The Origin and History of Pizza

From Italy to the U.S.

Shot of pizzas on table from above

Jonathan Mendoza / EyeEm / Getty Images

Pizza is actually modern Italian for the word "pie." The origin of the term is murky but is said to be derived from an Old Italian word meaning "a point," which later evolved to the Italian word pizzicare, meaning "to pinch or pluck." A Neapolitan dialect of the word first shows up in print in 1000 A.D. in the form of picea or piza, assumably referring to the way the hot pie is plucked from the oven.

First Forms of Pizza

Early forms of pizza were most likely what we call focaccia today. The tomato did not reach Italy until the 16th century, hence none for the pie we know as pizza. The addition of mozzarella cheese (initially made from buffalo milk) did not come about until the 19th century.

The standard tomato, basil, and mozzarella pizza is first credited to Raffaele Esposito of the Pizzeria di Pietro, who dedicated the creation to Queen Margherita in 1889. The colors nicely coincided with the colors of the Italian flag.

Pizza's Migration From Italy to the U.S.

Italian immigrants brought pizza to the United States, but it was mostly confined to small areas of the Northeast. Once in America, the pizza stretched out to 18 inches in diameter or more. The first pizzeria opened in New York City in 1896 at 53-1/2 Spring Street. Yet pizza did not really gain popularity outside the Northeast until returning World War II servicemen returned from their tours in Italy with a hankering for the pizza they enjoyed in Naples.

In the 1940's, sales of oregano increased by 5,200 percent over 8 years due to the surge in popularity of pizza and other Italian foods. In 1957, the Celentano Brothers marketed the first frozen pizzas.

Pizza Varieties

Pizza is described as a flat pie made from a yeast dough topped with various cheeses, vegetables, meats, seasonings, and other ingredients. Nowadays, you will find many variations, including dessert pizzas.

The topping of choice by the majority is pepperoni, followed by Italian sausage. Anchovies are a hotly debated topping; you either love them or hate them.