Pizza: a slice of migration history

Pizza – possibly one of the most popular, tasty and simple things you can have for dinner tonight. But behind its simplicity lies a much more complex history – this is the tale of the Margherita’s migration.

Take ingredients from Naples

Pizza has been around in Italy for more than 1,000 years in differing forms. What we recognise today as pizza was popularised in Naples. This dish began to conquer the world in the 19th century.

The ‘Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana’ (‘True Neapolitan Pizza Association’), which was founded in 1984, sets the very specific rules that must be followed for an authentic Neapolitan pizza. For example, many Naples pizzerias will only use San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. This video shows Neapolitans living and working in Milan in the 1960s, with some working in the pizza industry.

Today, however, you don’t need to be in Naples, or even Italy, to get your hands on a great pizza. In many ways, this is due to movement and migration.

Kraftfahrzeug, Spielzeugmuseum der Stadt Nürnberg (Museum Lydia Bayer), CC BY-NC-SA

Roll the dough across the seas

A number of factors led to a rise in the popularity of pizza around the world. Large numbers of Italians migrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, bringing with them their local food traditions which were enjoyed mainly by Italian and Italian-American communities. What would those original migrants think to the now-iconic New York-style pizza, cut into huge slices with extra thin crusts that you fold in half to eat?

Pizza’s popularity boomed in the years after World War II. Allied troops stationed in Italy during the war ate and enjoyed pizza, bringing their taste for the dish home to their countries. During the 1950s and 1960s,  increased prosperity and leisure times led to populations from other Western European countries holidaying in Italy, discovering the delicious dish and creating an appetite back home for it.

Arrival of Italian guest workers […] in Brunssum, 1957, Historic Center Limburg, CC BY-SA

Add toppings to taste

In these decades too, many Italians moved to Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and other Western European countries as guest workers, and later established their own restaurants. These photographs of pizzerias in Swedish towns in Örebro County all have names associated with Italy: Pizzeria Italia, Pizzeria RomaPizzeria Verona, Pizzeria Mona Lisa and Pizzeria Colosseo.

Like the good ingredients of a pizza, all these factors combined to bring pizza to the world. In the collections gathered in Europeana, we see evidence of pizza’s popularity.

Leaflet advertising for a Hungarian pizza and pasta house, s.d.
Bács-Kiskun County Katona József Library – Kecskemét. CC BY-NC-ND

Local food traditions in individual countries now combine with the original Italian pizza recipes: Japanese enjoy pizza with squid and Tabasco; banana topping is popular in Iceland and Sweden; Hungarian pizzas, promoted in the leaflet above, boast sausage, smoked knuckles, beans, leek and mustard-sour cream sauce.

Pizza & Kebab House i Karlskoga, Johanna Björck, Örebro läns museum, CC BY-NC

In Sweden, one of the most popular dishes – now considered a Swedish tradition – is kebabpizza. It combines pizza, ‘brought’ to Sweden by Italian guest workers, with kebab, brought to Sweden by Turkish and Middle Eastern guest workers. Read more about how the Swedish tradition of kebabpizza came about.

We can also see examples of the mixing of migrant communities’ food traditions in the Netherlands: here are the gyros pizza and the tandoori chicken pizza.

Enjoy with a side of tradition

But, in some cases, the age-old Italian traditions still remain.

My Pizza and bakery shop, Gheorghi Kostadinov, CC BY-SA

At the Roads of Remembrance and Identity – Migration Stories from Romania collection day in Sibiu, we heard from Gheorghi, a Bulgarian man who trained in Italy to be a pizzaiolo and now owns a pizzeria in Romania.

My strong wish is to carry on the tradition of making a good and healthy food, to preserve the old pizza recipes, innovating at the same time. I have brought with me from Italy four traditional pizza peels and even some high quality oven plates made from refractory materials from the Vesuvius Area.

So the next time you tuck into a pizza, think about the ingredients and where these have come from, and the communities who have migrated around the world and helped this dish from one city in the south of Italy become a world favourite.

Featured image: Pizza vegetaria, Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA

This blog post is a part of the Migration in the Arts and Sciences project, which explores how migration has shaped the arts, science and history of Europe.

10 thoughts on “Pizza: a slice of migration history

  1. One of the best place ob the internet to find amazing things from the from European museums, galleries, libraries and archives. This is nice and interesting, so please keep up this great blog alive!

  2. Pizza, as we know it, comes from the Greek word “pita.” As some of you know, Greeks inhabited Southern Italy, and the word “Naples” began as “Neapolis,” a Greek word meaning “New City.” It began as peasant food, and became world famous beginning between the World Wars in the New York area. The Naples Pizza Association, whatever it’s called, is actually revisionist history, and means absolutely nothing. The only REAL pizza is in the NY area of the USA. All other “pizza” attempts to copy it, and is unsuccessful. There’s also REAL pizza in post-WWII Argentina.

    So, get your history correct, before publishing baloney. There was a WONDERFUL “Reader’s Digest” article in the early 1980s that explained the whole thing, not this revisionist history in your article.

    I’ve eaten pizza in Europe, and it’s absolutely horrible. The Italian food is GREAT, but the pizza is horrible.

  3. Pizza in Sweden (and aound the world) is a very disaster! There are some real artists, but mostly they are made in a castraficol way by non Italians or even Europeans! But people who have never tasted a real pizza; yeah it’s OK… But after eating a true Pizza they say WTF This is the real thing! NO to Ananas! and so on… And the paste/bread MUST be fermenting for at least 24H!
    There are some real authentic pizzaioli around but they can be counted with a hand or two.. These Pizzas cost a little more, but they use ingredients, not from cina, and are superior in quality and more important taste.. A huge differens between cinese tomatoextract and the real thing! Trust me!

  4. Hi there,
    I love making and eating pizza. I thought your presentation was a great idea but I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t publish the original Neapolitan recipe. Can you add it to your historical pizza page? Thanks in advance and thanks for a very interesting website,

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