A Brief History in Honor of National Pizza Month
by Kate Mazzarella-Minshall
“National Pizza Month” is in October but you certainly don’t have to wait until then to pay homage to this magnificent creation. Pizza, often referred to as “pie”, is definitely not an acquired taste; it’s love at first bite. Nothing says flavorful and delicious quite like a pizza, but what makes it so irresistible and one of America’s most favorite foods? Is it the dough, the sauce or the toppings or the combination and balance of all three? Ask any pizza aficionado and you’ll most likely hear a different answer. Pizza is just one of those sensory-pleasing foods people are passionate about and love to splurge on.
The origins of pizza have long been the subject of much controversy. Variations of this humble pie can be traced back to ancient times yet no one seems to know who the actual inventor was. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the Italians. While no one can deny the Italians put pizza on the proverbial map, according to food historians, that claim to fame actually belongs to the cultures of the Mediterranean who created their own versions of “pizza” by using round flat breads with olive oil or cheese and a variety of toppings, herbs and spices.
The Italian peasants of Naples, however, have been given the credit for inventing the first pizza with tomatoes. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century, when tomatoes were added to the flat bread that it became “Italian” and evolved into the familiar pie we know today. Naples is also credited as having the world’s first authentic pizzeria called, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, circa 1830, and 176 years later, it’s still in business. Legend has it that in 1889, during a tour of the kingdom, Queen Margherita observed peasants feasting on large flat bread. In spite of the fact that it was unbecoming of a Queen to associate with peasants much less eat the same food, her curiosity peaked and she ordered her guards to bring her one to sample. Delighted by its taste, she summoned the most notable pizza chef in the city, Raffaele Esposito, to the royal palace to prepare her a selection of ?flat breads?. Flattered by her request, the pizzaiola created a few varieties, one of which represented the green, white and red colors on the Italian flag by using Basil, Mozzarella Cheese and Fresh Tomatoes. This was the Queen’s favorite and in her honor, it became known as the “Margherita” Pizza; a delicious alternative to the traditional pie and one of the most popular pizzas of today. It is said that Neapolitan pie is the best pizza you will ever sink your teeth into and still today, Naples is known as the “Pizza Capital of the World”. Perhaps for these reasons the invention of pizza is attributed to the Italians and more specifically to Raffaele Esposito.
In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants began their exodus to America; most of whom arrived on Ellis Island and settled in New York City. They brought with them their culture and passion for Italian cuisine. They longed for foods that reminded them of their home and ethnicity. In 1897, an Italian immigrant, Gennaro Lombardi, also known as “The Father of American Pizza” opened a grocery store on Spring Street in Little Italy, New York where he sold pizzas. In order to handle the increased demand for this beloved pie, in 1905 he opened the first licensed pizzeria in the United States and not surprisingly, called it, “Lombardi’s”. Over one hundred years later, you can still get pizza from Lombardi’s.
Pizza did not actually gain widespread recognition until the end of World War II. During their tour of duty, the American soldiers stationed in Italy were introduced to pizza and in 1945, when they returned home to the states, they brought with them their love for this mouthwatering pie and a craving that wouldn’t stop. By the mid 1950s, this once-upon-a-time peasant food became a significant part of American cuisine and today it has grown into a global obsession.
In the early eighties, Wolfgang Puck hired a master pizziola named Ed LaDou as the pizza chef for his restaurant, Spago’s of Hollywood. LaDou is best known for reinventing the pizza by experimenting with a variety of unpredictable toppings typically found gracing the gourmet world. He became famous for his Barbecue Chicken pizza, and for creating the menu for the first California Pizza Kitchen. Thanks to his culinary wizardry, a new culture of gourmet pizzas was born and today unique and obscure toppings are all the rage. This pioneer of pizza paved the way for innovative chefs and amateurs alike who enjoy experimenting with new and exotic creations and fresh flavorful ingredients.
At Las Vegas Metro Pizza on Tropicana, their homemade sauce is the secret to what makes their pizza delicious, popular and famous. “We use the finest tomatoes from the Modesto area”, said Director of Operations, Tony Shea. “Our tomatoes are fresh-packed within four hours of being picked off the vine. That?s the secret to what sets our sauce apart from the others. Our Mozzarella is also unique. We get it from Buffalo, New York. It’s low-moisture with a high grade of butterfat content. The butterfat is what makes it tastier than other Mozzarellas. Look, we’re not cheap! Our pizza is one of the most expensive in town and I’m proud of that because we use the freshest, the finest and the most expensive products and ingredients to make our pizzas and that’s why we’re so popular”. Metro Pizza has been serving locals for over twenty-five years, and it is also extremely popular with Presidents Clinton and Bush and a very long list of celebrities who headline in Las Vegas.
The future of pizza is bright. Everybody loves it, and whatever your mood or whatever the occasion, pizza is the ultimate comfort food, snack food or gourmet food. Any way you slice it, pizza can be eaten hot or cold, at any time of the day, with just about anything on top which makes it one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan foods on the planet. Its incredible versatility adds to its appeal. From fresh to frozen and appetizer to entrée, this palette-pleaser translates into profits. With over 60,000 pizza joints in the U.S. alone, the pizza industry generates well over $30 billion in sales each year making pizza one of the most indulgent, highly competitive and readily accessible foods in American gastronomy. Pizza delivers, no wonder it’s America’s favorite pie. Buon Appetito!