Why Pizza is Called Pie – The Story of American Tomato Pie

If you live in the northeastern United States, or maybe just watch American movies set there, you’ve most likely heard people refer to pizza as a “pie”. Why is that?

Americans refer to pizza as “pie” because early 20th century Italian immigrants to the United States made and sold a pizza called a “pomidore pizza”. This unknown Italian food was translated to “tomato pie” in English due to being round and cut into slices. As one of the first kinds of pizza sold in the US, the name “pie” stuck and began to be used to refer to all types of pizza. Today, many New Yorkers still refer to pizza as “pie”.

So, the etymology of “pizza pie” is really a history lesson about pizza in the United States. Let’s talk about the first pizza to be brought to the US, the true origins of the “tomato pie” and whether or not pizza is even a pie in the first place.

Pizza Pie Is A Uniquely American Phenomenon

Growing up in NYC, I always referred to my favorite food as simply “pizza”. I never added the “pie” to the end and neither did most of my peers. At least as far as I can remember.

But the old-timers would often refer to pizza as pie, or even just a “pie” by itself. I still remember fondly the call of “table 4, your pie is ready” yelled out over the crowds at my favorite pizza places.

At the same time, it confused me a little bit too. When I thought of a pie, images of apple and cherry pies fill my head. Even a sheppard’s pie, which I don’t like, seemed more like a pie than a pizza to me.

My (very) basic knowledge of Italian didn’t help me with this question either. Pizza does not mean pie in Italian. The closest equivalent in Italian to pie is a “crostata”, which is basically a kind of tart. Then there’s also a “torta”, which is more like a cake. Both of these are round foods you cut into slices, but neither would ever be referred to as a pizza.

The Italian word for pizza is pizza. No Italian would ever consider calling a flat, round crust with sauce and cheese on it anything but a pizza. And they certainly would never categorize a pizza along with torta and crostata.

Then why do (some) American call pizza a pie?

apple pie pizza Why Pizza is Called Pie - The Story of American Tomato Pie
This is not a pizza in Italian.

The History of The American Tomato Pie Pizza

Interestingly, as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed more people referring to pizza simply as “pie”. Not a lot, mind you, but more than I remember from my childhood. I think many of these people have been influenced by movies, or perhaps just want to come off as being pizza aficionados, since everyone claims to be one these days.

But to figure out why Americans say “pie” in the first place, we need to get into the history of the tomato pie in the United States.

Americans call a pizza a pie because the “tomato pie” was one of the first kinds of pizza served in the United States. The tomato pie is usually square, with a thick focaccia-like crust and is topped with tomato sauce and sprinkled with a few other seasonings.

The tomato pie was first referenced in a 1903 edition of the New-York Tribune:

“Pie has usually been considered a Yankee dish exclusively, but apparently the Italian has Invented a kind of pie. The ‘”pomidore pizza,” or tomato pie, is made in this fashion. Take a lump of dough, and, under a roller, flatten it out until it is only an inch thick. On this scatter tomatoes and season plentifully with powdered red pepper. Then bake the compound. “Salami pizza,” or bologna pie is made with this under layer of dough and a combination of tomatoes, cheese, red pepper and bologna.”

New-York Tribune, 1903

This article spoke about the foods Italian immigrants prepared and ate in the East Side of NYC generally, but likely applied to Italian immigrant communities all over the US at the time.

You can see in this article that what the article is referring to as a pie is actually pizza, or a “pomidore pizza” as the article calls is. It makes sense that outside observers of Italian cuisine would call an unfamiliar round food a “pie” rather than the Italian immigrants calling it a pie themselves.

Naturally, Italian-born immigrants continued calling the food exactly what they always had – a pizza. But their English speaking descendants obviously took some liking to the term “pie” and that’s how it became popularized up until today.

An original Papa’s tomato pie from New Jersey.

Not All Americans Call A Pizza A Pie

As I mentioned earlier, I never grew up calling pizza pie – it was always the old-timers that called it that.

In fact, it appears that, traditionally, using the term pie is mostly exclusive to the NYC area and not the rest of the northeastern US as is sometimes believed. For example, my family in Boston, which also has a large and old Italian community, never called pizza a pie.

Barbara Hunt Lazerson, a linguist at Duke University, conducted an informal study in 1980 to try to figure out how many people actually use the word pie for pizza. She did this by asking 183 college students, a younger demographic, to list every kind of pie they could think of. The study concluded that only 11 percent of the students listed a pizza as a type of pie.

Obviously this study isn’t perfect, and may be influenced by age and geography, but it shows that clearly only a minority of Americans call pizza “pie”.

Final Thoughts

Pizza vs pie is a fun and eternal debate among American pizza enthusiasts, so I’m sure there are lots of people who’s experience is different from mine. Linguistics and etymology is not an exact science either, so my argument is only based on the best historical information we have available right now.

Tomato pie is most likely the origin of why some Americans call pizza “pie”, and it came to the United States via Italian immigrants in the NYC area. But it wasn’t the immigrants themselves who called pizza “pie”, it was the non-Italian speaking outsiders who did – for lack of a better term in English.

This use of the term seems to be localized to NYC as well, although it has gained in popularity in recent decades among self-described pizza aficionados.

Which do you think is correct – pizza or pie? Let me know in the comments below.

Related Posts:

How Was Pizza Invented?

What Is Bari Style Pizza? Clearing The Confusion

What Is Neapolitan Pizza?

Is Pizza Without Sauce Still Pizza?

Is It Still Pizza Without Cheese?

The History of Pizza in India – How Pizza Won The Hearts of Billions

Related Questions:

Does Pizza Mean Pie In Italian?

Contrary to popular belief, the word pizza does not mean pie in Italian. Translated from Italian, the word pizza simply means pizza in English. In fact, the entry for “pizza” in the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana, the most complete dictionary of the Italian language, makes no reference to anything having to do with the English word pie. Pie most closely translates to the Italian word torta.

What Is Pizza Pie’s Meaning?

Pizza pie is a regional American phrase used to refer to the popular Italian dish pizza. It originates from a 1903 New York Post article comparing pizza to a kind of pie due to its round shape and triangular slices. Pizza pie, or simply pie, is most often used in the Northeastern United States.

Do New Yorkers Say Pie For Pizza?

New York City was the first place where pizza was introduced from Italy in the late 19th century, so they’ve developed their own terminology to refer to it. After a 1903 New York Post article, many English speaking New Yorkers began to refer to pizza as a “pie”, even though the word doesn’t mean pizza in Italian.

Is Pizza A Pie Or Cake?

A pizza is neither a pie nor a cake even though each of these foods are round and cut into slices. However, many Americans, particularly in the vicinity of New York City, refer to pizza as pie or pizza pie. This is largely due to a mistranslation of pizza in Italian to pie in English by early 20th century English speaking New Yorkers.

Why Do Americans Call Pizza Pie?

Many Americans call pizza pie because 19th century Italian immigrants to the United States brought with them a food called “pizza pomidore”, or tomato pizza. Later, in 1903, a New York Tribune article referred to this pizza as “a kind of pie”, and Americans, especially New Yorkers, have been calling pizza “pie” ever since.

Is Pizza A Pie?

Even though many people refer to pizza as “pie”, a pizza is not actually a pie at all. If you look up the word “pizza” in an Italian dictionary, it will describe a crust topped with tomatoes and mozzarella–there is no reference to what we know of as pie in English. The word pie as we know it is much closer to the Italian word “torta” than “pizza”.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this article, very informative! I am not usually the “rages about food” kind of Italian, but seeing people claim that “pizza” is the Italian name for “pie” had me bothered and curious about the actual origin of the “pizza pie” phrase 🙂

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