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The History of Pizza

Americans love pizza! About three billion pies are sold each year, which divides into about 46 slices per person. Though wildly popular in the U.S., the world’s most popular fast food as we know it now began in late 18th-century Naples.

Under the Bourbon kings (by the 18th century, members of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty held thrones in Spain, Naples, Sicily and Parma), Naples had become one of the largest cities in Europe, fueled overseas trade and a steady influx of peasants from the countryside. By 1748, its population had grown to 399,000, but about 50,000 of those inhabitants fell into poverty as they scraped by on the pittance they earned as porters, messengers or casual laborers. They needed food that was cheap and easy to eat. Pizzas met this need. Street vendors carried huge boxes of them and cut pieces to meet the customers’ budget or appetite.

Pizzas were made with inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients that had lots of flavor. The simplest were topped with nothing more than garlic, lard and salt. But others included caciocavallo (a cheese made from horses’ milk), cecenielli (whitebait) or basil. Some even had tomatoes on top.

Italy’s first cookbooks, which appeared in the late 19th century, ignored pizza. Even the cookbooks dedicated to Neapolitan cuisine wouldn’t mention it, even though pizza restaurants started opening.

All that changed after Italian unification. While on a visit to Naples in 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, tired of the complicated French dishes they were always served, hastily summoned some local specialties. This resulted in a chef making three types of pizza: one with lard, caciocavallo and basil; another with cecenielli; and a third with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. All three delighted the queen.

Margherita’s seal of approval elevated pizza to being worthy of a royal family and transformed it into a national dish. It introduced the idea that pizza was a genuinely Italian food, akin to pasta and polenta. As pizza quickly spread throughout Italy, new ingredients were introduced in response to local tastes and the higher prices that customers were now willing to pay.

Italian emigrants reached the East Coast of the U.S. by the end of the 19th century. In 1905, the first pizzeria–Lombardi’s–opened by Naples’ Gennaro Lombardi in downtown Manhattan, and it’s still there! The rest, as they say, is history. Mangia!

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