Tomato Pie: How Pizza Became Popular in the United States

If you haven’t heard yet, pizza is the second most loved pie in America. That’s right, right after that classic apple pie, pizza reigns supreme over American palates. As for why it is considered a “pie,” there is a simple explanation.

Pizza is the literal Italian translation for pie. More specifically, it is derived from an old Italian word meaning “a point.” So, if you really think about it, the linguistic etymology of this word is almost Germanic in its accuracy. As the heritage of the word suggest, pizza has a long history as a staple of the Italian diet. 

Where Does Pizza Come From?

Beginning as a flatbread baked in mud ovens and served up to the working classes, original pizzas were a thrifty and convenient food that more closely resembled focaccia than pizza.

It wasn’t until 1522 when tomatoes were brought back to Europe from the New World that things began to change. Originally thought to be poisonous, tomatoes were scorned by the rich and instead found their way into the diets of poorer people of Naples.

@cafeamericanolv Bite into our #Margherita #Pizza for lunch! #lunchtime #cafeamericanolv #caesarspalace #vegaseats #vegasdining

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Naturally, these penny-wise peasants incorporated them into their sauce-less flatbreads and thus created the ancestor of the pizza we know today.

In a stroke of irony, the early pizzas of Naples featured today’s popular gourmet toppings like tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies and garlic, but they were considered a pauper’s food. 

Pizza Comes to America

Pizza was introduced to Americans by Gennaro Lombardi, an immigrant from Naples, in 1905. Unsurprisingly, to appeal to an American audience at the turn of the last century, he called his pizzas, tomato pies

Shortly after Lombardi opened the market for this novel Italian dish, Joe’s Tomato Pies opened in 1910. Foregoing the word “pizza” all together in favor of the descriptor “tomato pie,” Americans began flocking in to try this new Italian delicacy. 

A Post-WWII Obsession

@pizzabarnyonkers serves up a 2-foot-long super slice of ?!!! #sliceofheaven #insiderfood

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It wasn’t until soldiers came back from the Italian front after WWII, however, that pizza really gained a foothold in the United States. Veterans from the European theater returned bringing with them a taste for a saucy, cheesy treat that was only known in the American Northeast.

Coincidentally, as these men were coming home, Italian-Americans were also migrating west. The combination of these catalysts caused pizza boom in popularity. No longer was this tomatoey flatbread an “ethnic” treat.

Increasingly, it was viewed as a quick bite to curb your hunger. From that point, it wasn’t long until pizza became a known as a delicious “fast” food option. 

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No longer were pizzas simply Italian. With the addition of flavors such as barbecued chicken and smoked salmon, pizza began taking on a new American identity. A little surprisingly, as pizza began to evolve into an American indulgence, its trendiness grew, too.

Just like blue jeans and hamburgers, American re-exported out pizza. However, this time it was nothing like its Italian ancestor. This puffy cheese-and-tomato-laden dough now reflects regional differences. From Gouda cheese in Curaçao to hardboiled eggs in Brazil, you wanted it, you could have it. 

@brotherbrunopizzadeliandbagel puts just about anything you can imagine on it's pizzas. ??? #pizzapie #insiderfood

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Even in America things were getting creative. In fact, no longer does pizza belong exclusively on the dinner table. Today, you can even enjoy dessert pizza topped with cinnamon sugar and drizzled in honey.

Today, heated debates over the finest slice in town continue to rage. And opinions on who has the best slice are as varied as there are toppings. 

Read More: The History of Moonshine: Southern Roots and Tradition Run Deep