Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food

Pizza as a food is inherently humble. It’s a simple combination of a flatbread crust and a combination of toppings, including tomatoes and cheese, at least in modern times.

So how did the humble pizza spread across the globe to become arguably the world’s most ubiquitous comfort food, and what does it look like in its various forms and iterations? More importantly, what species can we get our hands on here in Shanghai?

The first pizza-like food began its journey through time in the Mediterranean around 2,500 years ago, when people there thinly spread and baked dough to create today’s flatbread. Instead of the main meal itself, the bread was often served first as a sort of edible plate from which the main course was eaten and the bread consumed afterwards.

Sometimes the bread itself served as a light meal, often topped with ingredients common at the time, such as oil, dates, and cheese.

This is how, in ancient times, two of the three basic ingredients of the food we know as pizza came together… but not yet tomatoes. In fact, the tomato is native to Central and South America and only appeared in Europe in the 16th century. It seems odd to imagine an Italy without tomatoes, given that the fruit is now one of the main staples of the country’s cuisine, but it’s unlikely da Vinci would have eaten tomato-based foods in his day, let alone the ancient Romans.

In the 18th century, what we know today as pizza appeared in Naples, Italy, as a thin-crust pie topped with tomato, mozzarella cheese, and herbs. Although originally seen as a simple, working-class food, its popularity grew in the decades that followed. Its true arrival in mainstream food culture in Italy may have happened in 1889.

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According to the story, the then Queen of Italy, Margherita, was served a pie with red tomatoes, white cheese and green basil leaves, the three colors on the country’s national flag, and loved the dish now known as Pizza Margherita, which is a mainstay on the Italian pizzeria menus.

Pizza: the humble international home cooking

Pizza Margherita is named after the former Queen of Italy.

The worldwide export of pizza began in earnest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Italian immigrants moved to the United States in large numbers, bringing their culinary knowledge and goodies with them. Pizza was among them, and what would bode well for the future of food around the world was a huge hit across the Atlantic.

After arriving in the United States, however, pizza began to change and morph into new iterations of itself. Chefs and entrepreneurs adapted pizza to the tastes of their region, fused the concept with ideas from other international cuisines, or sometimes just took a creative leap of faith and invented a whole new kind of cake.

New York-style pizza most closely resembles its Neapolitan counterpart, as New York was the first landing point for most Italian migrants at the time. Though a bit cheesy and often larger than the original Italian version, New York Pizza is a hit around the world, including here in Shanghai, where several pizzerias serve it either as a whole pie or as a single, foldable slice.

New Yorkers often argue that their pizza is the real king of the pizza universe—and I mean argue; The pizza debate is really passionate and vocal. However, the city of Chicago has created its own version of the food, and it’s quite different from those in Naples and NYC.

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Much thicker and heartier than their counterparts, Chicago-style “deep dish” pizza has cheese, tomato sauce, and other toppings piled an inch thick on its pan-shaped crust. For many, just a slice or two is more than enough to keep one filled to the gills, as the sheer volume and weight of the ingredients and toppings make them eat more like a casserole than a traditional pizza pie. Bring a friend if you try this one.

Pizza: the humble international home cooking

Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Chicago-style deep dish (above) and Detroit-style rectangular pizza (below) originated in the United States.

Pizza: the humble international home cooking

Sun Minjie / SHINE

A third popular style of pizza in the US and a personal favorite of mine is Detroit-style pizza, which is baked in a rectangular pan with a slightly fluffy, airy crust and cheese that extends to the rim of the cake and browns and browns as it cooks becomes crispy . The tomato sauce on the top of the pizza brings it all together.

All three of these unique pizza flavors are available right here in Shanghai: CAGES Bar & Sports offers Chicago-style and Home Slice Pizza has Detroit, both on monthly specials.

Pizza as a concept continued to travel the world in the 20th century, and food continued to change and reinvent itself to combine classic elements with local flair. Japan has sushi pizza, Australians have crust pie stuffed with Vegemite, and a pizzeria in Brazil creates pizzas so extreme they caught fire on social media for being outlandish.

Pizza: the humble international home cooking

Despite the lamentations of pizza traditionalists, the food is adaptable and changeable, and therefore constantly evolving. Ingenuity in marketing and advertising is also a key driver.

US-based pizza conglomerates like Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Papa John’s all have strong footholds in the Chinese market, and alongside more common pies like pepperoni, mushrooms, or meat lovers, their menus offer interesting creations that probably wouldn’t top the sales charts in the US or Italy. Pizzas topped with carrots, crabs, or durian are a far cry from what Queen Margherita enjoyed, but as long as customers enjoy them, I say, there’s no harm.

I can tell you that this Frankenstein here, marketed by Domino’s in China as “American Bacon and Potato Pizza”, is not at all American in style, as not only do Domino’s not serve it in the US, I do too I’ve never seen anyone bake a pizza remotely resembling her. But if it tastes good, who cares?

Pizza: the humble international home cooking

While this pizza isn’t truly American, as the name might suggest, it’s popular with consumers.

Similar to the popular New Orleans chicken wing, which is just a marketing creation for China – yes, that’s right; it doesn’t exist in the city of New Orleans, and no one there has ever heard of it—as long as it makes some palates happy, I’m all for it.

Expand your horizons and your pizza-hungry taste buds and enjoy the cakes that Shanghai and the world has to offer!

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