Though Italian in origin, pizza has become a distinctly American mealtime go-to turned massive obsession. These days, pizza seems to be everywhere. We’re not just talking sit down restaurants and pizza parlors. Somehow, this pie-shaped meal has come to mean something greater for us culturally. For many of us, it’s something we can eat with a shocking amount of regularity in a broad range of quality, all of which are arguably, equally beloved.
Today we celebrate our love of pizza through Internet memes and emoji. The 80’s and 90’s babies among us fondly recall hanging out at the mall with their friends before heading to their favorite pizza joint, only to see everyone they knew chowing down on a pie.
While pizza love has always been a given for us, have you ever wondered why we’re so enchanted by the warm, starchy dough, the gooey, rich pillows of cheese, or the luscious flowing sauce? At Giordano’s, we’re obviously passionate about the pie, but we’ve never really looked at why that is. Until now. Some say its science, others say its pure millennial whimsy and nostalgia. Whatever the case, we have a feeling the pizza craze is here to stay.
From Ancient Greece to Millennial Madness – Pizza Through the Ages
- Deep Rooted Origins — Perhaps to better understand our long time love affair with a big pizza pie, we must take a look at its where it came from. Though we generally attribute its invention to the Italians, pizza’s origins trace back much further — to Ancient Greece. Though not quite the delightfully greasy and versatile dish we know and love today, the Greeks developed a delivery method for carbs and tomatoes in one fell swoop, dubbing it pitta (similar name, no?).
- Italians Make it Their Own — Italians, specifically Neapolitans, took this “pitta” and ran with it. Topping with cheese and firing in brick ovens, these pizza makers have continuously perfected the art of pizza. Around the 1700s, Naples had become a booming maritime community, with many of its working class people leading lives mainly outdoors — most people only had one-room homes. Due to the confines of the populist lifestyle, there was a need for meals to be easy to make and quickly consumed. Hence, the birth of the Italian pizza as we know it.
- Enter the Margherita — While the lower classes of Naples had been eating pizza for quite a long time, pizza had yet to become something enjoyed by all classes. Finally, in the late 1800s Raffaele Esposito, a baker, developed a dish that was suited to feeding royalty. Word on the street is King Umberto and Queen Margherita travelled to Naples, making a stop at Esposito’s bakery. In an effort to impress the monarchs, he chose to top his creation with the colors of the Italian flag using mozzarella, tomato, and basil. The king and queen, reportedly, were quite taken with the dish, and word quickly spread throughout the country. Bakers everywhere soon replicated the dish, and the rest is history.
- Pizza Comes to America — When Italian immigrants began making their way to the US in early 1900s, they brought pizza with them. An immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi applied for the first New York business license to make and sell pizza back in 1905, in order to sell pies in his grocery store. From there, others followed — pizza started to spread from New York to New Jersey, to Boston and beyond. The old-style pizza (what you’d think of as New York pizza these days) was made with a thin crust and minimal toppings. They were simple pies, a working class comfort food of sorts.
- Chicago-style Arrives on the Scene — As a Chicago born pizza institution, we may be slightly biased here, but you can’t mention pizza without talking about our beloved hometown pies. Pizza’s popularity spread from east coast cities like New York, New Haven, and Philadelphia as more and more Italians began moving west in the 1920s, eventually forming one of the country’s largest communities of Italian Americans. While the city started with the more traditional pie, World War II and its various shortages contributed to the rise of Chicago’s signature pies. See, flour, corn oil, yeast and salt were not on the list of foods that needed rationed. As a result, one could make a pie and fill it with all kinds of stuff — like meat and veggies leftover from other meals. The deep-dish format developed as a solution to filling the hungry bellies of manual laborers.
- Chain Domination — The pizza landscape began to change when big chain restaurants began to enter the fold — Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Little Caesar’s all emerged around the same time — between 1958 and 1960. This marked a shift away from the old country craft pizza, to something that the chains could commoditize and replicate across several stores nationwide. Independent pizza shops began to close, as they couldn’t compete with chain restaurant prices, and pizza’s image began to shift into this sort of fun, shareable and cheap food.
- Pizza Today – While the chains really dominated the latter part of the 20th century, independent pizza restaurants never exactly went away. Those that remained have a certain reverence, a cult status. Plus, many new, higher end pizza restaurants have been taking the nation by storm. These days, the gourmet pizza we see popping up in trendy, hipster neighborhoods is more like authentic Italian pie than the highly commercialized fan favorites. Personal-sized and uncut, pizza generally serves as an individual meal, complete with utensils.
Millennials Love Pizza
The inevitable “blame the millennials.” We’ve all seen it. The 20 and early 30-somethings running about town with their love of pizza displayed prominently both in the real and digital worlds. From hats and tees to pizza-themed artwork and even tattoos, the millennial love affair with pizza truly knows no bounds.
So why is that? There’s some sort of no-brainer reasons that first spring to mind.
- It’s Affordable — Sure, you can splurge on a high-end pie, but those times where money was tight? You bet a frozen pizza was there to stay in with you and watch reruns on the TV. Most American teenagers can recall a time where socializing over a shared pizza was one of the only affordable ways to hang out with friends. Same goes for the subsequent college years. Split a pizza with some friends, and you’ve got a cheap, fun to eat meal that you’ll only have to throw a few bones at to be well-fed.
- It’s Shareable — What’s more communal than enjoying a deep dish pie with your family, or a New York-style thin crust with a couple of your best buds? Besides fostering a strong sense of community, pizza also pleases everyone with relative ease. What other type of food eliminates all the hemming and hawing that goes into deciding how to feed a large group of people? Sure, you can eat just about anything out of a communal trough, but no one is going to be happy about it. Order sandwiches for a large group, and you’ll get at least a dozen different preferences regarding meats, condiments and bread types. The ultimate crowd pleaser, pizza has the ability to feed the masses — order a couple pies, say a pepperoni and a cheese, and everyone will appreciate it.
- You Never Get Tired of It — Okay, maybe you went on a long Hawaiian pizza bender or overindulged by eating an entire Barbecue Chicken White Pie in one sitting. If that’s the case, maybe you’ll need a bit of a palette cleanser. However, we’re sure that change of pace just happens to come in the form of a refreshing (sort of?) reshuffling of toppings. After a Margherita overload, try a Supreme pizza topped with Italian sausage and just about every veggie under the sun. If you’re sick of super thin crust, get some Chicago deep-dish in your system, stat. In any case, you can never go wrong with plain old cheese, and even if you do, the endless flavor combinations and varying crust thicknesses could have you eating a different pie every day for years to come. Now that sure sounds amazing.
- Long Established Delivery Options — Sure, these days you can get anything delivered, sandwiches, Pad Thai, even beer and meals that have yet to be assembled. But pizza delivery, well, that’s been around forever — well, a couple of generations, at least. The quintessential convenience food you can eat while walking around, call anytime you need a dinner in short order has been arriving straight to your doorstep for decades — long before literally everything could be arranged for delivery.
- And the Big One… Nostalgia — From 90’s pizza joint hang-outs to the pizza celebrations at school parties or after the big soccer game, pizza played a big role in the average American Millennial’s childhood. What other food accompanied you to sleepovers and school dances, went to college with you, and was always there through times both good and bad? While artisanal, oven roasted pies have been hugely popular as of late, there’s something special about a no-frills pepperoni pie, complete with the little puddle of grease — granted, some of us tried to wipe it off with a napkin in an effort to be healthy.
Let’s Get Our Science On!
Pizza is truly a pop cultural touchstone, but whether our near universal love of the cheesy stuff is purely a social construct or there is hard data that definitively proves a biological reason behind the craze remains unknown.
So, can science explain our unabashed collective love for the pie? Crazy as it sounds, there may be something there. This may be a bit of stretch, but scientists have chalked it up to pizza containing all the right ingredients to make our brains’ pleasure centers react a certain way when we bite into that perfect cheesy slice.
Here are a few scientific tidbits that can help explain our collective obsession with pizza:
- The Sixth Taste — A new taste has been added to the lineup, joining sweet, sour, salty and savory (aka “umami”), this time representing “starch.” Pizza is a carb lover’s dream, and scientists at the University of Oregon have discovered there is a certain receptor in our brain that responds to carb heavy foods. The idea is, there may be an extra taste in the mix, they just don’t know exactly what part of the tongue picks up on the flavor. While this study primarily focuses on why humans are generally enamored with carbs, we can’t help but think we’re closer to figuring out why we seem hardwired to love pizza.
- Basic Food Science — All the best chefs know that ratios are key when developing a new dish, balancing acid, sweet, salt, etc. so the whole mouth gets bathed in flavor just the right way. Pizza seems to inherently possess all the right balance, and it’s had millennia to get it right. With its Ancient Greek origins, centuries of tinkering by Neapolitan pizza chefs, and finally, its American evolution as it travelled from New York to Chicago, California, to even, yes, St. Louis — pizza has been taken to the next level time and time again.
- Just the Right Chemical Reaction — Something magical takes place in the oven and we know it. The Maillard reaction could be the most definitive reason we’re simply obsessed with a big pizza pie. Basically, it’s a chemical reaction that takes place upon heating between a reducing sugar and an amino acid. What happens is browning occurring when certain foods cook — for example, when bread is toasted or meat roasted. While the Maillard reaction happens with all kinds of foods, releasing different flavors depending on which amino acids are in play, the reaction takes place on multiple levels with pizza. For example, when cheese cooks, it becomes brown and bubbly, developing a new flavor as the enzymes break down. The same goes for the dough, and any meats that happen to be on top.
- Scientists Say that Mozzarella is the Best Cheese for Melting — We’re not sure why scientists decided to study what cheeses melt best, but we’re glad they did. While we feel confident saying that mozzarella is the best cheese based exclusively on the fact that pizza is amazing, there’s some real data here. According to Time magazine, scientists in New Zealand studied a variety of cheeses to determine which ones melted best.
After comparing gruyere with cheddar, Edam and mozzarella, scientists determined the white pizza cheese to bubble and brown more effectively than the others. Mozzarella is also stretchier than other cheeses, lending itself to that oh-so-scrumptious stretchy, gooey pizza experience. While this revelation doesn’t explain the other components of why pizza is just so darn loveable, we think the right cheese is probably a good chunk of it.
Custom Pies — Pizza as An “Inclusive” Meal
Chicken pizza? Ranch sauce? Vegan cheese? Anything goes in today’s wild world of pizza. From fig-topped personal pizzas with grilled onions to pumpkin and prosciutto artisanal pies, we’ve never had so many choices when it comes to pizza. While some purists scoff at the mere suggestion of shaking up a good old-fashioned Pizza Margherita or just a sloppy slice of pepperoni, part of why pizza is so endlessly delicious is the ability to make all these changes. Unlike other recipes, it’s hard to fail, unless you somehow top your pie with the world’s worst ingredients.
What’s so great about pizza is that it has essentially become a symbol of our great American melting pot (or shall we say melting pie). The diversity of ingredients available makes pizza an inclusive food, offering something for everyone, whether they have allergies, a restrictive diet, or just want to experience a new family of flavors.
Pizza, Pop-Cultural Phenom of the Century
Any way you slice it, pizza has long had a stronghold on American pop culture. Think “Friends,” “The Simpsons,” both “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2,” a rousing sartorial endorsement from pop queen, Katy Perry who donned pizza onesie and OG hipster hero, Bill Murray. Frankly, we think pizza has far more staying power than the bulk of our current crop of pop starlets and boy bands.
Can you think of another food that can make so many high profile appearances without backlash from the masses? Nope. Pizza lovers all over continue to tweet about how “pizza is bae,” (BAE in millennial speak means, “before anyone else”), order their pie by texting a pizza emoji to a certain national pizza chain, and proudly wear their slices and pepperonis on their bodies.
Pizza is the ultimate millennial symbol — present in all things ‘90s, from animated classics like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to the mall and skate cultures that thrived two decades ago. It’s the food that’s been there at every stage in the millennial coming-of-age. Look at it this way, pizza grows up with us — one of the first foods we’re able to eat on our own, present at most young Americans’ milestones like birthdays, parties and sleepovers. Perhaps first dates and dances, and right up to the entry into adulthood, when cash strapped millennials needed quick nourishment for a reasonable price.
And don’t even get us started on the social media following pizza has amassed. From Twitter and Tumblr to Facebook pages galore — pizza’s influencer power goes well beyond that of any world leader or pop star on the planet.
Now maybe we’ll never know the true reason that we’re all so obsessed with pizza, whether it’s the convenience, the massive pop cultural influence, some innate biological response or any other factor that comes into play, it’s all largely dependent on the individual and their relationship to the pie. Whatever the reason, what we do know, is that we love pizza, and it’s sure got staying power.
But, all theories aside, there’s no denying that pizza has its grips on a big slice of our hearts. There’s no other food as beloved by nostalgic millennials, children, the no-frills working class and the Instagram-crazed foodies of today. And that’s quite an accomplishment.
And if You’re Hungry? Stop by Giordano’s
We’ve told you about the story of pizza in general, but the Giordano’s story begins about 200 years ago in near Torino, Italy—with a recipe for stuffed pizza. Since then, we’ve taken the Chicago pizza scene by storm, spreading the love of both pizza and deep-dish beyond its humble origins.
Should you find yourself hungry in Chicago, we’ve got exactly the right pie to satisfy any incoming pizza cravings. At Giordano’s, our extensive pizza menu has something for everyone, pizza purists and those chasing the next big flavor alike. Come on in and fuel that pizza obsession. We guarantee you’ll be in good company.