Pizza’s Tasty and Colorful History
The modern version of pizza originated in the late 19th century, but its origins can be traced back to the flavored flatbreads of the Mediterranean. It is known that the Babylonians, Israelites, Egyptians and other ancient Middle Eastern cultures ate unleavened bread that had been cooked in mud ovens. Records of people adding spices and other ingredients to bread can be found throughout ancient and medieval history including Greece and Rome.
The innovation that gave us the particular flat bread we call “pizza” was the use of tomatoes as a topping. When the tomato was first brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, it was believed to be poisonous. But by the late 18th century, poor peasants in Naples, Italy, had started adding tomatoes to their yeast-based flat bread. Thus, the pizza was born. The dish gained in popularity, and visitors to Naples would venture into the lower class areas of the city in order to try the local specialty.
Pizzas were originally sold from open-air stands and street vendors. The first dine-in pizza restaurant, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba in Naples, opened in 1830 and is still serving pizza today. They hand-knead the dough and bake their pizzas in a wood-fired, domed oven. Naples pizzas are round and soft, in contrast to Rome where they prefer thin and crispy pizza baked in rectangular trays.
According to pizza purists, there are only two types of authentic Neapolitan pizza. “Marinara,” the oldest, has a topping of tomato, oregano, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and basil. This pizza got its name because fishermen liked to eat it when they returned home from the Bay of Naples. “Margherita” pizza was created by pizza chef Raffaele Esposito and named in honor of the Queen. This pizza was decorated with the colors of the Italian flag – green (basil leaves), white (mozzarella cheese), and red (tomatoes).
Pizza was introduced to the United States with the arrival of Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Vendors sold pizza on the streets of Italian neighborhoods in large cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. The first “official” pizzeria in America is disputable, but it is generally believed to have been founded by Gennaro Lombardi in Little Italy, Manhattan.
It wasn’t until World War II that pizza became popular among the general population. Allied soldiers occupying Italy discovered the local pizzerias and developed a taste for the dish. The American troops brought their appreciation for pizza back home, and thus the modern pizza industry was born.
In 1943, Ric Riccardo pioneered what became known as the Chicago-style deep dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, Illinois. In 1948, the first commercial “Roman Pizza Mix” was produced in Worcester, Massachusetts, by Frank Fiorillo. A generation later, Tom Monaghan launched Domino’s Pizza, a pioneer in home delivery.
With the rising popularity of pizza, chain restaurants soon moved in. Early dine-in pizza parlors were Shakey's Pizza, founded in 1954 in Sacramento, California, and Pizza Hut, founded in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas. The California Pizza Kitchen, Godfather's Pizza, and Round Table Pizza came later. Today, the American pizza business is dominated by companies such as Domino’s, Little Caesar’s, and Papa John’s that specialize in pizza delivery and takeout.
Modern variations on the original pizza pie include: pan pizza, stuffed crust pizza, thin crust pizza, thick crust pizza, whole wheat crust, and bagel crust. The concept has also taken on many other forms such as Calzones (half the dough is topped then the other half folded over to form a large half-moon shaped Pizza Pocket), Mexican Pizza (a pizza dough topped with chili or taco filling, shredded Cheddar, chopped onions, tomatoes and Jalapeno peppers), Spaghetti Pizza, Ice Cream Pizza, as well as pizza-flavored items such as Potato Chips and Jelly Beans!
Pizza is enjoyed by both kids and adults of all ages, who eat an average 23 pounds of pizza, per person, per year. Million of pizza pies are eaten daily, and you can find a pizza place on almost every corner. Pizza is a fun-to-eat dish that can be plain or fancy, with or without toppings, and great for special occasions or every day. Pepperoni and cheese is the favorite combination, and pizza is second only to the hamburger as America’s favorite food.
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