Yes, the title of this post does verge on clickbait. In the popular imagination and in a large number of articles and books, the history of pizza is located firmly in Italy, and within Italy in Naples. And if not in Italy, then in the United States.
Yet pizza’s history in Argentina ran parallel to its history in Naples from the mid 19th century and it foreshadowed what was to happen in the United States.
And why not? In 1900, Naples was home to half a million Italians, Argentina to 2 million, a large proportion of them Napolitanos, most clustered in Buenos Aires.
So here’s what I can offer of the story of pizza in Argentina. It’s put together from personal experience, general historical plausibility, and such Argentinean publications as I have found on line. All sources are noted at the end. I welcome corrections from more knowledgeable readers.
At the end, you’ll find a rousing coda about why this matters to how we understand food history (and yes, appropriation).
In 1889, Queen Margherita, wife of the second king of recently unified Italy, on a visit to Naples, tasted a variety of pizzas from Pizzeria Brandi. She so enjoyed the one with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil that she had her aide send a thank you note to proprietor, Raffaele Esposito. It’s still displayed on a wall inside. Outside, a plaque outside alerts customers that this is the home of pizza margherita.
Pizza in the late nineteenth century in Naples was in fact a humble, quick meal, a fact long recognized by food historians and laid out in detail by Antonio Mazzotti and Zachary Nowak.
In crowded tenements, few of the poor had a place to cook. Instead they went to street vendors or pizzeria counters and bought slices of bread topped with oil, and smelly onions and garlic.
“Made from a dense dough that burns but does not cook, and . . . covered with almost-raw tomatoes, with garlic, with oregano, with pepper” according to an 1884 newspaper article, pizza repelled those who could afford something better. Another writer described it as “a flattened piece of leavened bread, toasted in an oven, topped with a sauce made of a bit of everything. That black of the toasted bread, that whitish garlic and anchovies, that yellow-green of the oil and fried herbs, and those red pieces of tomato here and there give the pizza an air of complicated grime which corresponds perfectly with that of its seller.”
Complicated grime seemed to sum up Naples where one person after another was suffering acute diarrhea in a cholera epidemic . What caused these agonizing and frequently deadly symptoms no one had any idea, except that it probably had something to do with food or drink. The people of the peninsula, let alone a queen accustomed to the most refined of French high cuisine, were hardly poised to eat pizza, let alone relish it.
In the 1860s and 70s, the nation of Italy was gradually and painfully united, bringing under a single political umbrella people who spoke different languages, ate different foods, and been subjects of different states. Those among the rural poor who had little but corn to eat endured skin problems, diarrhea, dementia, and early death from pellagra. In the cities, too, the poor scraped by. The middle class did better but political differences and fear of disease gave them pause too.
So Italians left, mainly the poor, but also skilled artisans and professionals, many of whom, particularly in the 1860s because they had political differences with the new regime. They went to northern Europe, to north Africa, to the United States, and to Latin America, especially Argentina.
2 million Italians arrived in Argentina between 1880 and 1920, the high point in a migration that had been going on since the 17th century. That was about 1 in every 15 Italians, assuming the population of Italy was about 30 million. (It was half the number who went to the United States, but a bigger proportion of the population).
Letters potential migrants received from those already in Argentina described meat as common as polenta, white bread for everyone, work, land. In retrospect we have learned that in 1913 Argentina, booming thanks to exports of meat and wheat, was per capita the world’s 10th wealthiest nation.
Pizza and the Italian Working Class in Argentina 1880s to 1930s
On disembarking in Buenos Aires, the poorer Italians crowded into the water front barrio, La Boca (the mouth). It’s a barrio that to this day, porteños (the inhabitants of Buenos Aires) think of northern Italian (Genoese), though Italians from other areas also lived there. Once an area favored by the elite, its grand houses had been abandoned when yellow fever broke out in the early nineteenth century. These had become tenements (conventillos) where whole families or groups of single men lived in one room.
In the circumstances, what could be more natural than for those who knew how to reproduce the bakeries of home? The pizza topped with onions, garlic and oil that the Neapolitan immigrant, Nicolás Vacarezza, sold in 1882 replicated the pizza of Naples. He was almost certainly not the first to do so.
Pizza in Argentina, though, although it shared common roots with pizza in Italy (and later in the US), quickly diverged for two main reasons.
First, plentiful cheese allowed for richer pizzas. Agustin Banchero, a Genoese who opened a bakery in 1893, reminisced that in Genoa food was so tight that pizza was nothing but dough and onions. In Buenos Aires he could add lots of extras, including mozzarella.
Second, Banchero, like many immigrants was from Genoa or its hinterland. He had not grown up with pizza but with a different member of the large family of bread-based meals to be eaten out of hand that were found around the Mediterranean: lahmacun in the east, pizza in southern Italy, pissaladiere in France, cocas in Spain, and focaccia. Focaccia, which became fugazza in Argentina, was what he offered, the bread thicker and lighter than Neapolitan pizza, but also topped with onions. If these are covered with lots of cheese, then it becomes fugazza con queso.
Similarly, the Genoese replicated their flat bread or pancake, faina, made by baking a paste of chick pea flour and water on a griddle. (This preparation has various names: farinata, cecina, socca, according to Wikipedia, farinata being the name now used on the Ligurian coast around Genoa. Fainá–the accent may be dropped in Argentina and Uruguay–comes from the original Genoese fainâ, says the same infallible authority).
At some date unknown it became common to place this on top of the pizza, making a sort of pie, a custom that continues today. Details of this have yet to be established but it is known that the brothers Guido from the Piedmont opened their chick pea flour mill in 1914.
Whether Genoese or Neapolitan, the foods of Italy became established much faster in Argentina than in the United States. Partly it was a matter of numbers, both absolute and proportional. There were 10,000 Italians in Buenos Aires in 1855, a level not reached in New York City until about 1880. 25 % of porteños were Italian in 1870, 37% in 1890. In New York City, the proportions were 0.3 and 2.6% respectively.
Partly it was the Italians’ dominance in important areas of food processing. By 1882, 126 out of the 198 bakeries in Buenos Aires were Italian. Italians also owned 25 out of 29 establishments making butter and cheese (including cow’s milk mozzarella) and 66 out of 68 making pasta.
There are intriguing hints of connections between Italians in La Boca and political radicalism. A long tradition, which has little official record, identifies a “Republic of La Boca” of uncertain date or dates from the 1860s through the 1920s but resisting state authorities.
Better attested is the fact that bakers (who also sold pizza in their bakeries) were some of the first workers in Argentina to organize as a union, which was formed in 1886. It was spearheaded by Ettore Mattei and Enrico Malatesta, both born in Italy and part of the international anarchist movement that included Bakhunin and Kropotkin. They wrote its charter, published the radical newspaper El Obrero Panadero (The Bread Laborer), and set the pattern for labor activity and strikes around Argentina for the rest of the century (BTW, ignore the naming of pastries in the preceding link. The author does not understand the Spanish and Italian histories of these).
Pizza was also making its way into the middle class. A “pizza familiar” is one of the 654 recipes in the 1914 8th edition of Francisco Figuredo’s Culinary Art: Practical Classes in Cooking and Pastry-Making Adopted by all the Families, Male Cooks, and Female Cooks of the Rio de la Plata (El Arte Culinaroio: Escuela Práctica de Cocina y Reposteria adoptados por todos las familias, cocineros y cocineras del Rio de la Plata, first edn 1887).
In short, by the 1930s Argentine pizza had taken much the form it has today. It might be a la piedra (on the stone, similar to what we think of as pizza) or it might be al molde (in a pan, somewhat similar to a deep dish pizza). Fugazza was in place and probably faina. Lashings of mozzarella were popular as in fugazza con muzz. As with all Argentinian Italian food it was less red than the popular image in America.
Pizza Goes Upmarket In Buenos Aires 1930s to 1980s
Italians became central to Argentine life much faster than to American life.
In Buenos Aires, the Italians found familiar Catholic churches, a language less distant than English, much stronger Italian institutions, less of an established middle class, and hence more opportunities for upward mobility.
Thus it is not surprising that Italian cuisine in Argentina went mainstream long before it did in the United States. There American Italian cuisine was largely restricted to Italian-Americans and the adventurous in the bigger cities until World War II. Not so in Argentina where Italian food entered both eating out and eating at home for most of the population from the 1920s on.
Although the Depression hit Argentina, it was not as devastating as in many other parts of the world.
(Indeed, Zachary Nowak makes a good case that this was when a pizzeria owner in Naples, struggling in hard times, concocted the Margherita legend of pizza’s origins and forged the letter from the Queen’s aide).
Pizza was still part of working class life in La Boca. Pizza de cancha (pizza of the football field), cold slices with sauce but (I think) not cheese sustained the fans of La Boca Junior, the famous soccer club founded by Genoese and Greeks early in the century and still central to porteño culture.
In the same period, pizzerias sprang up along Avenida Corrientes, one of the city’s most important and famous streets where the theaters and bars clustered. The Banchero family, long in business in La Boca, expanded there in in 1932.
Gallegos (Spaniards from Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain) joined Italians in opening pizzerias. Galicia is famous for its empanadas and I suspect that this is when the common porteño practice of selling pizzas and empanadas in the same establishment became a common pattern.
Many pizzerias still offered slices to buy and eat standing up. Increasingly, though, they also had attractive dining rooms where you could sit at a table. This was the great age of tango, for Argentines not just a ballroom dance, but a whole and sophisticated musical genre. After a performance or after participating, you could refresh yourself with a pizza and a glass of moscato in the pleasant surroundings of a sit down pizzeria.
Pizza might also be prepared at home. When Doña Petrona, herself half Italian and half Spanish, published her cookbook, El libro de Doña Petrona in 1934, the illustration of pizza sat on the same page as the illustration of vol-au-vents (I suspect the dough for both was bought from a bakery). Her book rapidly became the bible in middle class Argentine kitchens, she herself was almost as famous as Eva Perón.
At the end of this period, a third form of pizza became popular in Buenos Aires: the pizza a la parilla or the grilled pizza, bringing together Argentine love for and great skill at various kinds of grilling and their love for muzzarella-topped bread.
[From Dan Perlman. “Pizza a la parrilla, while it’s never become common-place, has been around since at least the late 50s/early 60s, probably before. There’s a small chain of pizzerias called Mamina, one of which used to be here in BA, now I think just two out in the province, that claims to have been open since 1963, and they weren’t the inventors of the idea, it was established when they opened. (This, by the way, gives lie to the claim by Il Forno pizzeria in Rhode Island, who for more than three decades have claimed to have invented the concept of grilled pizza in 1981.)“]
The Internationalization of Pizza in Buenos Aires, 1990s–
As the twentieth century drew to a close, Argentine pizza was swept up in the internationalization of pizza.
At the high end, “real” Italian pizza became available for those who prided themselves on “authenticity.”
At the low end, Argentines who had spent time in New York in the 60s and 70s copied the idea of a cheap, fast food pizza. The low cost Ugi’s, much needed when the economy was in collapse around the turn of the century, has expanded to 30 outlets. On the other hand, Pizza Hut failed to make it in Buenos Aires.
[DP again. “It’s not so much that Pizza Hut “didn’t make it” here, in fact, the corporation behind it , Yum! Brands (back then it was Tricon), has already been moving back in over the last few years, having opened up a couple of KFCs, and looking for franchisees for Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The original franchisee, Exxel Group, in the 90s, had 20 locations, but they sold them to a local restaurant group called Romanaccio in 1998, as the $10 million a year business just wasn’t enough of a moneymaker for a corporate group with annual sales of $2.5 billion in a variety of consumer products. Romanaccio turned 17 of them into their own brand (only 2 or 3 of them are still open, and none within the city of Buenos Aires anymore), and closed 3 of them. I think the economics since the crash in late 2000 just made the idea of coming back in any sooner a non-starter idea.“]
The charmingly-named Kentucky Pizzeria, which had been around since the 40s when gambling friends named their pizzeria after the Kentucky Derby(sorry to disappoint you), began opening new franchises under new ownership from 2010 when things were not quite so dire.
The palace pizzerias on Avenida Corrientes continue as popular as ever.
Argentines celebrate their pizza in songs, cartoons, and in the outpouring of articles and books about its history. Neither New York City nor Chicago has yet published a book on the heritage pizzerias of their city.
The True History of Pizza?
Why should Argentines apologize for their tradition?
Do states or nations own the cuisines within their territory? Or do the people, who have a habit of migrating beyond the territory, own the cuisine? Today 20 million Argentines–half the population–have full or partial Italian ancestry. Over 1/2 million are registered to vote in Italy. When Italy holds elections, the Argentine vote is sufficiently important that paid ads ads appear on the sides of buses in Buenos Aires urging Italians to vote.
National culinary history obscure wide-flung culinary traditions. Pizza is a perfect case in point. In Italy, cultural and linguistic unification, a sense of being Italian rather than Genoese or Neapolitan, was a long slow process after political unification. Culinary regionalism is still prevalent as authors such as Carol Helstosky, John Dickie, and Fabio Parasecoli make clear. Pizza did not become a national dish until relatively recently.
In Argentina, it can be argued that pizza had become not just an Italian but an Argentine dish by the 1950s. It’s even possible, I’d say likely, that the rapid ascent of pizza in Argentina encouraged the wider adoption of pizza in Italy. After all, in the nineteenth century many Italians–los golondrinos, the swallows, went back and forth annually between Naples and Genoa, the two ports of embarkation, and Buenos Aires–working in the harvest in Argentina, then returning home when it was over. 40% of Italians in Argentina returned for good. With them went memories of a more abundant food supply, of pizza that was more than bread and onions. They also travelled and corresponded between Buenos Aires and New York, less frequently perhaps, but still in significant numbers.
Yes, I realize this flies in the face of all our culinary instincts. Why, though, should it be thought that the movement of dishes is one way, that they become less and less “authentic” the further they get from the nation of origin?
If there’s no evidence for back influence or cross influence in this case as in many others, is it because it doesn’t exist? Or because we are not looking for it?
Edit. Informed commentary on pizza in Argentina
I was delighted a week after I published this blog post to have a long commentary from Dan Perlman. When we lived in Buenos Aires, his Saltshaker site was invaluable. I highly recommend it. I’m sure his travel guides are just as invaluable. And if we ever get back there, I shall certainly sign up for the private dinners in his home.
Dan made a number of corrections to the story I told, which I have inserted in my post in italics. You can read his entire letter in the comments section.
On the history of cuisine in Argentina
The best book in English is Rebekah Pite’s Creating a Common Table in Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women and Food (2013)
For Italian Argentines, Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Land of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870 to 1914 (1999).
On the history of pizza in Italy
There are lots of secondary sources but by far the best are two recent offerings.
Antonio Mattozzi, ed. and trans. Zachary Nowak, Inventing the Pizzeria: A History of Pizza Making in Naples (2015 for 2009)
Zachary Nowak, “Folklore, Fakelore, History: Invented Tradition and the Origins of the Pizza Margherita,” Food, Culture and Society (2014)17, 103-124.
See also Alexandra Grigorieva, “Naming Authenticity and Regional Italian Cuisine,” in Richard Hosking, ed., Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005 (Prospect Books, 2006): 211-216.
On the history of pizza in Argentina
Pizzerias de valor patrimonial en Buenos Aires, 2008. Click the link and you can download this 200 page book with lots of photos and maps showing where pizzerias cluster.
The history of Italian influence on the table of the people of the Rio Plata (blog post by Miguel Krebs, 2009).
Pizza criollo: What remains of its illustrious past? (Academia Argentina de Gastronomía citing Argentine anthropologists Marcelo Alvarez and Luisa Pinotti, A la mesa: ritos y retos de la alimentación argentina (2000)).
Facebook page for Pizzería Las Cuartetas with lots of historic photos
The Ministry of Culture’s Pizzerías de Valor Patrimonial de Buenos Aires (Blog post by Myri in Spanish)
The pizza tradition in Buenos Aires (Jorge Ricci in El Nave in Spanish)
The history of pizza in Buenos Aires from the pioneers to the gourmet wave (Einat Rozenwasser in Clarín, 2016 in Spanish). Quotes from pizzeros.