The Pie And Me: An Autobiographical History of Pizza

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Queen Margherita with pizza slice
Illustration by Dan Bransfield

Surely someone before the eighteenth century thought to cook dough on a hot surface and put something on top of it. Yet a thing called pizza, and something we would recognize as pizza—a disk of dough topped with tomatoes and cheese baked in a hot oven, so the cheese melts and the dough bakes—emerged in Naples more or less in its modern form in the late 1700s. For the next century, pizza was primarily eaten on the street by people who couldn’t afford to live in places with kitchens. 

Even for them, pizza was the food they ate during the week while they saved money to afford pasta on the weekends.

When Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and no dummy, tried pizza on a visit to Naples in 1831, he found it “a species of most nauseating cake… covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients, it altogether looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.”

For the first half of my life, I agreed.

By the time I was a kid, pizza had jumped the Atlantic and become the go-to food to feed groups of kids. Pizza’s selling points to the Neapolitan poor applied to Camp Fire Girls meetings and sleepovers: it is cheap and filling. My friends would gleefully dig in, jockeying to get an extra slice, while I, confused by the joy around me, choked down enough to be not hungry. Never full. Why and how anyone would or could eat enough pizza to be full was an utter mystery to me.

I grew up in Minneapolis in the 70s and 80s. To me, it seemed the best place in the world. Along with lakes and the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, we had Super Bowl-bound Vikings and Vice President Walter Mondale, not to mention the Minneapolis-set television hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show. What we did not have, however, was good pizza. I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse the pizza I was raised on as being dredged from a sewer, but the pizza of my childhood took one of five unfortunate forms. 

1. Then-standard American pizza. Despite its claims of crispiness, it had a thick, tasteless crust painted with a solid pool of sweetened tomato sauce and covered with a raft of hard mozzarella cheese that congealed quickly. Other toppings—a grid of greasy pepperoni, a slew of canned mushrooms—got piled on from there. 

2. Deep dish pizza. The above but with an even more impressive—and gustatorily challenging—amount of cheese and toppings on it. These pizzas packed a lot of filling calories into a cheap flat box.

3. Frozen pizza, the sad-sack cousin to the above but with even sweeter sauce, plastic-like cheese, and a cardboard crust.

4. Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza. There was always at least one in the freezer of my childhood home for quick dinners my dad could make if my mom wasn’t home and it was too cold to fire up the grill to cook us some brats.

5. English muffin pizza. I haven’t been able to find the exact origins of this abomination, but it dates from the 1940s, and I can only assume some writer on deadline for a women’s magazine or “ladies section” newspaper sold her soul to the devil. My mom would spoon jarred pizza sauce on split English muffins, top them with grated cheese, and then heat/melt the whole thing in the microwave for maximum chewiness and absolutely no chance of appetizing browning. She would then present them to my brother and me for lunch as if we were supposed to be excited. The result, as you might imagine, was far from delicious. Just microwaved muffins—soggy and tough—with warm flat-flavored sauce and melted, toughened cheese on top.

So I, like Samuel Morse, had a lot to dislike in pizza. Purists might try and point out that none of the items I’ve listed are real pizza. I’ll grant that they have little to do with the Neapolitan pizza from which they descend, but descend they do. They were recognizable as “pizza,” and I did not like them. Not one bit. 

The descent between the food the urban poor of Naples developed in the 18th century and the English muffin pizzas my mom pawned off on my brother and me seems a steep one, but they had more in common than one might think.

Samuel Morse wasn’t necessarily being an ugly tourist in his assessment. There was a lot not to like about early pizza. Pizza makers tended to work through the night baking and then carry around boxes of them, selling pieces on the street, sometimes as mobile peddlers and sometimes setting up stands for the day. It was not usually fresh, and it was often pretty dirty from being out on the street among the flies and the dust. Over the years, sellers added tables, stayed put, and over the nineteenth century turned this food of the poor who ate it because they had no kitchens into a regional specialty. 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Neapolitans were buying their pizzas from pizzaiolos at pizzerias. Pizza had become a regional specialty. And what existed then bares a striking similarity to the Neapolitan pizza fetishized by pizza lovers today: disks of naturally risen, flavorful dough made with flour, salt, yeast, and water, formed by hand, covered sparely with fresh ingredients—often a smear of tomato, olive oil, and either fresh mozzarella or garlic and herbs.

I did not encounter such a pizza until I spent a semester in France in high school. The local pizzeria had a giant oven in view—the pies went in, the pies came out. They were piping hot when they arrived at the table. One bite into my pizza Margherita and I understood why people looked forward to eating this. The tangy tomato balanced with the rich but fresh cheese. A thin crust, with tempting, browned blisters on its edges and flavor of its own not drowned out by a sea of mediocre toppings. Good olive oil drizzled on when the pizza came out of the oven, adding a bitter, pungent element to the proceedings.

In many ways, I was like Queen Margherita of Italy, after whom the classic pizza was named. In 1889 she had a pizza mozzarella at Pizzeria Brandi, an establishment that still operates in Naples and has the thank you note from the Head of the Table of the Royal Household, complimenting their creation, as a plaque on the wall. 

The story hits an essential theme in the newly formed Italian nation: the preference for homegrown specialties over fancy French imports. The pizza Margherita, created in the queen’s honor (or at least named for it), displays the red, green, and white of the Italian flag.

Despite the royal acknowledgment of its deliciousness, pizza remained a Neapolitan dish, not an Italian one. It came to the New World with immigrants from Naples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it mostly stayed in Italian-American enclaves.

And for me, too, pizza stayed in its place. During college, prime pizza-eating years for most, I largely avoided it. Assuming, correctly or not, that while an Italian-run pizzeria in France might turn out tempting pies, such creations did not exist here. I even traveled to Italy and must have eaten pizza while there, but I neither sought it out nor have any specific memory of it. Pizza no longer vexed me; I just didn’t care about it.

The world, however, was increasingly covered in pizza.

For that, as with so many things, we can blame World War II.

Legend claims U.S. and British soldiers who landed in Southern Italy loved the pizza they found there and kept ordering it as they fought north. Then, war won, they went home and craved those same flavors—bringing a taste for pasta and pizza west to the U.S. and north through Europe.

After the war, interest in “ethnic” foods—a category that at the time included Italian food—saw a sharp increase. By the 60s, there was a bit of a craze: think Betty Draper’s “around the world” dinner in Mad Men.

If a growing interest in the cuisines of the world doesn’t fit your vision of the 50s and 60s, an increased interest in convenience foods probably does. A desire for fast, easy foods, those same factors that played into pizza’s popularization among the poor of Naples, led to the rise of pizza in the U.S.

Not to mention that cross-Atlantic travel became increasingly air-borne and accessible in the post-war period, so more and more Americans visited Italy. They liked what they tasted. They wanted more.

Air travel wasn’t the only thing that became more accessible. Some clever Midwesterners got their hands on pizza, and that’s when the American pie took off. First, Pizza Hut was opened in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958. Then, in 1960, Tom and James Monaghan started Domino’s—originally Dominick’s—in Michigan. They standardized pizza and turned American pizza into its own thing: that thick, saucy, greasy, topping-heavy creation I loathed as a child.

slice of pizza on paper plate
Illustration by Dan Bransfield

Whatever the specifics, two factors drove the spread of pizza from Naples and a few Italian-American enclaves to the entire world in the second half of the twentieth century: 

First, its flexibility. Pizza protected by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), established in 1984 to preserve and promote authentic Naples pizza, is distinct. After years of effort, the organization got DOC – denominazione de origin controllee—certification for Neapolitan pizza. As with wineries and cheese-making dairies, VPN-approved pizzerias follow strict rules. But most people don’t care about that certification. Pizza can be anything. It can have pineapple on it, for goodness sake, and still be pizza in many people’s eyes.

Its flexibility means things as varied as the English muffin pizza my mom made and the potato-topped folded numbers you can find in Japan and the crème fraîche and smoked salmon pizza Wolfgang Puck made famous share a name despite a vast difference in ingredients and cooking method. That snowball effect led to the creation of the VPN to save the original in a world hell-bent on making pizza its own.   

Second, and perhaps most important, pizza can be delicious. 

I know this because not all that long after I learned not to hate pizza in France, I fell in love. With a very picky part-Italian New Yorker. He knows from a slice. He took me to places with lava-hot ovens that made crispy work of thin crusts. We ate pizzas topped with bright tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, with a scattering of toppings that didn’t overwhelm the whole pie. I learned that that much-better version of pizza I’d had in France was just that: much better, but far from the best. I fell in love with pizza, too.

I have a theory that applies to pizza and other iconic foods, such as doughnuts and fried chicken. You may not like a mediocre version. But once you have a great version, the mediocre version reminds you just enough of the great version for you to sort of like the mediocre version okay. And so it was with me and pizza. Once I had great pizza, lesser pizza became more tolerable, in a twisted way. 

So while I’m always going to seek out winners such as Doppio Zero or Pizzetta 211, I have also cheerfully agreed to order the sauerkraut pizza at The Lonesome Pine Bar & Restaurant in Deerwood, Minnesota, and I’ve craved Zante’s Indian pizza. And when I started making pizza myself, I didn’t stick to the classics. Instead, I might throw mushroom, fontina, roasted garlic, and mint on one pizza and gorgonzola, pancetta, and fig on another. 

Yet, I still don’t like the pizzas of my childhood.

Luckily, I’ve been able to create a world in which those pizzas have little play. Even when I visit my parents in Minneapolis, we go to Punch’s, a VPN-certified pizzeria with a wood-burning pizza oven to blister the flavorful crust. 

Humans may have turned Neapolitan pizza into an English muffin pizza. Still, that same drive to create something tasty with the materials at hand has led, in my life so far, from the greasy gut-bomb that was a cheese slice at Beek’s King of Pizza in south Minneapolis to the delicate creations churned out at Piccino, from a freezer filled with Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza to one stocked with Delfina’s Funghi pizza, now available at my neighborhood market. It’s a beautiful, delicious thing.

Molly Watson is a writer in San Francisco. Check out her plant-centric but neither vegan nor vegetarian cookbooks—Bowls! and Greens + Grains, both from Chronicle Books.