Learn About the Real Life Inventor of Pizza

The Modern Pizza was Born in Naples, Italy, in the Late 1800s

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ever wonder who invented the pizza? Although people have been eating pizza-like foods for centuries, the pizza as we know it is less than 200 years old. From its roots in Italy, pizza has spread across the world and today is prepared dozens of different ways. 

The Origins of Pizza

Food historians agree that pizza-like dishes, including flatbreads topped with oils, spices, and other toppings, were eaten by many peoples in the Mediterranean, including the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Cato the Elder, writing a history of Rome in the third century B.C., described pizza-like rounds of bread topped with olives and herbs. Virgil, writing 200 years later, described similar food in "The Aeneid," and archaeologists excavating the ruins of Pompeii have found kitchens and cooking tools where these foods were produced before the city was buried in 72 A.D. when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

Royal Inspiration

By the mid-1800s, flatbreads topped with cheese and herbs were a common street food in Naples, Italy. In 1889, the Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita di Savoia visited the city. According to legend, she summoned Raffaele Esposito, who owned a restaurant called the Pizzeria di Pietro, to bake some of these local treats.

Esposito allegedly created three variations, one of which was topped with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes to represent the three colors of the Italian flag. It was this pizza the queen liked best, and Esposito named it Pizza Margherita in her honor. The pizzeria still exists today, proudly displaying a letter of thanks from the queen, although some food historians question whether Esposito actually invented the Margherita pizza.

True or not, pizza is an integral part of Naples' culinary history. In 2009, the European Union established standards for what can and cannot be labeled Neapolitan-style pizza. According to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an Italian trade group dedicated to preserving Naples' pizza heritage, a true Margherita pizza can only be topped with local San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, buffalo mozzarella, and basil, and must be baked in a wood-fired oven.

Pizza in America

Beginning in the late 19th century, large numbers of Italians began immigrating to the United States and they brought their foods with them. Lombardi's, the first pizzeria in North America, was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi on Spring Street in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood. It still stands today.

Pizza slowly spread through New York, New Jersey, and other areas with large Italian immigrant populations. Chicago's Pizzeria Uno, famous for its deep-dish pizzas, opened in 1943. But it wasn't until after World War II that pizza began to become popular with most Americans. Frozen pizza was invented in the 1950s by Minneapolis pizzeria owner Rose Totino. Pizza Hut opened its first restaurant in Wichita, Kan., in 1958. Little Ceasar's followed a year later, and Domino's in 1960.

Today, pizza is big business in the U.S. and beyond. According to the trade magazine PMQ Pizza, Americans spent about $44 billion on pizza in 2016, and more than 40 percent ate pizza at least once a week. Worldwide, people spent about $128 billion on pizza that year.

Pizza Trivia

Americans eat approximately 350 slices of pizza per second. And 36 percent of those pizza slices are pepperoni slices, making pepperoni the number-one choice among pizza toppings in the United States. In India pickled ginger, minced mutton, and paneer cheese are the favorite toppings for pizza slices. In Japan, Mayo Jaga (a combination of mayonnaise, potato, and bacon), eel and squid are the favorites. Green peas rock Brazilian pizza shops, and Russians love red herring pizza.

Have you ever wondered who invented the circular thing that keeps the pizza from hitting the inside of the box top? The package saver for pizza and cakes were invented by Carmela Vitale of Dix Hills, N.Y., who filed for US patent #4,498,586 on Feb. 10, 1983, issued on Feb. 12, 1985.