This chapter of “Italianismi nel mondo”, by Monica Alba, retraces the history of Pizza. Pizza, originating in Naples in the 19th century and famously represented by the Margherita version, has a complex history with ancient origins, diverse etymological hypotheses, and a journey from a popular, street food beginning to becoming an iconic symbol of Italian gastronomic culture worldwide.
Pizza, the most recognized Italian word globally and a staple of Italian cuisine has a unique and somewhat mysterious history. Originating in Naples, its current definition as a round leavened dough, baked in the oven, and variously seasoned, emerged in the 19th century or a few decades earlier. The famous Margherita pizza, topped with tomato, mozzarella, and basil, is said to have been created in 1889 by Neapolitan pizza maker Raffaele Esposito in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy. The debate surrounds whether this topping existed in Neapolitan customs before the queen’s visit.
While the word’s origins are ancient, with the earliest mention dating back to 966, its etymology is unclear. Hypotheses link it to Gothic and/or Lombard terms or the Mediterranean “pitta,” evolving into “pizza” under Lombard’s influence. The dish diversified in meaning across dialects, describing various flatbreads and cakes. Gastronomic literature, including Renaissance works, reflects this evolution.
In the late 19th century, Pellegrino Artusi included an alternative pizza version in “Scienza in cucina,” featuring shortcrust pastry and cream, reflecting the dish’s varied history. Initially considered a popular but not easily digestible street food, pizza’s diffusion and acceptance grew. Despite being viewed as a dialectal term in 1905, it became a symbol of Italian gastronomic culture, entering homes and international markets, thanks to emigrants in the 20th century.