Pizza

Italians Avoided Pizza for Centuries—Tourism Changed Everything

Pizza’s dominance on the international gastronomic stage hinges not on a glorious past rooted in antiquity so much as an anthropological phenomenon that has come to be known as the “pizza effect.”

January 11, 2022
Photo by James Ransom

Sometime around the 12th century BCE, Troy fell to the Greeks. As the Roman poet Virgil recounts the story, the mythical hero Aeneas then fled his ravaged city aboard an uncooperative ship with a motley crew. The son of a goddess and a prince, he carried the ancestral burden of begetting a lineage of rulers in a foreign land. After many days at sea, Aeneas and his band disembarked on the shores of Latium (where many generations later, Rome would be founded). Exhausted and famished, they hastily prepared a meal. So hungry, the crew even ate their plates.

Admittedly, these plates would have been like trenchers, sturdy supports made of baked dough. When dry, they still posed a substantial dental challenge—akin to those ornaments made out of salt dough. In theory, they were edible, but eating your dishware was still considered uncouth. Aeneas looked on incredulously, as his men voraciously gnawed on their plates, like dogs with a rawhide bone, when suddenly he remembered the prophecy his father had foretold: When you find yourself in a foreign land and are so driven by hunger that you eat your own plates, that is when you can hope for home. They had found the “Promised Land.”

Tethering this myth to the origin of pizza is audacious to say the least, but some enterprising entrepreneurs have dared to do just that. Why go to such lengths? Pizza does have a long history in Italy, but its dominance on the international gastronomic stage hinges not on a glorious past rooted in antiquity so much as an anthropological phenomenon that has come to be known as the “pizza effect.”

This term was coined by anthropologist Agehananda Bharati in 1970. It captures the pattern that unfolds when an insignificant cultural item or practice is exported to another country, whereupon it achieves a level of success unheard of in the native country. The native country then looks on in befuddled amazement at the value placed on something they took for granted. The object in question is then reassessed and draped in romanticism. From the new perspective, a potentially lucrative tradition is born. The story of Italian pizza is the quintessential example of this phenomenon, but it reaches beyond food into all aspects of culture, from yoga to salsa music.


The word “pizza” appears in medieval Latin, but by the 16th century, throughout the Italian peninsula, the term referred mostly to rich, leavened breads. Often laden with butter and sweetened with dried fruit or compotes, they were not the flattened disks of dough topped with tomato sauce and cheese we’ve come to know (though most culinary traditions in Italy did have some form of focaccia or flatbreads). However, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that we see the first reference to pizza as an established object of trade, in a plea registered with the police by a pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, facing debtor’s prison.

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Neapolitan pizza as we know it did not have an inventor, per se. Rather, it was a socioeconomic phenomenon, evolved out of conditions that made the dish not only possible, but necessary. It was originally a street food—though in the 19th century, that term lacked every shred of the romanticism it holds today. For many of the poverty-stricken hordes of Naples, street fare was the only way of procuring a meal. Most dwellings lacked a kitchen, not to mention cutlery, so the ready-to-eat, flat, floppy, foldable disk with some tasty bits on top was ideal. Pizza quickly became associated with those who ate it, branding it from the start with connotations of poverty, filth, and disease.

“Made from a dense dough that burns but does not cook, and is covered with almost-raw tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and pepper: these pizzas, in many pieces that cost one soldo are entrusted to a boy who walks around to sell them on the street, on a movable table,” writes Matilde Serao in 1884’s The Bowels of Naples. “There he stays the whole day, with these slices of pizza which freeze in the cold, turn yellow in the sun, and are eaten by flies.”

According to legend, in 1889, Queen Margherita (consort to Umberto I, the second king of Italy) is said to have granted the request for the royal imprimatur on Neapolitan cheese pizza with basil, and in so doing, she allowed it to bear her name. Thereafter, the tricolored pizza (red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag) would be known as “la margherita”—a Cinderella story, ennobling a heretofore ignoble food. State archives, however, hold no record of this. The letter of approval, supposedly issued from the queen’s secretary, Camillo Galli, has recently been declared a forgery in an exacting work of culinary history sleuthing. In fact, it is unlikely that the queen ever saw pizza, let alone tasted it. But like the Aeneas myth, some stories are so good they make reality obsolete. The margherita would go on to become Italy’s go-to pizza. But not quite yet.

The 54 pizzerias registered in Naples in the early 19th century grew to 121 by 1900. By 1905, the word “pizza,” as we now understand it, finally landed in an Italian dictionary as, “the common name of a very popular Neapolitan food. It is, in substance, a sort of leavened sfoglia. Spread with tomato, fresh cheese, anchovies, etc., … and baked in the oven where it puffs up and cooks then and there.” Popular, perhaps, but only in Naples. Even with the fabricated blessing of a queen—considered the personification of grace and health—as well as local enthusiasm, every attempt to open a pizzeria in other parts of Italy ended in failure. Neapolitan pizza timidly started appearing in local cookbooks as a novelty, but it still couldn’t live down its shadowy past.


By the turn of the century, pizza had been exported to the U.S. along with Italian emigrants. It slowly became a thing as word got around in areas with high concentrations of immigrants from southern Italy, most notably New York. Still, even as late as 1931, there were detractors. In New Jersey’s Bergen Evening Record, journalist Simon Stylites writes, “A pizza is manufactured, as far as I can ascertain, by garnishing a slab of reinforced asphalt paving with mucilage, whale-blubber and the skeletons of small fishes, baking same to the consistency of a rubber heel, and serving piping-hot with a dressing of molten lava.”

However, after World War II, Italy witnessed a mass migration from south to north, with many leaving poor rural areas and the cramped conditions of urban settings for the security and promise of industrialized cities. As the flow of tourism started to pick up in Italy, foreigners expected to find pizza everywhere, not realizing that it was a culinary tradition confined to Naples. Suddenly, there was money to be made from the pizza trade. A lot of money, in fact.

The postwar decades in Italy were a time of unprecedented growth, referred to as the “economic miracle.” More and more Italians were able to participate in the leisure economy, and dictates of the dolce vita were often drawn from perceptions of American lifestyles. As tourists from around the world continued to profess their love for pizza, many Italians began to associate the dish with good times and money well spent with family and friends, from going to the beach to date night. Young or old, suddenly, everyone loved pizza.

Indeed, as I interviewed Italian women in their 90s for my book on Italian foodways, none of them had eaten pizza before 1960. For them, it was like a foreign food. Though they clearly still had misconceptions rooted in the classist history of the dish (even expressing concerns about whether those who’d prepared the pizza had washed their hands), once they tried it, they liked it.

Such a journey the once-humble dish has made. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, founded in 1984, operates with a mission to protect “true” Neapolitan pizza. Authorities from the AVPN travel the world certifying pizzerias with their stamp of approval—if, and only if, the pizza lives up to the gold standard of quality of this great historical tradition. Their rigorous criteria dictate that the pizza must be formed by hand, without the aid of a rolling pin, then quickly baked in a 905°F wood-burning oven for no longer than 90 seconds. In 2010, Neapolitan pizza achieved one of the highest honors: the E.U. and U.K.’s coveted TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) certification, which protects the right to use the name of the product only if it adheres to the registered production method. In 2017, the art of making the pizza was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Neapolitan pizza does not need to be buoyed up by legends of Aeneas and his dish-eating crew: It stands on its own merits with a glorious and colorful past.

Where is your favorite place to get Neapolitan pizza? Let us know in the comments.
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19 Comments

grsimari January 15, 2022
In 1893 the Genovese Agustín Banchero had a pizzeria in Buenos Aires. Pizza was very common when I was born 1948, and I still remember eating pizza when I was very young (4 or 5 years old). My parents told me about pizzerias on the famous calle Corrientes in Buenos Aires where they ate pizza when they started dating. By the early sixties, I can remember eating pizza almost everywhere. I'm not sure that the Americans had noticed pizza by then.
 
Maggie January 14, 2022
Maybe it's the title of this article that is offputting, or perhaps it's the reliance on American view of pizza, but it really does a disservice to the history of pizza as it relates to Naples. A far better look at the subject is in a recent article in the March 21 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, "Inside Naples’ World-Famous Pizza Culture". https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/naples-pizza-original-fast-food-180976992/
 
Campo January 14, 2022
Right on Maggie! Thanks for the Smithsonian article link.
 
chezjim January 18, 2022
I can't really agree about the Smithsonian article which is meandering and largely references modern pizza, not so much the history. It also uncritically passes on the Margherita myth, which has been thoroughly demolished here:
https://www.academia.edu/12208701/Folklore_Fakelore_History_The_Origins_of_the_Pizza_Margherita
Modernist Pizza includes a fairly good review of the history in its first volume. But it's a little pricey for most individuals. Overall, the first clear accounts I know of pizza - typically a disk of dough with some fish on it - come at the start of the nineteenth century (though the debtor story is documented just before that). Things like tomatoes only came along much later. The pizza places seem to have been low-priced dives, agreeable enough for those who couldn't afford better. But in considering attitudes outside Naples, it's important to consider the social relations between the north and south, a whole other issue.
 
Catherine January 13, 2022
What a hilarious sweeping statement in this headline… I’m not woke so having a good laugh. A word of warning though… la Regina Margherita di Savoia is surely rolling in her grave.
 
Doneating January 13, 2022
Odd how you partnered with Tillamook (Creamery) since they refuse to sell their 2-lb baby loaf mozerella cheese with vegan enzymes anywhere in the US. They chose to force American consumers to use pre-shredded with potato starch, allegedly to compete with the factory-made Kraft crap. They’ll sell the unshredded in Canada but not here. Ask them why.
 
Hmm. VPN pizza is quite simple and needs to be eaten right out of the wood oven. So maybe hard to find? Also, pizza is pedestrian in a good way, accessible to all. We're so fortunate to have access (here in the SF Bay) to the right ingredients, even 00 flour produced by our own Tony Gemignani, basil and tomatoes. Sometimes we make mozzarella from unpasteurized milk from cows in West Marin. I make pizza in a wood-fired oven at home, doing my best to adhere to the rules of VPN. If I spy a restaurant that has a wood-fired oven, and isn't super precious about what they serve, I give them a try (or truthfully I am stealing their ideas).
 
KingKarnivor January 13, 2022
Hey, I know that name, Tony Gemignani from the flat box! Respect The Craft! I loved Pizza Rock here in CapCitySac. Major bummer for me that it coronaed-out! I was getting my large all-meaters with mason jars of suds till its dying day! That stretch of K Street seems to wear an unshakeable curse though. If you come back, I suggest a spot in Midtown...say oh, anywhere inside the borders of J on the north, 28th on the east, S on the south, and 16th on the west, Ideally within five blocks of the crux of 24th & Q. Yes, Respect The Craft! - KK
 
Mis E. January 13, 2022
This story is a good example of using history to miss the point and to misinform. Pizza in anything like the form we know it did not exist before tomatoes -- a new world fruit -- arrived in Europe. There is zero evidence that Italians hated pizza. It was quite a popular food among the poor in Naples, appearing before Italy was united as one nation. It may have been looked down upon by certain wealthy Neapolitans, but it was nonetheless consumed by many in Naples. Perhaps the author interviewed the wrong 90-year-old women "who never ate pizza before 1960" and allegedly viewed it as foreign food.
 
Doneating January 14, 2022
That's always bothered me, too. I get a real bad buzzing when I hear Europeans make those claims of "it's traditional" when referring to ANY New World food in their "cuisine". Apparently, they only consider "traditional" to go back a few centuries at best yet claim to be the cradles of civilization or worse, humanity itself. Buggers! Ignorance becomes them.
 
Campo January 14, 2022
The 90 year olds who never ate pizza before 1960 were probably from the north of Italy, (above Rome). Southern Italians were considered a different, (lesser), race and those from the north looked down on them. That said Napolitans, (Neopolitans), and those in the Campania region, (Naples and it's surrounding towns), were enjoying pizza for decades before those 90 year olds did. (BTW: my family is from Napoli and Avellino, both in the Campania region). In America my favorite pizzeria is 21. Located at 21 Carmine Street in New York's Greenwich Village, (wood burning oven pizzeria, excellent Naples style pizza, owned and run by immigrants from Naples) In Italy, and Campania in particular, you can't go wrong wherever you go, but Brandi Pizza on the corner of via Chiaia and Salita S. Anna di Palazzo in Napoli is where the fabled event of Queen Margherita having the pizza named after her took place and they still make an excellent pie. Buon appetito!
 
joetunick January 13, 2022
My mother tells me of having great pizza as a kid, which would be in the mid-1920's in north western Connecticut. So pizza had obviously traveled out of NY city by then and wasn't as bad as depicted above. When I was in high school (late '60's) my mother commented that I was paying 25 cents a slice when she paid 25 cents for an entire pizza as a youth. Now my daughter pays $2.50 for a slice.
 
Jaybird January 13, 2022
"my mother commented that I was paying 25 cents a slice when she paid 25 cents for an entire pizza as a youth. Now my daughter pays $2.50 for a slice"

One word: inflation and money devaluation due to our ever increased national debt in the second half of the 20th century. For example, your daughter's $2.50 today would only be worth $.30 in 1968, a loss of 88% in buying power. However, your quarter in 1968 was still worth half that buying power at $.13 in 1925 for a 50% loss.
 
ROCPizzaGuy January 13, 2022
For what it's worth, my dad was in the U.S. Army in Italy from 1943-1945. He said he never once saw pizza. Granted, he wasn't in Naples, he went from Anzio northwards through Rome to the French border, but it's always made me question the story that returning GIs spurred the postwar growth of pizza in America. I don't get the impression it was all that widespread in Italy.
 
Jaybird January 13, 2022
It was brought back with us but not as pizza (as was oregano and introduced as a household spice which still stands as the most popular sold single spice). The soldiers experienced what we better know as focaccia which had that spice on it.

Additionally, further developing that doughy saucy herbed craving was said soldiers were eating MRE tins of spaghetti in tomato sauce. One of the food suppliers to the U.S. Army was a WWI-era Italian immigrant named Hector Boiardi. Since the end of WWII, we've seen his products on the store shelves under the name Chef Boyardee.

When the soldiers got back the the US, many with Italian heritage, wanted that back home. Many started their own pizzerias in NYC and Chicago. And the rest, as they say, is history.
 
KingKarnivor January 14, 2022
Spaghetti-Os! As sorry as that stuff is I still love it! Great for camping and canoeing, along with kipper snacks and Vienna Sausages!
 
Jaybird January 14, 2022
Spaghetti-Os is a Campbell's product not Chef Boyardee but close enough to the same stuff! I keep both brand products in the pantry as well as Vienna sausage on hand always. Once I was without power for nearly a week after a nasty winter storm in Atlanta back in the early 1990s and all stores were closed because nobody could drive anywhere. I lived off that stuff along with remaining canned soup and heated it up in my fireplace!
 
Gtaylor666 January 12, 2022
I remember very well when my future wife and I enjoyed Artichoke Pizza from a small storefront near David, in Florence, 1972,

Wonderful!

gary
 
Aw! That will likely be the best pizza you ever eat. Well done and I wish you many happy years (consecutive, even.)