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The History of Pizza, From Italy to America

It’s safe to say that Americans love pizza. In one 2012 survey, 41% of consumers reported eating at least one slice of pizza every week. Other data indicates that around 350 slices are sold every second — and in 2021, American pizza sales topped $48 billion. But the doughy, saucy, cheesy goodness wasn’t always an American staple. In fact, pizza was around for more than a century before making its way across the Atlantic from Italy. Here’s a brief history of this beloved indulgence.

Pizza Began as a Dish for the Poor in Naples

Portrait of Margherita of Savoy, Queen consort of Italy, late 19th-early 20th century.
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For millennia, flatbreads were a common food throughout the Mediterranean. Then, in the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors brought tomato seeds back from the Americas. Most Europeans shied away from what they saw as a poisonous fruit, but people in southern Italy came to accept it and began growing tomatoes.

Pizza was born in Naples around 1760 when flatbread was paired with tomatoes and sometimes combined with cheese. Though poor residents ate the most pizza, the dish has a royal link. When Italy's Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889, she reportedly wanted to try the local dish, so a pizzeria owner created several pizzas for her. The queen preferred the one with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, which became known as pizza Margherita. This pizza is also tied to Italy in another way, as its colors reflect the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil.

Italian Immigrants Introduced the United States to Pizza

Aerial view of New York City skyline.
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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Italian immigrants arrived in the United States. People from southern Italy carried their affection for pizza to their new home, and Italian Americans began opening pizzerias. Gennaro Lombardi received the first license to sell pizza in New York City in 1905, and eventually, pizzerias started to pop up in places including New Haven, Connecticut, where Pepe's opened its doors in 1925 (and is still open today).

Early American pizza makers needed to alter some aspects of pizza preparation from how things were done in Italy, however. Italians used wood ovens, which were more expensive in America, so U.S. pizzerias began to bake their pies in coal-fired ovens. Gas-fired pizza ovens were introduced in the 1930s. These ovens made it easier to prepare pizza, which played a part in its growing availability.

After World War II, more people across the United States began to eat pizza. A contributing factor may have been wartime soldiers who'd encountered pizza in Italy and wanted to enjoy it again. Plus, an increasing number of cookbooks contained pizza recipes around this time. Frozen pizzas became big sellers in the 1950s as well, which made pizza more accessible.

As Americans grew to love pizza, fast food franchises were launched to meet the growing need. Among the early pizza chains were Pizza Hut, which first opened in 1958, and Domino's, which got its start in 1960.

Naples Established “Rules” for Its Pizza

Margherita pizza being taken out of a wood burning oven.
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In 1984, multiple pizza makers in Naples decided that traditional Neapolitan pizza needed standards to separate it from the influx of other pies. They organized the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana to set up rules for what a true Neapolitan pizza must contain. The agreed-upon guidelines stated that a Neopolitan pizza requires dough that has been worked by hand or with a slow mixer, should be cooked in a wood-burning oven, and can use only fresh ingredients.

Margherita is one of the accepted kinds of Neapolitan pizza. It must be made with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. The mozzarella can be either fior di latt from cow's milk, or mozzarella di bufala, which is made from water buffalo milk. Marinara is also the official sauce of a Neapolitan pizza. It should be made with tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and olive oil.

How Pizza Has Evolved

Chicago Style Deep Dish Cheese Pizza with  slice cut out.
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As pizza gained popularity, different regions began putting their own spin on the dish. New York pizza is known for thin crusts and grab-and-go slices. Chicago's Pizzeria Uno was the first to serve deep dish pizza when it opened in 1943. It took some time, but the pizza eventually gained a fanbase — and the dish became inextricably linked to the city of Chicago. Pans used in auto factories cooked early Detroit-style pizzas, which debuted in 1946 and feature tomato sauce on top of the cheese, not under it.

New pizza flavors arrive all the time. In New Haven, Pepe's started serving white pizza with clams in the 1960s. And it was Canadian restaurateur Sam Panopoulos who paired ham and pineapple on pizza in 1962 to create the occasionally maligned Hawaiian pizza. California Pizza Kitchen, founded in 1985, came up with a much-loved BBQ chicken pizza.
Today, popular pizza toppings around the world include coconut and shrimp (Costa Rica), green peas (Brazil), pickled ginger (India), eel (Japan), and tuna (Germany). Whatever way you prefer your pizza, you're almost certain to find it somewhere around the globe.