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Food & Drinks

Five pizza myths pulled apart – from how it reached America to who invented the margherita

What started as inexpensive, filling food for the poor in 18th-century Naples has evolved into a global food sensation. We like to talk about pizza almost as much as we like to eat it, but we’ve swallowed some myths along the way

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 8:30pm

Versions of pizza have existed for centuries. First popular among the working classes of Naples in the 18th century, it remained a local dish until after the second world war, when it exploded in popularity worldwide.

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As a food of the poor, pizza had few chroniclers until very recently, which means there’s no archive of pizza history, filled with details about important firsts or crucial developments. So there’s little agreement, and significant mythology, surrounding this beloved food, which we seem to like talking about almost as much as we like eating. Here are five myths about pizza.

1. Returning soldiers made pizza popular in the United States

In 1945, few Americans had heard of pizza. But a decade later, newspaper articles were touting it as a new food trend sweeping the nation. Media accounts attributed pizza’s growing popularity in the US to soldiers who had tried it in Italy during the second world war. This story thrives online, on Wikipedia and in published histories of pizza, including Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.

While it’s possible that soldiers ate pizza in Italy during the war, and some may have sought it out upon their return, it’s unlikely this accounted for its increasing popularity. Pizza was in short supply in Italy during the war; soldiers there encountered brutal poverty and food shortages thanks to fascist misrule.

Americans, including soldiers, probably sampled pizza in Italy in the years after the war, but what they ate bore little resemblance to the varieties of pizza made in the United States in the 1950s, which The New York Times described in 1956 as thick-crusted “pies”, the pizzaret (an English-muffin pizza), the pizza bagel, and pizzas topped with sour cream, cinnamon or sliced bananas.

2. Pizza is available everywhere because of Italian immigrants

Between 1870 and 1970, more than 26 million Italians left Italy in search of work. Almost any attempt to explain the spread of pizza credits these immigrants with introducing the food to their new countries.

“Pizza became as popular as it did in part because of the sheer number of Italian immigrants,” the Encyclopedia Britannica explains. And indeed, Neapolitans and southern Italians opened bakeries and pizzerias that fed other Italian immigrants in cities like New York and Buenos Aires; however, few non-Italians had even heard of pizza until the 1950s.

While pizza definitely went global, the mechanisms by which this happened are poorly understood.

Between 1950 and 1980, pizza became a global favourite because of a variety of factors, not solely because of Italian migrants. Pizzerias required minimal investment and had low overhead costs, making them attractive options for immigrant entrepreneurs from many countries.

For instance, the 1970s witnessed an explosion of pizzerias in Northeast America, almost half of which were operated by Greek Americans.

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Changes in technology enabled the dramatic transformation of pizza preparation and delivery: steel ovens with rotating shelves, pre-shredded cheese and toppings, pre-cut delivery boxes, and a rising car culture all facilitated the delivery industry, bringing pizza to more consumers who lived outside cities or on university campuses or military bases.

In addition to delivery, pizzas prepared at home fed hungry American suburbanites, with the invention of the pizza kit in 1948 and the appearance of frozen pizzas in 1957. Both of these innovations were created, manufactured and distributed by Italian and non-Italian American entrepreneurs.

3. Pizza chains have ruined pizza

Pizza devotees have long fretted that delivery chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut have ruined the creative spirit of pizza-making and that their pizza is, well, terrible. Fear that global chains will put local pizzerias out of business looms large for small proprietors, who struggled to implement the chains’ online ordering systems.

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Yet the history of pizza consumption in the past few decades tells a different story. Pizza embodies “glocalisation”, the process of conducting business according to both local and global standards. When Domino’s expanded to the east of America, executives found the cracker-thincrust popular in the Midwest did not appeal to Northeastern consumers, who preferred a chewier, thicker crust. Both chains readily adapted to local tastes, a tradition they continued as they expanded globally.

When Pizza Hut opened in 1990 in the Soviet Union, it relied on local suppliers and offered toppings like salmon and sardines alongside cheese and pepperoni.

The large chains can be criticised for many reasons, but it’s hard to make the case that they are replacing high-quality local options with generic, lousy pies, or that they are replacing independent pizzerias.

Consider the curious phenomenon when a large pizza franchise opens in a neighbourhood: it doesn’t necessarily put local restaurants out of business and in fact can prompt consumers to try local fare, as Donna R. Gabaccia noted in her book We Are What We Eat.

4. The pizza margherita was invented for Italian royalty

The naming of the pizza margherita, a Neapolitan staple, remains one of the most celebrated myths of pizza lore, cited in Italian histories like Roberto Minervini’s Storia della Pizza and Giuseppe Porcaro’s Sapore di Napoli: Storia della Pizza Napoletana, along with numerous pop-history books and countless websites.

Few scholars dispute the existence or popularity of pizza in 19th-century Naples; it was sold by ambulatory vendors to sailors, soldiers and workers. Considerably more controversy is attached to what has become the first pizza of “national” significance: the pizza margherita, topped with San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo milk mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil and basil.

Legend has it that King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. After they tired of French cuisine, then a staple for European royalty, Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi was summoned to prepare a variety of pizzas for the bored queen. Her favourite: the pizza alla mozzarella, known thereafter as the pizza margherita.

Pizzeria Brandi proudly displayed the thank-you note, signed by Galli Camillo, head of the table of the royal household, dated June 1889. But historians and other pizza makers dispute the note’s authenticity and cast doubt on this encounter between Italian royalty and a pizza maker.

Pizza historian Antonio Mattozzi calls Esposito’s claim that he invented the margherita a “half-truth” at best and suggests that we ignore the “picturesque elements” of the story about the encounter between Margherita and Esposito, attributing the supposed event to Esposito’s “keen sense of marketing”.

5. Everyone loves pizza

The numerous websites and books dedicated to pizza attest to our enduring respect and love for the dish and its history, perhaps best summed up by Jeff Ruby and Penny Pollack’s book, Everybody Loves Pizza. Restaurants and home cooks have elevated pizza-making to an art, and the simple versions of Neapolitan pizza now warrant protected status as an authentic Italian food.

Yet pizza emerged from humble origins as a food of the poor, topped with whatever ingredients were on hand; in Naples, this might have been herbs, lard or small fish. Indeed, not everyone who sampled pizza enjoyed it.

Samuel Morse, inventor of the single-wire telegraph system, described pizza in 1831 as “a species of most nauseating looking cake … covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients. It altogether looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer”.

Italians outside Naples thought little better of it. Carlo Collodi, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, said the toppings’ haphazard and unsanitary quality gave “the appearance of complicated filth”.

Today some of us hanker for artisanal pizza, lovingly made with fresh local ingredients, but many of us are more familiar with “junk food” pizza: the squares served in school cafeterias, frozen pizza stuck in the oven on weeknights when everyone is too tired to cook, and cheap pies delivered to dorm rooms. So-called junk food pizza has more in common with the pizza of 19th-century Naples: inexpensive and filling food for the poor. Do we really love pizza or – like the working poor of southern Italy two centuries ago – do we eat it because it’s available and affordable?

This notion will, no doubt, spark anger among pizza devotees. But pizza’s appeal often has nothing to do with taste; it rests instead with our individual and collective memories, the myths we create about pizza, and the many arguments surrounding the lowly, fabulous food.