Visitors to Italy prior to the 1880s would have a difficult time relating to what passed for pizza at the time. Although the pies had been made in the area for centuries, many ingredients considered essential by modern Americans were absent. First of all, tomatoes were not native to Europe. It was not until the discovery of the Americas and the discovery of tomatoes that it was even possible to add tomato sauce. Even then, it took many years to convince the people that tomatoes were not poisonous. A white sauce was used as a topping until the 17th century. Cheese was not used at all until around 1889.
These Italian pies were not originally a specific food. Instead, the flatbreads were used by bakers to test oven temperatures. Rather than throw the pies away, enterprising bakers sold them to the poor, who soon began to add tomato sauce and seasonings. Soon, outdoor stands and bakeries had a popular product. However, it remained a dish of the poor until around 1889. That was the year that a baker prepared a pie for Queen Margherita. To emulate the colors of the Italian flag, Raffaele Esposito used basil for the green, mozzarella for the white, and tomatoes for the red. He named it after the queen, who apparently was quite fond of it.
In America, pizza remained a dish popular in Italian neighborhoods until after World War II. Returning soldiers who had served in Italy brought back a fondness for the pies. Gradually, pizzerias began to appear in neighborhoods other than poor or ethnic areas.
Gennaro Lombardi, a grocer in New York City, is generally credited with the first true pizzeria in the country. It is believed to have opened in 1897. A full pie cost five cents, but not everyone could afford that amount. He began selling slices, with the size corresponding to the amount the patron could afford.
Pizzerias remained primarily family-owned enterprises until the chain restaurants appeared. Shakey’s opened in California in 1954 and Pizza Hut began in Wichita, Kansas around 1958. Other chains, such as Pizza Inn and Domino’s, soon followed. However, until the owners of the first Domino’s decided to stake their business on delivery, pies were still largely consumed on the premises or picked up. Either way, the customer had a twenty to thirty minute wait. Delivery allowed them to stay at home and have the food brought to their doors.
Today, chains such as Papa John’s, Mazzio’s, Little Caesar’s, and Godfathers have joined the industry. Each has a slightly different recipe and a different range of products. It is not uncommon for customers to be able to purchase salads, pasta, wings, and breadsticks at their local chain pizzeria.
The type of crust may generate more debate over the best pies than the toppings. Some pizzerias use a thin, crispy crust that is more akin to crackers than bread. Others prepare a thick crust, baked in a pan. Everything in between the two extremes can be found as well. Specialty crusts, such as a crust stuffed with cheese have also appeared periodically.
Competition has led to price wars in some parts of the country. There are locations where the price in 2011 was a good deal less than it was a decade earlier. Prices have also been driven down by advances in frozen pies that carry a lower cost.
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