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The history of pizza is not as clear-cut (into 8 slices) as you might imagine. Pizza history is actually filed with myths and half-truths. In this episode, host Justin Dodd peels back the cheesy surface to uncover the truth (and some of the more entertaining lies) about pizza's history.

He looks at who invented pizza, where pizza comes from, and much much more.


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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. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and now that I’ve  alienated half of the audience, I will attempt to argue that the real, verifiable  history of pizza is even cooler than the bunkum ‘n’ balderdash that often passes in its  place.

That’s right, bunkum ‘N’ balderdash! Here is an incomplete list of pizza styles  we’ll cover today: Neapolitan, New York, Sicilian, St. Louis, Ohio Valley—real  thing—Montanara, and Fugazza con queso.

We’ll find out why Kim Jong Il  flew a pizzaiolo into North Korea, analyze why a pie is so much cheaper in Naples,  Italy, than Naples, Florida, and even discuss why some people think the invention of pizza should be  credited not to the Italians, but to the Greeks! Uh oh a nonna is coming at me with a wooden spoon  and I don’t think it’s because she wants me to taste her Ragu. Let’s roll the intro.

INTRO 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.”   (And lest we be accused of pizza partisanship,  please note that 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? 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 I mentioned up top 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.” Yes. 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’ve had what we now call a Margherita  pie. Pizzeria Brandi certainly has a plaque on their wall that attests to the fact.

Or  to the fact that they knew a plaque guy. 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). We’ve linked to D’Angelo’s  website down below, by the way. It’s awesome.

OK, so maybe the pizza wasn’t invented for the  Queen, but 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 [emphasis very much added].” 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” (yet another career opportunity  I was unaware of when I picked college majors). 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.

Nowak also gets into the various types of royal seals Italian monarchs  were and were not known to use, but at that point we’re getting so far into the weeds of food  history that even I can’t go much deeper. 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.

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…I guess if the tomatoes were sun dried, that makes sense…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. 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. (For those of you playing Food History bingo, you can now mark off both “The  Columbian Exchange” and “Delicious dish that started as food for the poor.”) 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 a hundred kilometers up the coast from Naples, dating back to the  end of the first millennium CE. It lays out an agreement in which someone owes a local  bishop 12 pizzas every Christmas and Easter Sunday. Remember: 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  you’ll find 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. As we discussed in our episode about the most important foods of all time, 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 it ended up in  Naples, precisely, but I will note—in a tentative nod towards the pita/pizza hypothesis—that the  Italian city was originally founded by the Greeks, who gave it the name Neapolis around 600 BCE. 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 said to  have a “lighter and crunchier” 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. On a completely unrelated note: Hawaiian pizza is  the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody!   …OK, I’m not gonna lie: fresh figs and delicious  prosciutto does sound a little more appealing than canned pineapples and American ham, but 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. Sam … 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.” That has at least a little something to do with Gus Guerra, who is sometimes looked  at as the father of Detroit-style pizza. This is my favorite style of pizza, for the  record.

It’s 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,” yum—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.”  Finally, a sponge I can eat, free of judgment.

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,  we have 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.

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 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 a piece written by Ed Levine for  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. I think, today, the prevailing attitude of people  in the food world towards “authenticity” is one of reservation, if not outright rejection. This series certainly speaks to how slippery the notion of “authentic” is, given how  much food and the way we relate to it is constantly changing.

But pizza, I think, 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.

There’s something poetic about the almost Sisyphean task of trying to hit so many  moving targets at once. 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. For my money, the best pizza in New York today can be found at Lucali, in Carroll Gardens,  Brooklyn.

And that’s no small amount of money. Pies there start at $30 a pop. In  Naples, meanwhile, an equally delicious offering can be purchased for about 6 bucks.

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 Beyonce 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. Let us know your personal favorite pizza place in the comments below. Let’s  celebrate pizza’s hyper-regionality, wherever you’re tuning in from.

Thanks  for watching, and we’ll see you next time.