Pizza is everywhere.
Pizza is such a ubiquitous presence on the U.S. food scene, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t basically a food group unto itself.
It’s eaten in restaurants…it’s served in sporting arenas and entertainment venues…it’s available on airplanes and cruise ships… it’s delivered to your door…it’s pre-crafted, frozen, and reheated… and it’s made from scratch at home.
There are different crusts, different sauces, different toppings, different regional varieties, and even different shapes.
It has been estimated that on any given day, 13% of this country’s population is consuming pizza.
So, when did it all start? When was pizza introduced to America?
Before we answer that question, let’s briefly look at the historical origins of the dish.
It’s widely agreed that flatbreads, in one form or another, first appeared about 12,000 years ago in various Mediterranean civilizations. The Greek word “pita” (which appears to be the forerunner to the word “pizza”) means “pie”, and there is significant evidence to suggest that the Greeks brought a rudimentary flat, round, cheese pie with them when they landed on the shores of southern Italy somewhere around 800 BC.
This also explains why Naples, a coastal city in southern Italy, is considered the birthplace of what we recognize today as pizza, when the word itself was brought into popular usage in the 16th century.
Of course, pizza went through a series of changes between then and its first appearance in the United States, centuries later. It was in the 1700s when tomatoes were first added to the crust, and in the 1800s the transformational (almost magical) addition of mozzarella is said to have taken place.
Historians, by and large, consider Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba to be the world’s first recorded pizzeria. It opened in Naples in 1830 and, amazingly, this tiny historical hole in the wall is still in business today!
But let’s jump ahead in time a little and address the question of when did pizza become popular in the U.S.?
The great immigration boom between 1880 and 1920 saw 20 million people leave their homeland and come to the United States in search of a better life. Roughly four million of those immigrants were from Italy. They brought with them their history, their culture, and (to the everlasting benefit of our appetites and our tastebuds) their culinary favorites, including pizza.
As the landing point for most of immigrant population, New York City and its various boroughs became the epicenter for pizza’s evolution (and ultimately, revolution) in the United States.
Initially, pizza was made in homes to feed family members, but over time, some unlicensed “unofficial” venues began to appear in various parts of the city. Pizza was cheap to make, as well as being tasty and filling.
Eventually, the popularity of the dish grew to the point where (according to folklore) the first licensed pizzeria in the United States opened in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood in 1905.
The restaurant was G. Lombardi’s, and it was the brainchild of a Neapolitan immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi. Lombardi took the basics of the pizzas he used to enjoy back in Naples, but cooked them in coal/charcoal-fired oven instead of the wood-fired ones of his home town.
Although there’s little dispute about the timeframe and the location, not everyone agrees that Lombardi was New York’s pizza pioneer. Some bestow that honor on a man named Filippo Millone, while others feature a pizza maker named Giovanni Santillo.
Whoever it was that truly opened the first pizzeria in the United States, the success of that business (combined with the low cost of ingredients and the relative ease of learning the traditional cooking methods) saw more and more pizzerias opening up, not just in New York, but in other major population centers all across the country.
As this new raft of American pizzerias put their own spin on how the dish was prepared and made, they also created a whole new model for the way it was purchased and served. The introduction of the pizza “slice” meant that people no longer had to buy an entire pie. Pizza could now be eaten “on the go”, which just added to its versatility and widespread appeal.
Pizza in the United States was off and running, and it was here to stay!
As of 2021, there were just over 75,000 pizza restaurants throughout the nation, and those restaurants generated more than 45 billion dollars! In case you weren’t aware, pizza is a big deal…a very big deal.
If the pizza slice was an invention that had an incredible impact on the popularity of the dish, the introduction of home delivery was just as significant.
The ability to order a pizza of your choice over the phone, then have it delivered to you (still warm) at home or work or wherever, was a game changer.
The world’s first recorded pizza delivery is the stuff of legend. As the story goes, it took place in 1889 in Naples, of course! There are numerous version of how and why the delivery took place, but the basics of the story are as follows: Queen Margherita and King Umberto of a newly unified Italy were visiting Naples and the Queen requested to sample some local fare. Of course, in Naples that meant pizza.
The city’s pre-eminent pizza maker, Raffaele Esposito, was tasked with making a pizza fit for a queen and delivering it to the royal chambers. The great man (often considered to be the father of modern pizza) duly created a patriotic masterpiece featuring red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. Red, white, and green are the colors of the Italian flag, and that classic pizza is now universally known as a Margherita.
So, when did pizza delivery start in the United States, and where did the first pizza delivery happen?
To be honest, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact time and place. There may have been isolated cases of restaurants delivering pizza in the post-WWII era, as car ownership became more commonplace. But it’s generally acknowledged that the 1960s was the decade that pizza delivery became a widely accepted practice.
Frozen pizza is yet another example of the dish’s versatility and popularity. Just as the rapid increase in personal automobile ownership kickstarted pizza delivery, the uptake in popularity of home refrigerators in the late 1940s and early 1950s made the frozen pizza boom possible.
The first recorded sale of a frozen pizza seems to have occurred in 1950 in a handful of Boston grocery stores. The item was branded as Pizza Roma, and in truth, it was more a refrigerated product than a frozen one. Pizza Roma may not have been the pinnacle of culinary excellence, but it was a starting point.
Today, the very best frozen pizzas are unrecognizable from early offerings. They are curated and crafted by world-class chefs, and they feature quality ingredients and restaurant quality crusts, with the convenience of going from freezer to table in next to no time.
Of course, whether your pizza is frozen, delivered, home-made, or ordered in a restaurant, the ultimate question always remains: what style of pizza do you prefer?
The classic, time-honored debate is New York style (thin, flexible crust, with slices made to be folded in the hand) versus Chicago style (thick, moist crust formed up the sides of a deep-dish pan, with a rich tomato sauce added last.)
But, in reality, the choice of pizza style is far from a decision between just two contenders. Multiple cities, regions, shapes, and methods lay claim to being the “ultimate” pizza. California, Detroit, Greek, grilled, New Haven, sheet, Sicilian, the list goes on. All different, all unique in some way or other, and all delicious.
As we’ve just outlined, pizza (in all its forms) in the United States has a rich and colorful history. But what next? What does the future hold? On the surface, pizza seems like a very simple, traditional dish with little scope or need for improvement.
To some extent, that’s true. But modern day pizza is also a dish that will continue to subtly change and evolve in sync with improvements in culinary technology, nutritional data, dietary challenges, delivery systems, storage and packaging capabilities, and the ever changing tastes of consumers. Innovative pizza makers across the nation are committed to using bold new ingredients to create unique new flavor pairings. Cooking techniques are also undergoing a creative evolution.
Scottie’s Pizza Parlor in Portland, Oregon is a good example. They top their distinctive, tangy sourdough crusts with a non-traditional blend of house-made ricotta and mozzarella, before baking the pie in two stages. The first high-heat bake creates color and chew, before the pie is transferred to a lower temperature oven to create a crispy, crunchy texture.
Pizza is beloved in this country. Its popularity is no accident. It has earned its place in U.S. culinary and cultural landscape by virtue of its versatility, convenience, affordability and taste. Because of the huge variety of styles, crusts, and toppings, your pizza can be whatever you want it to be.
And when it comes to pizza, it’s all good.