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The Facts Every Pizza-Lover Needs To Know

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Did you know that pizza — one of the world’s most popular foods — is enjoyed by one in eight Americans on any given day? Or that we spend an annual $37 billion on the stuff, accounting for one-third of the global market? There's a reason for all this, and it's that pizza is crazy delicious. Over the years, it has become about as American as apple pie or playing football with your hands.

But we had a hunch there was more to the story, so inspired by Bon Appétit™ pizza, we set out to answer your cheesiest, sauciest questions. Is pizza actually Italian? Why are crusts thin in New York but deep in Chicago? And, perhaps most importantly, is it true Americans eat 350 slices of pizza per second? (Spoiler alert: It is.) Consider this the most epically delicious game of trivia there is.
Illustrated by Karan Singh.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Pizza’s great secret? It’s technically Greek. Pizza was invented in Naples, a seafront city founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. These settlers brought with them the Greek tradition of flatbread, or, more specifically, of dressing dough in olive oil, cheese, and herbs.

And even though the Roman Empire conquered Naples around 300 BC — before pizza existed in the form we recognize today — Greek flatbread truly did lay the foundation for pizza. It’s even suggested the word “pizza” stems from the Greek word “pitta,” meaning cake or pie. The biggest leap, however, occurred when Italians started using yeast to get dough to rise in the 17th and 18th centuries, creating the soft, fluffy crust we know and love today. They’re also responsible for giving tomatoes their place on a pie.

“Yeast-risen, tomato-topped pizza was born in these former Greek settlements along the southern coast of Italy,” explains chef Chris Pandel of Chicago-based Italian joint Balena. “But I still think Italians deserve credit for its invention. The Neapolitans made pizza pizza.”

So, yes, pizza is quintessentially Italian. The word was first recorded in 997 in the Italian town of Gaeta, with the dish spreading throughout the region during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Italy’s temperate Mediterranean climate allowed pizzaiolos, or pizza makers, to sell their pies at open-air stands. Not wanting to miss out on the trend, many bakers also gave the dish a try, birthing the pizzeria culture that’s still famous in Naples today. (Its Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba lays claim to the title of the world’s first pizzeria.)

It was there in Naples that the Margherita style of pizza, a popular varietal topped with fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, was coined in 1889. As the story goes, the city’s leading pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, presented three different pizzas to then Queen Margherita of Savoy, and she chose the one that’s colors mimicked the Italian flag. Of course, it's since been named in her honor.

To America We Go

Soon after Margherita devoured her first tricolor, Italian transplants brought pizza across the Atlantic to immigrant-dense America.

“Back in Italy, pizza was traditionally sold by the pie,” explains Jeff Mahin, a partner in the restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You. “But in the U.S., many Italian immigrants would ask to buy portions, thus giving birth to the slice. Either way, pizza was a filling meal at a cheap cost, making it increasingly popular among the country’s laboring class.”

Take America’s first pizzeria as an example. When Lombardi’s initially opened in Manhattan in 1905, it catered to the city’s factory workers. At five cents per pie, it made pizza easily accessible. (A 10-year closure means Jersey’s Papa's Tomato Pies is technically the longest-operating spot in the U.S., though.) Thanks to people like Gennaro Lombardi, pizza spread like rapid fire — first to Chicago and then across the rest of the country.

“Much like today’s food trucks, pizza was the It food of the day,” Mahin says. “Cheap, warm, and filling. The other thing about pizza was its ability to travel — slices could be enjoyed in moments between jobs, perfect for the hard-working conditions of the time.”

The trendiness of pizza continued to grow throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II. Returning soldiers ached for the authentic crusts they’d come to love while stationed in Italy, leading to a boom of new vendors across the country.

“Then there was the concurrent rise of suburban living,” says Pandel. “The 1950s and 1960s pretty much mandated that every family should have a couple of kids, a couple of cars, and a home of their own. Convenient, frozen pizza pies fit easily into that lifestyle — the frozen-food aisles at newly founded supermarkets were booming. And, with the development of pizza delivery in the '60s, its fate as America's most convenient food was sealed.”

“It’s the do-it-all food,” continues Mahin. “It transcends categories. You can get the most artisan, hand-crafted pizza — one tossed by a certified pizzaiolo — or you can reheat it by the slice at 2 a.m. Both versions of pizza are delicious. It’s undefinable.”

And no matter where you eat pizza, it has a strong nostalgia factor. “I still remember the pizza place down the street from my [childhood] house,” recalls Mahin. “The bad, red-checkered tablecloths and the three arcade games in the back that always stole my quarters. We pizza chefs of today are always tiptoeing around memories.”

A Little Friendly Competition

Many experts feel American pies now rival those served in Italy, but, no matter how you slice it, you can’t deny Italians have their own approach.

“The most obvious difference is that Italian pizza shops rarely offer 42 types of pizza,” says Mahin. “They offer one, maybe a few. And you would never see something with as many toppings as, say, a Hawaiian pizza. Italians use their pizza as a simple way of highlighting the cheese or tomatoes of a specific area.”

Because of this focus on local products, Italian pizza is incredibly regional — varying widely by city. Pizza in Rome, for example, is round, thin, and crispy, whereas Neapolitan pizzas are bell-shaped and cooked at a scorching 900 degrees. “Neopolitan pizzas cook for only a few minutes in a forno di legna, or wood-burning stove, using a very specific dough,” explains Pandel. “They’re served uncut with utensils and as an individual meal rather than the shared pies preferred by Americans.”

What we love best about the Italians’ take on things, however, is the relaxed way in which they order. Use your hands to gesture how big a piece you want, or order by weight. There are no rules.

The United States Of Pizza

Speaking of regional pizzas, Americans are pretty territorial when it comes to local varieties. Case and point? The New York slice. “New Yorkers claim their water makes for the best crust,” says Pandel. “It’s chewy and fluffy, making for these amazingly large slices best consumed on the go. It could not be more perfect for that city.”

Then there’s Chicago deep dish. “Chicago pizza is a molten bomb, definitely different than the stand-and-chat pizzas of New York,” adds Mahin. “It’s a sit-with-a-knife-and-fork meal.”

There’s also Detroit style (square), Greek style (focaccia), California style (single-serving), and another hundred or so varieties ranging from cauliflower to St. Louis. “I think supporting your local pizza is like supporting your local sports team,” says Pandel. “Pizza falls into the category of civic pride. Defend your pie to the end.”

Is This Peak Pizza?

It may be an American tradition, but pizza is also an international obsession.

In 2001, Russian astronaut Yuri Usachov had a pie delivered to an unexpected place: space. The Brits love it, too, as evidenced by their Guinness Book World Record for the most expensive commercially available pizza in the world. And in Japan, the meal is served with foie gras and snow crab as a special-occasion treat.

Pizza has never stopped evolving. It’s a completely different dish today than it was at inception, without losing the quintessentially nostalgic combination of bubbling bread, sauce, and cheese. So, have we reached the peak of pizza? We say no. The real question is, where will it go next?
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