I had a mediocre slice of pizza the other day and began to think back to the first time I ever ate pizza—in the early 1950s at a now defunct restaurant on South Main Street in Houston called Valian’s. Redolent of spicy pepperoni sausages, gooey mozzarella cheese, black olives, mushrooms—and the pièce de résistance, salty, ocean-scented anchovies—it was a masterpiece of a pizza—known then as “pizza pie.”
Texans were late in embracing pizza, which was popular among Italian immigrants on the East Coast of the United States from the turn of the century. The first New York pizzeria was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi in his grocery store on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan. His brother, Bruno, opened a similar establishment on Chicago’s Loop around the same time. It was 1939 before pizza made it to Los Angeles.
Before World War II, pizza consumption in the United States was pretty much limited to the Italian population, but American GIs became familiar with it in Italy and brought home their craving for it.
While a pizza-like dish can be documented as far back as 997 A.D. in what is now Italy—and even longer ago in parts of the Middle East—it is the nineteenth-century Neapolitan Italian version of the dish, thin flatbread with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni sausage, that has become the standard. This form of pizza was created by a baker named Rafaele Esposito, and the first pizzeria in Naples was the Port ‘Alba, opened in 1830 and still operating. Its menu today offers more than 50 kinds of pizza, including the famed Pizza Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil), supposedly invented by Esposito in honor of Queen Margherita and embodying red, white, and green ingredients—the colors of the Italian flag.
The origin of the word pizza is obscure. The Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana (1907) suggested it came from the Italian dialectical word pinza (“clamp”) and ultimately from Latin pinsere (“to pound or stamp”). Other linguists point to the Greek pitta (“cake or pie”), which derived from peptos (“cooked”). The word entered the English vocabulary in the 1930s.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou enjoys a pizza now and then, but it gives him gas, which is most uncomfortable for him since he is already filled to capacity with hot air.
When my friend Luigi heats a
Nice and greasy, cheesy pizza,
He removes the pepperoni,
Then adds Spam and fried baloney.
He won’t touch the mozzarella,
Parmesan or mortadella,
Luigi really likes to eat a
Sandwich made with Kraft Velveeta.
All that flatbread makes him sick,
Whether it is thin or thick.
When he wants to be well fed,
His pizza’s made on Wonder Bread.