The history of pizza is a large pie—half Margherita and half lies.
The most famous story about its origins, in which the classic tri-color pie was created to honor Queen Margherita of Savoy, is a work of fiction. U.S. soldiers did not fall in love with pizza en masse during their time fighting World War II and bring it back to the States. And the pizza in New York is not good because of the magical tap water.
The real, verifiable history of pizza is even cooler than the bunkum that often passes in its place. Let’s take a look at some iconic pizza styles, stopping along the way to snack on slices of real pizza history—from the time Kim Jong Il flew a pizzaiolo into North Korea to why some people think the delicious dish’s invention should be credited not to the Italians, but to the Greeks.
The Uncertain Origins of the Margherita pizza
In 2014, newly-elected New York mayor Bill DeBlasio set off a small international incident when he was photographed eating his pizza with a knife and fork. Jon Stewart was one of many to come out against DeBlasio’s tidy choice, calling it “the greatest sin a New Yorker can commit.” Future president Donald Trump was convicted in the court of public opinion for the same cutlery crime back in 2011.
In DeBlasio’s case, he defended himself with an appeal to his Italian heritage, saying, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and knife.” Sure enough, if you sit down at a pizzeria in Naples, you’ll be served an uncut pie and the silverware to eat it with.
Still, according to a YouGov poll conducted in the wake of the (mostly) faux outrage over DeBlasio’s dining habits, over 90 percent of Americans eat pizza with their hands. So, was the then-mayor wrong? Right?
The answer is both, and that’s because pizza is at once internationally recognizable and completely regional. That’s why some people look at a Hawaiian pie and see the greatest crime ever committed to leavened bread and others see a beautiful story about immigration, intercultural influence, and innovation (or, at least, lunch).
Let’s start with the Neapolitan pie, from what is often called the birthplace of pizza: Naples, Italy. That’s where the Queen Margherita story comes from. It supposedly took place in 1889, at a pizzeria that was once called Pietro e basta cosi, or “Pietro and that’s enough.”
In the more dramatic version of the legend, the Savoyard Queen of newly unified Italy helped bring the country together by eating the people’s humble food—a food that conveniently shared a color scheme with the flag that had ruled different parts of the country since the late 18th century.
Sure enough, there once was a pizzeria with that name, although the establishment—still making pies today—is now called Brandi. There was a Queen Margherita, too, and she might have had what we now call a Margherita pie. Pizzeria Brandi certainly has a plaque on their wall that attests to the fact.
Unfortunately, the pizza now known as margherita predates this supposedly royal birth. As Neapolitan (human, not pizza) Giuseppe A. D’Angelo wrote for his website Pizza Dixit, we can find “a pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil” in the 1853 book Usi e Costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti (Customs and Habits from Naples described and depicted).
So maybe the pizza wasn’t invented for the Queen, but was named in her honor? That may be so, but it’s not clear it happened at Pizzeria Brandi. And if the name does date back to 1889, it didn’t exactly take the city by storm.
Even almost a hundred years after the Queen was supposedly honored with the pizza shoutout, it doesn’t seem like everyone knew what the Margherita pie was, even in Naples. D’Angelo links to a 1967 RAI broadcast, in which a TV reporter from Naples seems confused about what a margherita pie is—he thinks it has an egg in the middle. The pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, he’s talking to has to clarify, “There is indeed a pizza with the egg, but [it] is not called Margherita anymore.”
We’ll probably never know who invented the Margherita pie, or its humble sibling, the Marinara—which is topped simply with tomatoes, oil, garlic, and salt (though it often has oregano, and can be relatively gussied up with anchovies).
The thing that makes both labels so tricky to track is that pizza names weren’t necessarily a thing back in the 19th century. According to food historian Tommaso Esposito, up until the mid-20th century, pizzas were usually ordered by simply listing the ingredients you wanted on top. Esposito wrote a book all about pizza songs (yes, that’s a thing) from the 16th century up until 1966 and found that none of the songs mentioned specific pizza types by name. It’s true that the absence of proof is not the same thing as the proof of absence, but it does seem notable that there’s no written record of a Margherita pizza being called “Margherita” in the late 19th- or early 20th-century.
As evidence for their claim, Pizzeria Brandi points to a royal letter purportedly written by Galli Camillo, the “Head of the Table of the Royal Household.” That letter, though, never refers to any particular pizza’s name; it certainly doesn’t use the phrase pizza Margherita. It also might be a forgery, according to a piece by the Umbra Institute’s Zachary Nowak. There’s no evidence of the letter in royal records, and it doesn’t seem to match other samples of Camillo’s handwriting.
That’s the thing about Neapolitan pizza, though: It sort of encourages obsession. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana—or “The True Neapolitan Pizza Association”—publishes a set of what it calls International Regulations [PDF]. And they aren’t what you’d call loosey-goosey.
The AVPN permits, in the dough of its accredited pizza-makers, a maximum of 20 percent regular flour, as opposed to their preferred 00 flour, which “has an almost talcum-powder like appearance, white, fine and … completely free of bran or germ.” They allow a 7 percentage point range in dough hydration and have thoughts about your P/L (“the balance between dough elasticity and plasticity”), your fermentation process, and your tomatoes (which preferably come from one of three places in Italy). They are interested in only two types of pizza—Margherita and Marinara.
Let’s touch on that second style briefly. There are several popular stories for its name, which is Italian for “mariner”—so, it presumably meant something like “sailor style.” One explanation says that’s because sailors could bring the ingredients on long journeys. Another story says that it was due to the humble ingredients, which even low-paid sailors could afford. Whether that’s true or not, it points to pizza’s longtime role as a highly affordable meal. Pizza in Italy likely started as an easy-to-make, cheap offering from bakers, who could quickly cook up the simple dough and then sell it on the street for pennies.
What Makes a Pizza a Pizza
Neither of those two famous Neapolitan pie varieties would have been possible without tomatoes. They first appeared in Italian cookbooks in the late 17th century, but were introduced to the continent a century earlier by the Spanish.
When we think of pizza today, tomatoes—a crop the Aztecs had introduced to the Spanish—often seem like an essential ingredient. The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, defines pizza as a dough “baked with a topping of tomatoes, cheese, and any of various other ingredients.”
Anyone who’s ever had a white pie might blanche at that definition. The OED actually acknowledges, in an addendum, that some types of pizzas omit one or both of the tomatoes and cheese.
That almost certainly includes the first pizzas ever called “pizza.” There’s a written record from Gaeta, about 60 miles up the coast from Naples, dating back to the end of the 1st millennium CE. It lays out an agreement in which someone owes a local bishop 12 pizzas every Christmas and Easter Sunday. The closest tomatoes, at that point, were across the Atlantic Ocean.
We don’t have any way to know exactly what that proto-pizza looked or tasted like, but consider what the simplest version of a pre-Columbian-Exchange pizza might entail: a simple Mediterranean flatbread. Kind of like … a pita.
Plenty of sources think this is no accident, and draw a linguistic line straight from pita to pizza. That’s not the only possible etymology for the word, though. Some claim it comes from the Germanic Lombards, related to their word bizzo, or “bite.” A 1907 Italian etymology book ties it to pinza, which meant something like “clamp.” Whichever is true, there’s something revealing about the pita/pizza similarity.
People around the world have been making flatbreads of one type or another for thousands of years. The cultivation of grains like wheat is inextricably linked to the rise of civilization, and it doesn’t take a Little Caesar to put some tasty morsels on top of whatever simple bread you’ve got around.
If we define pizza as a flatbread with toppings, we can imagine it being “invented” more or less independently by the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Natufians (from modern-day Jordan, who were apparently making bread more than 14,000 years ago). It’s difficult to say how, precisely, it ended up in Naples, but—in a tentative nod towards the pita/pizza hypothesis—the Italian city was originally founded by the Greeks, who gave it the name Neapolis around 600 BCE.
From Figs to Canned Pineapple
In Italy today, you can find different versions of tomato-less and/or cheese-less pizza. The most famous may be the Roman pizza bianca, which looks a lot like focaccia bread. It’s prepared differently than focaccia, though, and cooked in a hotter oven; it’s also said to have crust that’s lighter and crunchier than traditional pizza crust.
Pizza bianca is often split in half and stuffed with tasty fillings like mortadella, cheese, or vegetables. The idea of putting something delicious inside a pizza-like bread likely dates back thousands of years. According to Franceso Duscio’s La Romanesca, enslaved people in Ancient Rome used figs for this purpose.
Figs might seem like an odd choice for a poverty food, but if you’ve ever had a neighbor with a fig tree, you’ll understand how they could grow to be abundant on Roman streets, which they reportedly were in antiquity. Even today, there’s an Italian expression, mica pizza e fichi—literally, “not pizza and figs”—that can be used to say something is valuable, or not totally simple.
Eventually, pizza with figs became popular beyond those who ate it out of economic necessity. Wealthier eaters embellished the simple dish with prosciutto, creating a new variation that harkens back to pizza’s historical roots and remains popular today. Its flavors are a study in contrast: The sugar in the figs counteracts the fat of the ham, creating a delicious, salty-sweet synergy—the same kind that can be found in a Hawaiian pie. And while fresh figs and delicious prosciutto might sound a little more appealing than canned pineapples and American ham, the similarities between the two salty/sweet pies should, perhaps, cause culinary snobs to reconsider their pizza prejudice.
The Hawaiian pie was invented in 1962, according to most accounts, by Sam Panopoulos, a restaurateur living in Ontario. Sam was originally from Greece, and the boat he left on stopped, fortuitously, in Naples, where he first became acquainted with pizza. Panopoulos did not then spend years perfecting a perfectly authentic Neapolitan pie. His restaurants weren’t pizzerias at all—they served middle-of-the-road fare like hamburgers and pancakes. Pizza, especially the Hawaiian pizza, was offered as a way to stand out from the crowd, to bring in business.
At the time, pizza didn’t have much of a profile in Canada. As Panopoulos said, “Even Toronto didn’t know anything about pizza in those days. The only place you could have pizza was in Detroit.”
Detroit to Chicago Deep Dish and Beyond
Gus Guerra is sometimes looked at as the father of Detroit-style pizza, which is said to date back to the 1940s. A Detroit pie looks a lot like Sicilian, but, according to tradition, is “baked in a blue steel pan like the ones that used to hold nuts and bolts in auto manufacturing plants.”
Whether or not Detroit-style pizzerias continue to employ that nod to the city’s automobile industry, the ideal Detroit pie has a lighter dough than its Chicago counterpart and crispy cheese around the sides. That delicious border is the result of the cheese—often a “Wisconsin brick cheese”—being sprinkled over the dough, edge-to-edge. It then caramelizes in the oven.
Chicago-style pizza is usually traced back to 1943, at Pizzeria Uno. The super-cheesy pies cooked for up to an hour and made use of a high-sided, buttery “pastry shell crust.” Additional fat is provided by the olive oil that the pizza is generally cooked in, creating a sort of fried outer crunch. To protect the cheese during that long baking time, the pie is usually constructed with the sauce on top of the mozzarella.
A different approach to that same long cook time may have given us Ohio Valley-style pizza. One of its defining features is the last-minute additions of cold toppings, including cheese.
Chicago-style pizza is sometimes called “deep dish” pizza. But even though it’s cooked in a pan, it’s not usually called “pan pizza.” That distinction belongs to its thicker-crusted cousin, which generally puts the cheese back on top of the sauce. If that sounds a little bit like something you can get at Pizza Hut, that’s no accident. The chain helped popularize what is often called pan pizza today. Brothers Dan and Frank Carney started their chain in Wichita, Kansas, during the middle of the previous century.
All of these thicker pizzas have a connection—if not historical, than at least spiritual—with what many in the States call Sicilian pizza. That square pie seems to descend from Sicilian sfincione, a mozzarella-free offering that is still popular in Sicily today. It’s usually topped with tomatoes and onions and can also include anchovies and grated caciocavallo cheese. Sfincione translates to something like “thick sponge.”
The so-called “Sicilian pie” in places like New York seems to be the result of immigrants from Sicily getting cheap access to mozzarella, perhaps influenced by their Neapolitan neighbors.
On the opposite end of the crust continuum, there’s St. Louis-style pizza. This version uses an unleavened dough, creating a crisp, cracker like texture. It’s usually topped with Provel, a processed cheese that combines qualities of provolone, swiss, and cheddar. Instead of big square slices or familiar triangles, St. Louis pies are often cut “tavern style,” a ready-to-share presentation that can be found throughout the Midwest.
And, of course, the United States isn’t the only place Italian immigrants have influenced the local cuisine. In Argentina, people eat fugazza con queso, a pizza with onion and cheese whose name derives from a version of the word focaccia.
In Italy, you can order pizza montanara, a fried variation on Neapolitan-style. Pizzaiolos drop the plain dough into hot oil to fry up, take it out, top it, and then finish it quickly in a traditional oven.
That’s not to be confused with pizza fritta, which is widely available in Naples. In this version of fried pizza, the non-dough ingredients aren’t toppings, but fillings. Everything gets folded into the dough and then fried up. Many say this variation came about, or at least got popular, during food shortages of World War II, as a way to make otherwise-undesirable ingredients palatable.
Popular Pizza Myths, Debunked
Those food shortages, incidentally, are why experts are dubious about the popular folk history that says pizza became popular in America after GIs tried it during the war. As food historian Simone Cinotto said, “There were no ingredients for making pizza and many of the ovens were actually destroyed by the bombings.”
Most American servicemen never ended up on the Italian mainland, and would most likely have had to sample pizza in conflict-ravaged Naples, since it wasn’t popular throughout the country. That’s not an impossibility, but probably not the primary cause of pizza’s world-wide domination in the next half-century. Sure enough, in 1947—two years after the war had concluded—The New York Times lamented, “The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew more about it.”
In the case of pizza fritta, the war and its attendant challenges may have contributed to the dish’s spread, but it certainly wasn’t the first fried dough in Italian cuisine. There are examples dating back to the 1500s, including an early version of zeppole, which can be sweet or savory.
Anyone who’s been to the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy knows that New Yorkers happily adopted zeppole. And, of course, they put their own spin on pizza.
Lombardi’s is often called the United States’ first pizzeria. Gennaro Lombardi opened it in Little Italy back in 1905, according to the restaurant’s website. Lombardi, like most of the first American pizzaiolos, learned his craft in Naples. So how did New York develop its own signature style?
According to Serious Eats, technology played a big part. Early 20th century New York pizza parlors used coal-fired ovens, which could reach the kind of rip-roaring temperatures found in Naples’s wood-fired analogues. They had the added benefit of saving space and money, since they burned more efficiently. The result was not an exact replication of Neapolitan pizza, but was close enough that it was generally served in the same fashion—in whole pies—and eaten immediately.
When Italian American immigrant Frank Mastro developed and began successfully selling a gas-burning pizza oven a few decades later, its temperature maxed out around 550 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to the 800 degrees or more achievable with coal and wood. The result is a slower-baking pie that dries out more. It might not have the ephemeral airiness of a great Neapolitan pie, but that drier pizza does have a longer shelf life. As pizza historian Scott Wiener said, “Pizza by the slice is—has to be—reheated most of the time. So that oven is a big deal.” In the ensuing decades, iconic slice shops started to proliferate throughout the five boroughs, and eventually throughout the country.
Though the oven may play a big role in New York-style pizza, the water—despite what you might hear—probably doesn’t. People say that New York tap water contains the perfect amount of trace minerals to create an ideal dough. There’s actually a certain amount of logic to this claim: relatively soft water, like New York’s, can taste different than hard water, and elements like calcium and magnesium can theoretically affect the gluten structure in bread, creating a tougher final product.
In practice, though, when J. Kenji López-Alt designed a semi-scientific experiment to test the effect of water hardness on the quality of pizza dough, he found no direct relationship between total dissolved solids in the water and final crust quality.
The “magical New York tap water” theory also takes a hit when you take into account the incredible pizza you can get in locations as far-flung as Naples, Italy, and Phoenix, Arizona. The latter is where Chris Bianco opened his first renowned pizzeria, helping to set off a nationwide interest in Neapolitan (sometimes dubbed Neo-Neapolitan) pizza made with high-quality ingredients in wood-fired ovens. In 2003, Bianco became the first pizzaiolo to win the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest.
About 15 months later, BBC Radio 3 documented a very different honor bestowed upon a pizza maker and culinary instructor named Ermanno Furlanis. He was flown from Italy to North Korea, under rather opaque circumstances, to teach military officers about making pizza. It’s hard to independently confirm the details of Furlanis’s account, for obvious reasons, but it is true that North Korea’s then-Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il, was known to be a gourmand—he actually opened the famine-ravaged country’s first pizzeria in 2009.
Furlanis’s story includes one incident in which his attentive pupils even asked to count the number of olives on one of his pies and measure the distance between them. It’s a funny detail, with potentially sinister socio-political undertones. But, in a way, measuring olive distance isn’t so far removed from the quest for authenticity that countless cooks have put themselves through.
Today, the attitude of some people in the food world towards “authenticity” is one of reservation, if not outright rejection. The notion of “authentic” can be slippery, given how much food and the way we relate to it is constantly changing. But pizza speaks simultaneously to both sides of this debate.
On the one hand, it took a healthy disrespect of tradition to invent delicious new creations like deep dish pizza, or even a white pie with prosciutto and figs. But on the other hand, there’s something beautiful about spending countless hours tinkering with just a few variables to create the perfectly authentic Neapolitan pie—even if we acknowledge that the rather strict definition of an authentic Neapolitan pie was invented by a non-profit organization founded in 1984.
Even stripped down to its core elements, no two days for a pizzaiolo are ever the same. The yeast is alive; the fire might as well be. Temperature and humidity change. In this context, authenticity has the potential to be more than an outdated marketing buzzword; it can refer to the meditative act of paying attention, of pursuing perfection, of reaching for an ideal that might only live in your own mind.
Some of the best pizza in New York today can be found at Lucali, in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Pies there start at $30 a pop. In Naples, meanwhile, an equally delicious offering can be purchased for about $6.
Part of that difference can be attributed to real estate: a two-bedroom apartment on the same block as Lucali sold in 2021 for almost $1.5 million; a similarly-sized place in Naples can go for a quarter of the price. Part of it comes down to cooking style: a true Neapolitan pie is made from a ball of dough between 200 and 280 grams and topped sparingly. When a New York Times writer weighed a single slice from Ray’s of Greenwich Village, it clocked in at about 240 grams.
Lucali was started by Mark Iacono, a Brooklyn-born marble worker who had never made pizza professionally or even been to Italy before he opened his shop. It’s true that the high prices at Lucali owe a debt to effective, no-frills marketing, and presumably unpaid celebrity endorsements from the likes of Beyoncé and David Beckham. But Iacono, for all his plaudits, seems caught between two worlds. His pizza is practically fine-dining, and yet he once said, “A good New York slice trumps every kind of pizza.”
Iacono’s love for the humble slice is no-doubt genuine, but to achieve the kind of pizza perfection he’s still churning out requires the kind of monastic devotion great pizzaiolos around the world have long-exhibited. After he signed his lease, it took Iacono more than two years of practicing his craft, in anonymity, before he felt he was ready to open up to the public.
His delicious plain pie refers—indirectly, tangentially, almost mythically—to the most traditional Neapolitan pizza, but he doesn’t call it a Margherita because, as a 2015 profile in the New York Times said, “Carroll Gardens isn’t Naples.”
Neapolitan is the one true pizza. And there is no true pizza. A plain pie should be a simple, affordable, working class food. And it should be celebrated for its artistry and valued accordingly. Half-margherita, half lies.
This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.