(A little feature from today's Times Leader in honor of National Pizza Month. Thank you to Dominic DeFelice and DeFelice Brothers Pizza for their input and allowing me to take some photos at their Wheeling/Bethlehem store. Buon appetito!)
It’s that time of year when, after a long day and a dash through the neighborhood on a dark night, families gather in the kitchen to divvy up the goods. Yes, it’s National Pizza Month, and opening that box on the table has become part of the American way of life.
So much so in fact, according to National Restaurant Association statistics, Americans consume pizza at the rate of 350 slices per second, or 46 slices per year for every man, woman and child. For a family of four, that’s 23 eight-slice pizzas per year. In the US, 93 percent of the population eats pizza at least once a month. Pizza is the “go to” food for family parties, especially for families with children under the age of 18. A Gallup poll notes that pizza is the top choice for lunches and dinners with the age 3 to 11 crowd.
America’s favorite topping is pepperoni, which is on more than 36 percent of all orders and totals 252 million pounds consumed per year, but no one knows exactly where this trend began. It did gain popularity sometime between 1930 and 1950. Regardless of which kind, 62 percent of pizza orders include some sort of meat. And with pizza becoming a diet staple, each American also eats around 11 pounds of mozzarella cheese annually. Among toppings, anchovies are the least favorite in the United States.
There are as many topping preferences as cultures throughout the world. The Japanese like pizza topped with eel and squid; Russians like a fish mixture of mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines with onions. Curry is popular in Pakistan, tofu in India, coconut in Costa Rica, hard-boiled eggs in Brazil and shrimp with pineapple in Australia.
Most people think that pizza originated in Italy, Naples to be exact. However, research shows that people were baking bread 7,000 years ago in the Neolithic age. A little later, Ancient Greeks put herbs, garlic and onions on flatbread, and after that various cultures in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia developed their own types of flavored flatbreads.
Naples, as it happens, was a Greek settlement established around 600 BC. The seaport city grew and thrived with explorations and developing trade routes through the centuries, fostering an increasing population of working poor, or lazzaroni. Since many had no kitchens, street vendors and bakeries began selling inexpensive flatbreads with toppings, coined “pizza” (believed to originate from the Latin pista of pinsere, to pound or beat) around the 16th century. Many of the early pizzas were also sweet, and the more savory versions familiar today developed later. Tomatoes found their way onto pizza after European explorers brought them back from trips to the Americas. While wealthy Neapolitans dined on rich foods and wines, the poor “mangia”’d their way into history.
Port’Alba, the first official pizzeria opened in Naples in 1830 and featured an oven that used lava from nearby volcano Mt. Vesuvius. On a tour through Italy with King Umberto I in 1889, Queen Margherita Teresa Giovanni asked to try pizza when they arrived in Naples. Don Raffaele Esposito, owner of long-established pizzeria Pietro il Pizzaiolo, obliged with a special pie topped with tomatoes, basil and, for the first time, mozzarella cheese—honoring the colors of the Italian flag—and he named it for the queen.
The first “official” American pizzeria was Lombardi’s Pizzeria Napoletana on Spring St. in New York City. Gennaro Lombardi opened it in 1905. As Italians immigrated to the US, they also opened restaurants and pizza parlors, introducing their cuisine to a growing American middle class. Soldiers returning from World War II tours in Italy helped spread the word about pizza and boosted its popularity as a tasty, wholesome meal.
Today the $30 billion a year pizza industry serves up the second most popular restaurant menu item, the first being burgers. For consumers over age 50, pizza is second to chicken when it comes to take-out food. Chances are, there is a pizza restaurant nearby because they hold a 20 percent market share of the number of restaurants.
Based on per capita counts, the National Restaurant Association reports that New Hampshire rates the highest with 3.87 stores per 10,000 people. West Virginia ranks fifth in this count with 3.40 stores per 10,000 people, followed by Pennsylvania at 3.26 stores. Ohio ranks eighth with 3.18 stores per 10,000 people. New York, home of the first pizzeria, comes in 15th with 2.63 stores per 10,000, and Hawaii is last on the list with only 1.21 stores per 10,000 people.
Of the chain pizza restaurants, Pizza Hut is the largest in the world. According to Technomic, a restaurant industry consulting firm, Pizza Hut restaurants and delivery/take-out units total 6,120 in the United States alone (an average of more than 120 stores per state and over 8.5 percent of the pizza real estate, but they also have outlets in 90 other countries. Rounding out the top five chains, largest first, are Domino’s, Little Ceasars, Papa John’s and Papa Murphy’s. In total, chains have 47 percent of the total 71,387 US pizzerias.
The other 53 percent are independently owned, Connecticut having the highest percentage of independents versus chains at 87 percent. New York is second with 83 percent independent. Pennsylvania is eighth (76 percent,) Ohio is 13th (55 percent,) and West Virginia is 26th (45 percent independents.)
Locally, regional family-owned DeFelice Brothers Pizza has been serving their brand based on family recipes since 1982. President Dominic DeFelice says that they’ve been able to maintain the integrity of the original pizzas even through their growth to nine stores.
“Our dough is made fresh several times a day. We chop our fresh vegetables in every store. We use 100 percent real dairy cheese,” DeFelice explains. “We used to make our own sausage, but found someone to make it to our specifications when we couldn’t keep up with demand.”
He adds that they used to use fresh tomatoes, but, because of the company’s growth, sought out a producer in the United States who is able to pick and can (fresh pack) tomatoes within a six hour time span, giving DeFelice a consistent product that is as fresh as possible. He believes the fresh products and flavors played a part in the “DeFelice Bros. Special” pizza winning a competition in Italy.
In all, DeFelice Bros. offers more than 20 toppings on the menu, but, true to form, pepperoni is still the top seller, and anchovies sell the least. The above-mentioned “Special” (with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers and onions) and monthly promotion pizzas (in October, it’s taco pizza) are popular, also.
DeFelice and district manager Geno Traficante think people like pizza because “it covers the four food groups:” dairy, meat, grains and vegetables.
“It’s portable and fun,” adds Traficante. “It’s also social and communal. People buy it for parties, to have with friends and family.”
“The key is the fresh ingredients, tomatoes, basil,” notes DeFelice. “We try to keep it simple.”
And with the trend toward healthier, simpler eating, a “better pizza” movement has arisen. Technomic research and surveys indicate that 41 percent of American pizza diners want fresh, local and/or organic ingredients for their pies. Thirty-four percent of pizza consumers said they would pay more for gourmet ingredients, for instance free-range chicken, goat cheese, tapenades, house-made mozzarella and smoked ricotta.
Pizza purists have also united and formed the “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana,” the True Neapolitan Pizza Association. Members have set the parameters for creating an authentic Neapolitan pizza. The dough must be hand-kneaded and rolled without using any instruments like a rolling pin. It must be within certain size guidelines, use ingredients of particular quality and origin and be baked in a wood-fired, domed oven. The association evaluates and designates pizzerias outside of Naples to carry on their historic traditions.
Finally, since pizza has become a huge part of American culture, here are the facts on the world’s largest pizza. The World Record Academy says the largest baked pizza was created in December 2012 in Italy by five Italian chefs raising awareness about celiac disease. Measuring 131 feet in diameter (covering one-third of an acre,) the gluten-free pizza weighed 51,257 pounds and took 48 hours to bake in 5,000 batches. The ingredients included 19,800 pounds of flour, 10,000 pounds of tomato sauce, 551 pounds of salt, 8,800 pounds of mozzarella cheese and 275 pounds of parmesan cheese.
Valenti can be reached at email@example.com.