Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food

Alexander Bushroe
So how has 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?
Alexander Bushroe

Pizza, as a food, is unassuming in nature. It's a simple combination of a flatbread base and a combination of toppings, chief among which, at least in modern times, are tomato and cheese.

So how has 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 kinds can we get our hands on here in Shanghai?

The first food resembling pizza began its journey through time in the Mediterranean region some 2,500 years ago, when people there spread out dough thinly and baked it, creating what we now know as flatbread. At first, instead of the main meal itself, the bread was often served as an edible plate of sorts, from which the main course would be eaten, then the bread consumed afterward.

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

So in ancient times, two of the three basic ingredients of the food we know as pizza had come together ... but not yet tomatoes. In fact, the tomato originated in Central and South America and didn't appear in Europe until the 16th century. It seems strange to imagine an Italy without tomatoes, as the fruit is one of the main staples of the country's cuisine today, but it's unlikely that da Vinci was snacking on tomato-based foods during his time, much less the ancient Romans.

By the 18th century, what we now know as pizza appeared in Naples, Italy, as a thin-crusted pie with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and herbs atop it. Though originally viewed as a simple, working-class foodstuff, its popularity grew over the subsequent decades. Its true arrival to the mainstream of food culture in Italy may have come in 1889.

As the story goes, then Italian Queen Margherita was served a pie with red tomato, white cheese, and green basil leaves, the three colors on the country's national flag, and loved the dish, which is now known as Pizza Margherita and is a mainstay on menus at Italian-style pizza shops.

Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food

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 with them their culinary knowledge and treats. Pizza was among them, and in what would be an omen for the food's future around the globe, it was a big hit across the Atlantic.

After arriving in the US, though, pizza began to change and morph into new iterations of itself. Chefs and entrepreneurs would adapt the pizza to suit the tastes of their local area, fuse the concept with ideas from other international types of cuisine, or sometimes just take a creative leap of faith and invent a new type of pie altogether.

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

New Yorkers often argue that their pizza is the true king of the pizzaverse ― and I do mean argue; the pizza debate is a truly passionate and vociferous one. However, the city of Chicago has created its own version of the food, and it differs quite starkly from those of Naples and NYC.

Chicago "deep dish" style pizza is much thicker and heartier than its counterparts and has cheese, tomato sauce, and other toppings piled centimeters thick atop its pan-shaped crust. For many, just one or two slices is more than enough to leave one completely stuffed to the gills, as the sheer volume and weight of the ingredients and toppings make it eat more like a casserole than a traditional pizza pie. Bring a friend if you try this one out.

Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

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

Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food
Sun Minjie / SHINE

A third popular type 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 fluffier, airy crust and cheese that extends to the pie's edge, turning brown and crispy during baking. The slicks of tomato sauce across the pizza's surface bring it all together.

All three of these unique types of pizza are available here in Shanghai: CAGES Bar & Sports offers Chicago-style and Home Slice Pizza has Detroit, both as once-per-month specials.

Pizza as a concept began to further travel around the world during the 20th century, and the food further began to change and be reinvented to combine classic elements with local flair. In Japan, sushi pizza is available, the Australians have Vegemite stuffed crust pie, and one pizzeria in Brazil creates pizzas so extreme they caught fire on social media for their outlandishness.

Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food

Crazy Brazilian pizza: This is a little bit extreme.

Despite the lamentations of pizza traditionalists, the food is adaptable and amendable, and as such, it is constantly evolving. Marketing and advertising ingenuity also serves as a major 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, mushroom, or meat lovers', their menus feature interesting creations that likely would not top the sales charts in the US or Italy. Pizzas topped with carrots, crayfish, or durian stray far from what Queen Margherita enjoyed, but so long as they are enjoyed by customers, I say, no harm done.

I can tell you that this Frankenstein here, marketed by Domino's in China as the "American-style potato and bacon pizza" is absolutely not American in its style, as not only does Domino's not serve it in the US but I have never seen anyone there bake a pizza that even remotely resembles it. But if it tastes good, who cares?

Pizza: the unassuming international comfort food

Despite not actually being American style as its name would indicate, this pizza is popular with consumers.

Much like the popular New Orleans chicken wing, which is a marketing creation for China only ― yes, it's true; it does not exist in the city of New Orleans, and no one there has ever heard of it ― as long as it brings happiness to the palates of some, I'm all for it.

Expand your mind and your pizza-craving palate and enjoy the pies that Shanghai and the world have to offer!

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