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Pizza: Neapolitan Origins of a Worldwide Culinary Phenomenon

The word “pizza” can be traced back about a thousand years to the southern Italian town of Gaeta, where it was first documented in 997 CE, but a flattish sort of bread with toppings has been enjoyed by lots of other cultures going back to very ancient times.

Pizza as we know it today comes from Naples, but the Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks all had their version in previous epochs. Seeing as Naples was founded by the Greeks, it’s only natural that “plakous” should carry on in Neapolitan society, evolving in its own Neapolitan way, of course.

Pizza’s Origins as Working-Class Street Food in Naples

In the 16th Century, pizza was street food for the poor, working-class citizens of Naples but it wasn’t the lovely pie baked in a wood-burning oven that we associate with pizza today. In times past, a pizza in Naples was a thin cake of dough fried in oil, usually over a flame and frequently at some sort of stand right in the street outside someone’s home.

In the 1954 Italian movie, “L’oro di Napoli,” you can see brilliantly evocative scenes of this, with a very young and very fetching Sofia Loren playing the role of the pizzaiola. (In real life, pizza-making was a real passion for Loren, who talked about pizza a lot and shared her love of the craft through a number of cookbooks.)

The Spread of Pizza-Popularity in the 20th Century

In Italy

Until the mid-20th Century in Italy, pizza was pretty much limited to the Naples area. It didn’t become widely consumed throughout its home country until the 1940s.

In the United States

Interestingly, pizzerias had been springing up in the United States since just after the turn of the century! In places like New York City, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, the influx of Neapolitan immigrants who had come to America to work in factories gave birth to pizza culture on the other side of the ocean.

The first licensed pizzeria in the US opened in 1905 — Lombardi’s on Spring Street in Manhattan — but homemade pizzas were surely being served up to immigrant workers on the streets of New York for many moons before that. Lombardi’s pizzeria is still in operation, albeit in a different location, and supposedly with the original pizza oven.

It is widely said that US troops returning from tours of duty in Italy during WWII started the spread of pizza popularity in America, but this is refuted by some experts. One thing is for sure: by the 1960s, pizza popularity was galloping along in America, even being featured in a hilarious episode of Popeye the Sailor entitled “Popeye’s Pizza Palace”.

In Canada: The Ultimate Twist

Moving north to Canada, we come across perhaps the ultimate modern twist on pizza making.

Restauranteur Sam Panopoulos, inspired by the mix of sweet and savory in Chinese cuisine, created the Hawaiian pizza, adding pineapple, ham, and bacon to the base of tomato sauce and cheese. Although it did not get off to a roaring start, Hawaiian pizza eventually took the world by storm, and nowadays all sorts of innovative agrodolce pizzas can be found everywhere from chic restaurants to neighbourhood bars.

It is curious that the inventor of this modern pizza craze was of Greek origins. One might say that it’s just a continuation of the long story of Neopolitan pizza that began when the Greeks settled Neapolis in 600 BCE.

Present-Day Pizza Stats

At present, about 13% of the American population consumes pizza on any given day. That comes out to around 350 slices per second! Not bad for a food once considered “disgusting” by Italian food snobs. If these critics could only see the ubiquitous success of pizza in the world today, they would surely be eating their words.

DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around Naples or the Amalfi Coast with a private car and driver (recommendation for their pizzeria of choice included). Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.

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