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

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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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.