’ve even eaten our plates!”
But it was in late 18th-century Naples that the pizza as we now know it came into being. Though similar in some respects to Virgil’s flatbreads, pizza was now defined by inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients. The simplest were topped with nothing more than garlic, lard and salt. But others included cheese and basil. Some even had tomatoes on top. Still a curiosity, pizza was looked down upon by contemporary gourmets.
For a long time, pizzas were scorned by food writers. When the first cookbooks appeared in the late 19th century, pizza was ignored. Even those dedicated to Neapolitan cuisine disdained to mention it.
All that changed after 1889. While on a visit to Naples 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 specialties for the queen, the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito cooked three types of pizza: one with lard, caciocavallo and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The queen was delighted. Her favorite – the last of the three. It was christened pizza Margherita in her honor.
Margherita’s seal of approval transformed pizza from a local into a national dish. It introduced the notion that pizza was a genuinely Italian food – akin to pasta and polenta.
But it was in America that pizza found its second home. By the end of the 19th century, Italian immigrants had already reached the East Coast; and in 1905, the first pizzeria – Lombardi’s – was opened in New York City and its ovens fueled from anthracite coal mined in Pennsylvania.
On September 20, 1944, the New York Times published its “News of Food” column. A new dish was being offered in the United States “for Home Consumption,” the headline read. Reporter Jane Holt went on to describe this exotic new dish: pizza. It’s “a pie made from yeast dough and filled with any number of centers,” she wrote, “each one containing tomatoes.” It could even be taken home in a custom box she added.
Holt went on to describe the pizza-making process to readers who likely had no idea what this entailed. After balls of dough are made, “with the dexterity of a drum major wielding a baton,” the baker “picks one up and twirls it around … the dough grows wider and wider and thinner and thinner.” The stretched dough is filled with “[cheese], mushrooms, anchovies, capers, and so on.” Holt’s detailed, positive description of pizza was an endorsement of an unfamiliar dish, as well as an encouragement.
Soon, pizza became an American institution. Spreading across the country, it was quickly taken up by enterprising restaurateurs and adapted to reflect local tastes, identities and needs.