The History of Pizza: From Street Food to Global Commodity to Cultural Heritage

Pizza is one of the most popular and historic dishes in the world and comes in many forms. The industrialization of pizza has led to the loss of knowledge about traditional pizza making, thus there has been a focus on “local” and traditional pizza in recent history. Let’s explore pizza origins and development up to current times.


The origin of the term “pizza” is debateable. It may derive from the Greek word “plax”, indicating a flat or flattened surface. Some scholars argue that it derives from the Latin verb “pinsere”, meaning to crush or grind. Indeed, during Roman times, the bakers were called Pistores (“Pasta and Pizza”, La Cecla, 2007).

Modern pizza, which featured tomatoes, was born in Naples in the 18th century and, at that time, there were two main types of pizza: Margherita and Marinara. The former is made mozzarella, basil and tomatoes; the latter with garlic, oregano and tomatoes. 

Pizza used to be eaten by poor people on the streets during weekdays. At that time, it was not well seen by the middle classes and by those coming from outside of Naples (“Pizza: A Global History”. Helstoski, 2008).


The Tuscan writer Carlo Collodi, famous for his book The Adventures of Pinocchio, described pizza in the following way: “The blackened aspect of the toasted crust, the whitish sheen of garlic and anchovy, the greenish yellow tint of the oil and fried herbs, and the bits of red from the tomato here and there give pizza the appearance of complicated filth that matches the dirt of the vendor” (cited in Helstoski). In 1831, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, defined pizza as“a species of most nauseating cake covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what ingredients” (cited in Helstoski). In fact, in its infancy, pizza was a sort of popular “fast-food”.


This is confirmed by the fact that in Naples there was the “pizza a otto” customary system, which allowed people who could not afford to pay for pizza immediately to reimburse the merchant eight days later. The first pizza kitchens were created between the late 17th and early 18th century in Naples. They were places were “the dough was worked and cooked and passers-by could buy a pizza” (La Cecla).


One of the first pizzerias was “Zi Ciccio”, which dates back to 1727. Other famous historic pizzerias of Naples include Capasso, Port’Alba, Da Pietro, Ntuono, Da Michele and Sorbillo. The origins of the “Pizza Marinara”, on the other hand, are humble. According to legend, hungry Neapolitan Marinari (i.e. sailors) ate for breakfast a type of pizza that eventually took their name.

By the end of the 19th century, pizza became popular also among aristocrats. One of the most influential pizza enthusiasts was the Queen Margherita of Savoy. According to some accounts, the Queen visited Naples in 1889 and Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo Raffaele Esposito was asked to prepare three different kinds of pizza. The Queen chose the pizza topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella as her favourite. This particular pizza, soon to become known as “Pizza Margherita”, represented Italy quite well, as the colors of the ingredients (green, white and red), were the same of the Italian flag.

Pizza Marinara


During the course of the 20th century, Italian migration led to the spread of pizza worldwide, especially to North America (e.g. in Montreal, as shown in the video at the end of this post!).  Given the simplicity of this dish, Italian migrants could easily replicate it in foreign countries introducing new ingredients and adding new flavours. 
In the United States, pizza became a very popular fast food. Many pizza outlets gained success in the second half of the century and pizza quickly became a global and cosmopolitan dish, no longer synonymous with Neapolitan food and culture. In fact, it adapted to the cultures where it was introduced. 



Pizza quickly became a ready-to eat meal as frozen pizzas allowed consumers to prepare it quickly and enjoy it at home. So, the preparation and consumption of pizza has changed dramatically in the last century. Many pizzerias now make use of electric oven, instead of wood-fired oven, also due to legal restrictions that forbid the construction of new wood-fired ovens. Also, consumers often eat pizza far away from the place of production. In the last few decades, however, there have been several efforts to promote and safeguard traditional Neapolitan pizza


In 1984, the Associazione Verace PizzaNapoletana (AVPN) was created with the purpose of promoting and preserving the traditional way of making pizza, which involves artisanal work by the Pizzaioulo and the use of wood-fired oven. This association created a disciplinary that sets rules on how the traditional Neapolitan pizza is made and asked for its legal protection from the European Union (EU).
In 2009, Neapolitan pizza became a TSG (Traditional Speciality Guaranteed) product according to the PGS (Protected Geographical Status) framework adopted by the EU law to protect traditional food products. 
On December 7th, as we have seen in the previous post, the traditional art of the Neapolitan pizzaiuolo has been finally included in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list, also thanks to campaign #pizzaunesco.
In 2011, another association named Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani lobbied the Italian ministry of agricultural, food and forestry policies to have “The Traditional Art of Naples’s Pizzaiuoli” in the UNESCO’s representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity to raise awareness about this ancient tradition worldwide.


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