Pizza has a long history. Many cultures have made pizza-like foods throughout the ages. But pizza as we know and love can trace its roots back to one specific city.
Pizza was invented in Naples, Italy in the 18th century, by bakers who started adding tomatoes, cheese and other toppings to flatbread. Since then, pizza has evolved into the delicious meal we know today.
People have been fascinated with making bread taste even better ever since we began baking it about 7,000 years ago. The history of pizza as we know it is just as fascinating, as this once humble dish made for poor workers became one of the most popular meals in the world.
Pizza Was Invented in Naples By Street Vendors
We have Italians and the introduction of the tomato to Europe to thank for the invention of pizza.
People throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean had been eating various forms of flatbreads for thousands of years. But in the 16th century, the tomato was brought to Europe from the Americans, where it eventually made its way to Naples and to the top of pizza.
Before then, a form of flatbread similar to pizza was a staple for street vendors in Naples. In the 1700s and early 1800s, Naples was a thriving city, with a large population of the working poor, called the lazzaroni. These poor people often didn’t have homes large enough for cooking, and they needed filling, inexpensive food. Enter the precursor to pizza.
As early as the 1500s, street vendors were calling ‘galette’ flatbreads ‘pizza.’ Early versions of this type of pizza were sweet, or topped with simple ingredients like garlic, salt, lard, cheese, anchovies and/or onions. Funny enough, because they were mainly eaten by the poor, these early pizzas were considered disgusting by the snobbish upper classes.
It’s not clear who was the first person to add tomatoes to these flatbreads. The tomato was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, but it took some time for them to catch on (people thought they were poisonous at first). But by the 1700s, they were being grown widely in Italy, and they made their way to flatbreads. Ta-da: the pizza was born.
This new tomato based flatbread quickly rose in popularity. Whereas the original flatbreads were only consumed by the lazzaroni, the new pizzas made Naples a tourist destination. By 1807, there were already 54 pizzerias in Naples. That number had increased to 120 in just 50 years – clearly, Napolitanos (people from Naples) knew they were on to something good.
In fact, pizza still remains a core of Naples and Italian culture. In fact, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”) was founded in 1984 to set out specific rules for ‘authentic’ Neapolitan pizza. They take their pizza seriously!
The World Famous Margherita Pizza Was Invented By Raffaele Esposito In 1889
We don’t know the genius bakers who started making the very first pizzas-like dishes. But we do know that pizza as we know it was invented by Raffaele Esposito who made the very first Margherita pizza in 1889.
Legend has it that Esposito made the first margherita pizza in 1889. King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy were visiting Naples, and they wanted to try something special. Esposito made three different types of pizza for them to try, and the queen was quite taken with the one that had the three colors of the Italian flag (the sauce was red, the basil was green, and the cheese was white).
Since the queen liked the pizza so much, they named it after her. The rest, as they say, is pizza history.
Other Cultures Claim To Have Invented The Pizza, Too
For a dish as universally beloved as pizza, it’s no surprise that many other cultures can claim a role in its invention.
People began making bread 7000 years ago, and many different cultures started topping flatbreads with simple ingredients long before the Italians. For example:
- The ancient Greeks and Roman topped what we now call focaccia bread with olive oil and spices. The Greeks in particular liked to top flatbread with herbs, onions, cheese and garlic.
- The pita in the ancient Middle East was also topped with ingredients like a pizza.
- The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Israelites all had their own versions of flatbreads.
- In the 6th century BC, Persian soldiers ate flatbreads topped with cheese and dates.
- Roman Jews ate a Passover cookie called ‘pizzarelles‘ which some think may be a precursor to pizza.
Other cultures also have their own versions of flatbread. For example, the Chinese make a flatbread from wheat flour called bing. You can find naan in Central and Southern Asia (I love making naan pizza!). And the okonomiyaki is a savory pancake sometimes called the Japanese pizza.
So what exactly is flatbread and how was it invented? Like the name suggests, it’s any form of thin bread made with flour, salt and water. Usually, they are made without yeast or leavening (although pizza dough is made with yeast – see my recipe for no-knead dough here). Like the name suggests, this bread is quite flat – anywhere from one millimeter to a few centimeters thick. This makes them easy to eat – and easy to top with other ingredients, making a more complete meal.
Flatbreads are so old that we don’t know exactly who invented them or how. We know that in 12,400 BC in Jordan, people were baking a form of flatbread made from barley, einkorn wheat, oats and tubers. We know this because archaeologists found and analyzed bread crumbs in 2018. Over millennia, flatbreads have appeared in cultures through the world, where they have been dressed up with different ingredients, leading to the invention of pizza in Italy.
Of course, pizza is now enjoyed worldwide. Lots of cultures have now made their own take on the pizza (like those Canadians who love adding ham and pineapple!). A lot of that has to do with what happened with traditional Neapolitan pizza after it was first invented.
Modern American Pizza Was Invented By Immigrants
Pizza might have remained an isolated Italian delicacy if not for immigrants, and for World War II. American-style pizza as we know it today was invented by Italian immigrants in early 1900s.
Not surprisingly, pizza first caught on in American cities with large Italian immigrant populations – like New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. These immigrants came to work in factories, but they ended up making a culinary impact on their new homes.
Giovanni and Gennaro Bruno introduced Boston to pizza in 1903, when they immigrated to Boston from Naples in 1903.
Gennaro Lombardi, another Italian immigrant, opened a pizzeria in New York in 1905. With humble beginnings of selling tomato pies wrapped in paper to workers, Lombardi’s still exists, and still uses a coal oven to make its pizza.
Pizza came to Canada a little bit later. The first Canadian pizzeria was opened in 1948 in Montreal. Canadian pizza restaurants also serve a wider variety of Italian food, often featuring dishes like pasta and salads. One very special Canadian addition to the pizza canon: bacon and mushrooms.
So pizza started to spread in the early 20th century, but it was World War II veterans returning to the United States after being abroad in Italy that really kicked off today’s passion for the pie. They’d had delicious pizza in Italy, and sought it out when they got back home. A few decades after its introduction, pizza became widely popular, with chains like Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars spreading this love around the globe.
Today, you can still enjoy a Neapolitan pizza in Naples, just like it would have been made hundreds of years ago, with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, on a simple dough cooked in a wood fired oven. Or maybe you’d like a marinara – a pizza made with tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, named after the seaman’s wife (‘la marinara’) who would make it for her fisherman husband in Naples.
Or maybe you like to be a little adventurous, going west coast style with fresh ingredients like avocado, corn, chicken or barbecue sauce.
Either way, you’re enjoying a meal that was invented in the 18th century by Neapolitan chefs, who themselves were relying on thousands of years of flatbread innovation.