So is pizza Italian or American?
A cross-cultural history.
Any historian will tell you pizza was born in Italy. If they’re worth their salty anchovies they’ll also tell you there’d be no pizza without America. The pie has an amazing cross-Atlantic history.
We also have to get the Greeks in there. Most historians give the Greeks credit for baking various ingredients on top of flatbread. Stealing everything from the Greeks, the Romans adopted the food and called it “hearth bread”. While the crust made of flour, water, yeast, salt and olive oil is the same crust recipe we use today. A recently discovered mural at Pompeii shows a round pizza crust with to toppings that appear to be mushrooms and fish, but without the cheese or New World tomatoes.
The real birthplace of modern-day pizza was the impoverished city of Naples (Italy, not Florida). The word pizza first appeared in the area about 1000 AD. But the fun didn’t start until tomatoes were imported from the New World. Then, the peasantry would roll out a large thin dough and top it with tomatoes and remnants of fish or anchovies. The kids would then tote the pie down to the local baker, who (for a modest fee) would bake it. This led to making the largest pie possible in order to feed big families.
Pizza got a boost when Margherita, the beloved Queen of Italy, became hooked. And the Margherita—a pizza topped with fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil—was named in her honor.
During the golden age of US immigration in the late 1800s, the peasantry of Naples brought the concept of pizza across the Atlantic to New York and embellished it with various meats, vegetables and cheeses. As it was in Italy, pizza was a staple among the poor Neopolitanos of New York but didn’t extend beyond the enclaves in the boroughs.
Ironically while pizza was thriving in NYC, its popularity was slumping in Italy. As a matter of fact it was nearly banned by Mussolini, who was pushing rice over wheat production. The populace pushed back as much as they could against the fascists and returned to pasta and bread when the war was over. With wheat rations appearing, making dough was more economical than making pasta, so pizza made a big comeback. US GI’s stationed in Italy fell in love with a nice slice or two. On returning home they were told by the owners of Italian restaurants that they didn’t make pizza since it was peasant food. Eventually they wore down the owners and pizzerias started proliferating beyond the Big Apple.
By the 1960’s in Italy, ugly American tourists were demanding pizza. Again they were told it was peasant food. But entrepreneurial Italians found pizza was more cost-effective than pasta and opened pizzerias there to meet demand.
Today pizza is much more popular in the US than Italy. By the 1990s pizza in America seemed to become its own food group with Sicilian, Chicago, deep-dish, California, calzones, topped flatbreads, etc. And we can’t leave out quesadillas the Mexican equivalent to a calzone. Though claimed to be Mayan or Aztec in origin, the concept has only been in the American vernacular since Taco Bell introduced them in 1994.
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