Pizza, much like the earth itself, tricks us into thinking that it has been around forever. Like imagining a universe without our earth, picturing life without pizza seems impossible and almost paradoxical. But it's true. Pizza is a relatively new dish, one that didn't rise to ubiquity in the United States until after World War II. Amazingly, there was once a time when people had to have pizza explained to them.
In 1861, a “genial East Prussian” named Ferdinand Gregorovius explored Italy and wrote a compassionate history of the country. His notes were eventually translated into English in 1903, and it is in his writings about Campagna, a small southern town, that we encounter a formal description of pizza. "All the country people eat polenta, either in the form of soup or of cakes; they call it pizza," he explains. "If I meet a man on the road and ask him, 'What have you had for breakfast?' he answers, 'La pizza.' 'What are you having for supper?' 'La pizza.'" (I like the cut of your jib, amico.)
But the dish Gregorovius describes wouldn't exactly be familiar to modern-day pizza lovers: "The yellow porridge made with this meal is kneaded into a flat cake, and baked on a smooth stone, over the charcoal fire. It is devoured toasting hot ... salad of the plants that grow in the fields, with oil poured over them, is added." Pizza with tomato and cheese—pizza margherita—wasn't invented in southern Italy until later in the century, although the exact origins of how this happened are disputed.
Pizza arrived in America (specifically, New York) in the early 1900s, but pizza's first mention in the New York Times didn't come until September 20, 1944. Half their food column was dedicated to "Pizza, a Pie Popular in Southern Italy," and the focus was Luigino’s Pizzeria Alla, a midtown a restaurant that "prepares authentic pizza." The paper took great care in explaining how the dish was made, and it sounds like the pizza one would expect to eat today—tossed in front of customers and cooked in a coal-fired oven. Reading the piece, you can almost hear the gnashing teeth of the Times copy desk trying to decide whether or not to italicize "pizza" as a foreign word. They did not, and the dish's cultural assimilation would only continue.
(One publication that did italicize the meal was the New Yorker, who didn't start writing about pizza until the 1950s. In 1952, a one-sentence write-up dryly headlined “Incidental Intelligence” in their Talk of the Town section quipped about a stand that sold pizza "with Thomas’s English muffins as a base" during the San Gennaro festival.)
The paper of record seems to have always had a pro-pizza bias. In a 1947 full-page Times spread, food writer Jane Nickerson insisted that "pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it.”
This pizza ignorance became legal record when an upstate jury had to have pizza explained to them during a 1950 New York Supreme Court appellate hearing. (The hearing was about a disputed business transaction, not about pizza.) On the stand, defendant and Niagara Falls resident Louis H. Boniello was asked how he ended up at a casino and replied, “Mr. Robinson came over to a back door of the barber shop which is facing their property and asked me if I would drive him to the Boulevard Casino to get some pizza.” His defense attorney (and fellow Italian-American) Mr. Pusateri then interrupted, asking, “What is this pizza? I know what it is but some of the members of the jury may not know what it is.” Boniello replied, “It is a sort of Italian pie covered with tomatoes and anchovies, oil and olives and pepperoni and paste.”
The defense attorney's assumptions about the general public's knowledge of pizza were spot on. During the people's summation, prosecutor Mr. Miller recapped the previous exchange thusly: “He went out for Pizza, which I take it, is something to eat.”
That widely held ignorance was short lived. In 1956, the Times once again wrote about pizza, this time finding that “Italy’s famous pie now rivals the hot dog in popularity.”
Going from intriguing foreign dish to American cultural staple in just twelve years is pretty astounding—even for something as great as pizza.