Chefs across the world whip up millions of pizzas every year – and, the chances are, you love the classic Italian dish too. But before you bite into your next pie, you should probably learn more about this cheese-covered, crispy-crusted delight. For you see, the pizza you love happened to be born out of a chance event that transcended the rich-poor divide.
It all started in Naples in the 1880s. At that time, the king and queen of Italy arrived in the coastal city on a visit. And they had a specific request – they wanted simple Italian food, as opposed to the complicated French fare they usually ate. So, a local chef came in, and he knew just what to do.
All of the chef’s creations pleased the royal couple, but one in particular suited the queen. In fact, she loved it so much that a new culinary sensation was created. Indeed, with royal approval, the pizza took off – but it still holds onto one special memento in honor of the monarch who deemed it worthy of worldwide attention.
Now, the history of pizza began a long time before its turning point in Naples. Yes, some trace the doughy dish’s origins to as early as 500 B.C. It makes sense why, because even thousands of years ago people dug into pizza-like dishes for sustenance – simply put, humans have always loved bread.
Even 2,500 years ago, grain stored well without refrigerators or freezers to keep it fresh. Farmers could easily harvest and ship it around, and it cost relatively little for people to buy. On top of all of that, ancient whole-grain bread came high in nutrients, protein, fiber and energy-boosting calories.
Legend has it that the first pizza makers were Persian soldiers who lived as early as 500 B.C. And they supposedly used their protective shields as cooking sheets upon which they’d bake their circular flatbreads. However, they covered them with dates and cheese – tomato sauce hadn’t come into the picture quite yet.
In fact, some purists might argue that these early pies weren’t necessarily pizzas. But the Persians’ innovative baking did pave the way for future discs of dough, as did other forms of ancient bread. For instance, the Greeks also got creative with their carbs, folding cheese, olive oil, herbs and more into their loaves.
Furthermore, there’s written evidence that ancient Italy had its own precursor to pizzas, too. Aeneid, an epic poem written somewhere between 30 and 20 B.C., describes a Trojan named Aeneas who arrives at the “promised land,” which turns out to be the boot-shaped country. There, the people decorate round bread loaves with “fruits of the field,” which sounds like an early version of the toppings we throw on today.
There’s physical evidence to prove that ancient Romans noshed on something resembling pizza, too. Their civilization traces back to the 8th century B.C., and it endured until the 5th century A.D. And, during at least some of that time, most people didn’t have the capacity to cook for themselves at home.
Without an in-home kitchen, the average Roman would have to bring their food to a local baker, who would pop it into the on-site oven. But most people skipped buying their own groceries to go to the thermopolium instead. Chances are, you’ve been to a modern-day version of one of these ancient outposts.
Archaeologists have come to find more than 80 thermopolia in the ruins of Pompeii, the ancient Roman civilization covered in thick volcanic ash during Mount Vesuvius’s 79 A.D. eruption. Nearly 1,700 years later, explorers found the legendary site and, beneath a dusty layer, they discovered incredibly well-preserved remains of the ill-fated community.
Since then, thermopolia have been among the many stunning archaeological finds made at Pompeii. And experts could easily discern the function of these remnants of a bygone era. They served as food counters, outfitted with jars meant to keep hot food and drinks at the right temperature. And, from there, staffers could dole out quick, cheap lunches to those without in-home kitchens.
You probably wouldn’t find your favorite Italian dish among the food served at a thermopolium, though. Instead, they likely sold things like lentils, spiced wine, meat, nuts and garum, a fish-based sauce that was incredibly popular in ancient times. But that’s not to say something similar to a pizza wasn’t at all available.
Indeed, the poor in Pompeii would have been able to order a pizza-like meal, which may have even come with toppings. However, one option unavailable to these ancient people – and to many Italians for several generations – was the tomato. Spanish explorers discovered tomatoes in Peru and brought them back to the Old World. It turned out that Italians didn’t start growing them until the mid-16th century.
Weirdly, some believed that the red fruit dangling from the tomato plant was poisonous, so they avoided eating it. In reality, though, the rich would often dine on plates made of pewter. And it was the lead contained within this metallic material which leeched from dishes and into the highly acidic slices of the fruit. So just a bad coincidence.
Eventually, though, Italians came around to tomatoes. And the first-known recipe for a tomato sauce published in Italian arrived in Naples in 1692. The fact it happened in the seaside city south of Rome was fitting, too, considering the other culinary gems that would come from this bustling metropolis.
Now, Naples came into its own during the 18th century, when Italy was under the rule of Bourbon kings. Yes, in 1700 the city had only 200,000 residents – and that number nearly doubled in less than 50 years. So many people moved to Naples from the countryside because of its position as an overseas trade outpost.
But even with this sector of the economy booming, Naples couldn’t keep up with the influx of new residents. As such, more and more people slipped into poverty. The disheveled, dirty appearances of the city’s most poor earned them the title of lazzaroni, inspired by the biblical figure Lazarus and his similarly sad state.
These people – there were about 50,000 of them – were constantly on the search for jobs. And they scraped by on the Neapolitan street food that was both cheap and easy to eat. Vendors carried the food around in boxes, cutting off slices depending on how much the customer could pay or how much they wanted to eat.
These were, of course, pizzas – or, at least, another early version of them. They fell somewhere between a flatbread and a modern-day pie. In fact, the 18th-century Neapolitan version relied on the cheapest-yet-tastiest ingredients, including lard, garlic, salt, cheese or whitebait fish.
Even tomatoes made their way onto these basic pizzas, as they had yet to become hugely popular – or expensive. But it wasn’t the red fruit on top of these pies that made food critics and out-of-town visitors anti-pizza. It was because the meal was so closely linked to the impoverished lazzaroni that no one else would give it a chance.
For instance, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had only unkind things to say about Naples’ most budget-friendly food. According to History Today, he described pizza as a “species of the most nauseating cake … covered over with slices of tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients, it altogether looks like a piece of bread… reeking out of the sewer.”
Now, in the next century pizza’s image would improve – but not right away. When publishers began to produce cookbooks in the 19th century, their authors left out the steps necessary for pizza-making. Even an improvement in the lazzaroni’s public image didn’t bring these delectable pies to the forefront.
That’s right, and it would take the king and queen of Italy to change the public’s perception of pizza. You see, Umberto I ascended to the throne in 1878, the successor to Italy’s first king since the 6th century, Victor Emmanuel II. Indeed, the country had only reunited in 1861 after years of French and Austrian rule.
Furthermore, the unification of Italy meant that borders fell and people began to share ideas – and recipes. Many of the most iconic Italian dishes trace back to this era of culinary openness and innovation, including lasagna and cannoli. But pizza didn’t make its way out of Naples until Umberto I and his wife, Margherita, visited the city in 1889.
Now you see, the royal couple traveled to Naples as part of an ongoing mission to keep the newly united Italy together. They’d hoped to boost morale amongst Neapolitans who had a lingering feeling of unrest. Interestingly, the queen felt unsettled herself, but her complaints were all culinary ones that stemmed from years of French rule.
Specifically, Margherita arrived in Naples craving simple Italian fare. For she had quickly tired of fancy, complicated, French-inspired meals served to the elite. Instead, the queen asked to eat something fit for a commoner, and the royal minders knew just who to call – Raffaele Esposito, the city’s most famous pizza maker and restaurateur.
So Esposito enlisted the help of his wife to come up with three different pizzas for the king and queen. One featured basil, caciocavallo cheese and lard, while another came with just cecenielli, a small white fish. And then, there was the final pizza, which the chef made with the new Italian flag in mind.
Yes, Esposito topped the dough base with red tomatoes, green basil leaves and bright white mozzarella. And he brought this and the other two pizzas to the king and queen. When Margherita tasted the flag-inspired pie, she quickly declared it to be one of the best things she had ever tasted.
In fact, Margherita was so moved that she had a letter sent to Esposito by who was then known as the Head of Table Service of the Royals’ Household. According to Food & Wine magazine, the message read, “Most Esteemed Raffaele Esposito, I confirm to you that the three kinds of pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious.”
Once he received the letter, Esposito knew what he had to do. From then on, he referred to the queen’s favorite pie – the one with mozzarella, tomato and basil – as the Pizza Margherita. Any pizza lover knows that this name endures for the simply constructed, still-delicious combination beloved by the queen.
Surprisingly, though, the queen’s seal of approval didn’t stoke the spread of pizza throughout Italy and the world. First, Neapolitans began to move from their seaside hometown. Most moved northward where they could find more work and, with them, they brought their city’s best cuisine.
Then came World War II. Allied soldiers invaded Italy in the mid-1940s, and their tour introduced them to the country’s best cuisine. They sampled pizza in Campania and proceeded to ask for it everywhere else they went in the country. Still, even their affinity for pizza couldn’t inspire its global takeoff.
For that, the Italians only have tourism to thank. You see, after WWII it became cheaper for people to travel, and their jaunts to Italy allowed them to sample the country’s finest food. This, in turn, led restaurants across the country to update their menus to include regional fare so that visitors could sample all of Italy’s best plates.
At first, not all pizza was created equal – some eateries didn’t have pizza ovens, for one thing. But customers kept ordering, so chefs improved their ability to make pies full of flavor. Indeed, they topped them with local ingredients, and they tacked on higher price tags because customers would happily pay for a high-quality pizza.
By that time, pizza had made its way to the United States – and people there fell in love with it, too. What’s more, they were quicker to latch onto the Neapolitan dish. The first American pizzeria called Lombardi’s opened its doors in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. With that, pizza restaurants appeared in every new city as the country urbanized.
Interestingly, most of America’s early pizza makers didn’t have Italian roots. Instead, they took the concept and ran with it, adding locally influenced toppings – or rewriting the recipe altogether. In Chicago, for example, Ike Sewell invented the deep-dish pie, which featured a thicker crust with cheese on the bottom and tomato sauce on top.
Post-WWII America inspired two more major pizza-related changes. Firstly, people wanted more convenient foods to cook at home, as fridges and freezers had become common appliances in homes. As such, the frozen pizza was born – and it, like the Pizza Margherita, endures to this day.
Then came the idea of food delivery – and pizza was the perfect candidate for doorstep drop-offs. During the 1960s, Tom and James Monaghan built a reputation for their pizzeria, Dominik’s, because of its extra-fast deliveries. Soon enough, they franchised their eatery and took it nationwide with a slightly different name – Domino’s.
Of course, not all pizza lovers appreciate these convenient, quick options. Nor do they love the changes that have been made to many of the traditional pie recipes. Indeed, today’s pizzas are much different than those eaten by the poor in Naples in the 19th century. But whether or not you’re a purist, you can certainly agree that the Pizza Margherita was an important part of pizza history – and Esposito’s pizzeria, Pizzeria Brandi, is still open and serving them to this day.