The Origins of Pizza

Pizzerias were an exclusive Neapolitan phenomenon until the end of the 19th century, before they started spreading across North America and other parts of the world with the onset of Italian immigration around the globe.                  

While the word “pizza” literally means pie, various explanations have been put forward about the origins of the term.

By some accounts, it derives from the Roman term “picea”, a type of bread, which later was called “piza” and then “pizza”. Other versions imply that “pizza” comes from “pitta”, a type of flat bread that the Byzantines introduced in Italy. Some scholars argue that the word “pizza” derives from the Greek word “plax”, meaning a flat or flattened surface.

The Etruscans and the Greeks developed prototypes of pizza, as did the Romans. They made a version of flatbread that resembled pizza (e.g. focaccia). However, it was in Naples that the modern pizza was created – circular pizza is synonymous with pizza napoletana – and where tomatoes were introduced as a topping.

Despite the famous love affair between Italians and pomodori, tomatoes were once considered a poisonous fruit. They were first introduced from the New World in the 15th century and were of poor quality and taste. It took over 200 years before Italians adopted them in their daily diet. It was only by the end of the 18th century that a big and sweet tomato (San Marzano) was finally developed in the area of Naples and used as a pizza topping.

By the end of the 19th century, pizza also became popular among aristocrats. One of its most influential fans was Queen Margherita of Savoy.

Legend has it that when the Queen visited Naples in 1889, tired of traditional French cuisine, Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito was asked to prepare three different kinds of pizzas for her. She chose the pizza topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella as her favourite and soon after, this particular pizza became known as “Pizza Margherita.”


written by Giuseppe De Cesare