Eight surprising pizza facts in honour of Italy’s most beloved export

Happy World Pizza Day! In honour of the event, here are ten things you might not know about Italy's favourite cheesy treat.

Originally from Naples, pizza is loved the world over.
Originally from Naples, pizza is loved the world over.Photo by Fabrizio Pullara on Unsplash

Pasta may rank more highly on the list of cultural and gastronomic exports Italians are most proud of, but it could be argued that pizza is more widely loved.

A 2018 survey found that 52 percent of Italians rated pizza as their favourite dish, with 39 percent saying it satisfied them ‘on an emotional level’.

And it’s not hard to see why: that stretchy dough, sweet and tangy tomato paste and melty mozzarella make it the ultimate comfort food. 

In tribute to the carbohydrate-laden delight that is pizza, and to mark to the occasion of World Pizza Day, here are some facts you may not know about the dish.

READ ALSO: Ten surprising pasta facts in honour of Italy’s favourite food

It comes from Naples

While flat breads with toppings have been around for millennia, what we think of as pizza today comes from the southern Italian city of Naples.

The first recorded use of the word pizza has been traced back to a Latin text from the coastal city of Gaeta, north of Naples, in 997, and by the 16th century, pizza – which usually consisted of bread served with cheese and lard or small fish – had become a popular Neapolitan peasant street food.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that tomatoes, which were brought to Italy from South America and were initially feared to be poisonous, started to be used in pizza.

Naples is the birthplace of Italian pizza.

Naples is the birthplace of Italian pizza. Photo by Sam van Bussel on Unsplash

The Margherita is (according to lore) named after an Italian queen 

The pizza Margherita allegedly got its name after it was cooked for Queen consort Margherita of Savoy by Neapolitan pizza maker Raffaele Esposito in honour of her 1889 visit to Naples.

The red of the tomato paste, white of the mozzarella, and green of the basil leaves is said to represent the red, white and green of the Italian flag, as the country had recently undergone unification.

In reality, a tomato-based pizza topped with mozzarella and basil had already been around for many decades – and according to one writer from the era, the mozzarella and basil were often arranged into a flower formation, which could be the real origin of the name margherita (daisy in Italian).

Nonetheless, if you go to Pizzeria Brandi in Naples, where Esposito worked, you’ll find a plaque dated 1989 which says “Here 100 years ago the Pizza Margherita was born”.

READ ALSO: The must-try foods from every region of Italy

It’s been to space

The first pizza to exit the earth’s orbit was sent to Yuri Usachov on the International Space Station in 2001.

Pizza Hut had the salami (not pepperoni, as it goes bad too quickly) pizza delivered to the astronaut via a Russian rocket.

The company reportedly paid the Russian space agency $1 million for the publicity stunt, which bought them a picture of Usachov giving a thumbs up to the camera after eating the pizza and their logo displayed on the side of a rocket.

The International Space Station, in which astronaut Yuri Usachov consumed a pizza.

The International Space Station, in which astronaut Yuri Usachov consumed a pizza. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

There are strict rules governing what counts

Italians are nothing if not protective of their culinary traditions, with entire social media accounts and British chat show segments dedicated to Italians getting exercised about any perceived disrespect to their national dishes.

READ ALSO: ‘Disgusting knockoffs’: Italians warn foreign cooks over carbonara recipes

When it comes to pizza, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association) has taken it upon itself to draw up some boundaries as to exactly what does and doesn’t count as real Neapolitan pizza, to afford the dish ‘maximum dignity’.

As well as having the correct ingredients (preferably from the Campania region), the pizza must have a diameter of no more than 35 cm, a crust of 1-2cm, be cooked at 430-480C° for between 60 and 90 seconds, and be ‘soft and fragrant’, the association says.

Needless the say, it should never, ever have pineapple as a topping.

Neapolitan pizza-making has UNESCO world heritage status

The craft of the Neapolitan pizzaiolo (pizza-maker) hasn’t just been catalogued by a local organisation; in 2017 it was also enshrined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a protected tradition.

It’s not pizza itself, but the art of Neapolitan pizza-making that received UNESCO world heritage status. It’s a unique cultural and gastronomic tradition that involves twirling the pizza in the air and encompasses the ritual of singing, story-telling and back-and-forth banter between the pizzaiolo and local customers.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

Neapolitan pizza-making is now a UNESCO-protected art.

Neapolitan pizza-making is now a UNESCO-protected art. Photo by Max Saeling on Unsplash

It gave its name to the ‘pizza effect’

It may surprise non-Italians to hear that for hundreds of years, pizza just wasn’t that popular in Italy outside of Naples.

That didn’t change until Neapolitans started to emigrate to the US in the early 20th century, and American soldiers that had been stationed in Naples during World War II brought their love of pizza back home with them. Pizza exploded in America, and Italy took note. Pizzerias started popping up all over the country, and the dish was embraced as a national treasure.

This phenomenon – whereby an item with little cultural value in its own country becomes extremely popular abroad, and as a result is reevalutated and granted a higher status in its country of origin – was observed by the anthropologist Agehananda Bharati, who termed it the ‘pizza effect’.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most delicious street foods in Italy

 The world’s largest pizza was made in Rome

The world’s largest pizza, according to the Guinness World Records, was made in Rome.

It had a surface area of more than a kilometre (1,261.65 m²), was presented by five Italians at the Fiera Roma event space on December 13, 2012, was named Ottavia, and was entirely gluten-free, the Guinness World Records’ website reports.

The record for the world’s longest pizza (almost 2km, or 1,930.39 m) was set in Fontana, California in 2017, while the largest commercially available pizza is sold at Moontower Pizza Bar in Texas, where should they desire, customers can order ‘The Bus’, which costs $299.95 and has a surface area of almost two metres.

READ ALSO: Five delicious Italian food idioms, explained

… But Italy isn’t the world’s biggest consumer of pizza

It may not surprise you all that much to hear that Italy isn’t the largest consumer of pizza – after all, there are only about 60 million Italians to America’s population of 330 million.

But Italy doesn’t get the prize for the most pizza consumed per capita either – and nor, for that matter, does the US.

That title goes to Norway, where the average person apparently consumes 5kg of pizza per year. Most of that consumption, of course, is in the form of frozen pizzas, which many Italians wouldn’t want to touch.

On a global level, an estimated five billion pizzas are sold every year and 350 slices consumed every second, according to the travel site BootsnAll.

Member comments

  1. Well, I make pizza every Sunday night and have for years after living in Rome a long, long time, but without a wood oven one will never duplicate Roman pizza, which to me is the best as it is THIN. My pizza recipe is a cup of water mixed with the whey that surrounds a mozzarella (!), a teaspoon of yeast, a little salt, a few spoons of olive oil and about three cups of flour put into the top of a food processor and pulsed just a few times until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl. It rises once and then I form my pizza a taglia on a large rectangle baking pan. Go VERY light on toppings. A little tomato sauce, a few anchovies, sweet onion if you like, sliced thin (NOT thinly). I bake at the hottest temp my oven will take, 275C, and bake for about 5-6 minutes, then, midway,I remove it from the oven and dot with mozzarella di bufala, then I put it back in the oven to finish baking. This way you will never have rubbery cheese on your precious pizza. Buona pizza!

  2. I’ve sampled a lot of pizza around Italy and the best I’ve ever had was not from Napoli, but rather from a pizzeria near the Caserta Royal Palace. Unlike the typical thick and chewy crust, theirs is light, fluffy, and almost pastry like. All the ingredients are DOP and in perfect combination. If I’m ever on the space station I’ll have one of those flown up rather than one from Pizza Hut. Try one next time your visit the palace:

    (I’m not affiliated with this pizzeria)

  3. I am now thinking about the delicious pizza we have had in Naples along with Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, the latter does a sensational prosciutto and artichoke pizza.

  4. The tomato was not exported to Italy from “South America.” Although its botanical ancestors hail from Peru, it was first domesticated and consumed in North America — namely Mexico. Indeed, the word tomato itself is Aztec in origin, “tomatl,” and thus lingusitically (as well as nutritionally) associated with central Mexico. Although the Conquistadores brought it back with them to Spain as a curiosity item on the 16th century, it was long regarded as poisonous and not widely eaten anywhere in Europe — Italy included — until more than two centrues later.

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.