Editor’s note: “Foodscapes Near Me” is a biweekly food anthropology column that explores the origins and evolution of dishes particular to college cuisine.
Despite the fact that it’s probably the first thing you think of when you envision your dream Italian vacation, there’s almost nothing more American than pizza. A 2015 study from the Washington Post found that Americans eat about 100 acres of pizza every day, and the many variations of the dish are known to inspire fierce debates over regional superiority. Whether you believe the New York slice or a Chicago deep-dish reigns supreme, pizza’s portability and endless customization have made it a ubiquitous staple of big cities and college towns alike.
Yet, the delicious wheels of crisp, bubbly dough covered in savory-sweet marinara sauce and layers of gooey cheese that we have come to love are in fact American approximations of their Italian origins. In Italy, pizza remained an uncommon regional specialty until the 1970s, at which point it had already amassed great popularity in the United States.
The origin of pizza depends on how you define the dish — something that is still debated amongst food historians. If it is defined as a crust with toppings, you could argue that ancient Greeks and Egyptians were eating pizza. Using flatbread as a vehicle for other food toppings is common across cultures. On the other hand, defining pizza as a crust topped specifically with cheese and tomato sauce excludes pizza’s earliest variations that did not use either of these ingredients.
Pizza as “pizza” first developed in the 17th and 18th centuries in Naples, Italy, and was essentially a flatbread-like focaccia with baked-on toppings. Naples was a densely-populated waterfront city with large populations of working poor, many of whom didn’t have access to kitchens and needed quick meals that were cheap and easy to eat. Pizza evolved to fill this niche, and thus gained a reputation as a poor person’s dish.
Pizza toppings originally consisted of whatever was readily available — typically herbs, lard, or salted fish. Pizza margherita is credited as being the first iteration of tomato sauce and cheese toppings, marking the birthplace of pizza in its most recognizable form. The fable that it was made specially for Italy’s Queen Margherita on a visit to Naples in 1889 is likely a fabrication to build nationalist sentiment in the newly united country, as pizza of this style was already being served in Naples at the time.
While pizza remained a regional Neapolitan dish in Italy for most of the 20th century, its true stardom would emerge in America. While pizza was likely introduced to American diets even earlier, the first licensed pizzeria opened in New York City in 1905. Italian immigrants to the United States around the turn of the century, many of them from Naples, were poor and largely settled in communities around where factory work was available. Pizzerias soon began popping up in these Italian enclaves to serve the working class.
These early American pizzas were different from those in Naples. Fresh tomatoes were replaced with canned, and other forms of cheese and mozzarella replaced the easily perishable buffalo mozzarella. These pizzas, with their sweet sauce and stringy bubbly cheese, were no longer Neapolitan, but rather their own unique New York creation.
Whether it was the dish’s popularity among returning American GIs who had encountered it during the war, or simply part of a larger post-war interest in exotic foods, New York-style pizza took off in popularity in the 1950s. It lost its status as an “exotic” food with the development of fast-food pizza joints operating on a delivery model. These fast food pizza places focused on delivery and cost reduction over authenticity, which led to the rapid standardization of pizza nationwide, in addition to regional variations.
In Seattle, pizza didn’t appear until after World War II. The Palace Grill, opened in Pioneer Square in 1948, was the first restaurant to serve pizza on its menu. It was so unfamiliar to the region at the time that The Seattle Times described it as a “hot pastry that looks like a phonograph record, covered with mushrooms, cheese, and tomatoes.” The restaurant reportedly had to give the dish away for free for a few years because people just weren’t ordering it.
Pizza’s popularity in Seattle exploded once it became associated with beer, partly thanks to the U-District’s very own Northlake Tavern & Pizza House, opened in 1954. UW students began flocking to the restaurant once pizza was added to the menu. The dish was so successful that it was added to the tavern’s name, which had originally been just Northlake Tavern. To this day, the tavern is serving its unique style of pizza with cold beer to locals and college students.
While very little pizza remains in the U-District today, the legacy of Seattle’s favorite local pizza chain, Pagliacci’s, lives on. The chain got its start on the Ave, opening its first location in 1979 at 4529 University Way NE, where Supreme Pizza is currently located. Pagliacci’s has since expanded to over 20 locations across Seattle, including three locations on campus.
While Seattle has never been known exclusively for its pizza scene, and there is no official Seattle-style variation, the increase in independent, pop-up style pizzerias is leading some to believe that the city may still see the rise of its own unique pizza scene. Regardless of how you like your pizza, we can all agree that the comforting combination of flavors and ease of accessibility make it a reliably good choice no matter where you are.
Reach columnist Taylor Zachary at email@example.com. Twitter: @trzzachary
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