Why Pizza Is Often Called Pie (Is It Even A Pie?)

Pizza and pie are occasionally used interchangeably in recipes and other media. But why name something after another dish? Where did it all come from? I decided to do some research.

Pizza was first called pie when Italian immigrants arrived in the United States in the late 1800s. Pizza had similarities to a pie – with a crust, sliced triangle portions, and its circular shape. Italian-Americans sold and popularized the pizzas, and the exotic dish picked up the English name “tomato pie”. Sometime thereafter the languages met in the middle to give us the term “pizza pie”.

It might be a common phrase to you, or you may only have just seen it used… But I bet you can recall the use of pizza pie by Dean Martin in his 1953 hit “Amore” – “When a moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore”. 

Where Did Pie Come From?

It’s extremely likely it came from New York, with many Italians settling there and introducing the dish. New York has the first written accounts of the word and also the first pizzeria.

One of the earliest uses can be found in an article from the New York Tribune printed December 6th, 1903. The journalist has grouped the new, unfamiliar dish along with pies like many New Yorkers would have done – “the Italian has invented a kind of pie”.

New York Tribune – December 6th, 1903

You can see it was called a “pomidore pizza” back then, with pomodori being Italian for tomato.

Whether it be a preference to create an English term for the dish, or the fact that it was so similar, you can see how the phrase “tomato pie” was likely to come about.

A notable figure at the time was Gennaro Lombardi, aka the father of American pizza. He had a grocery store in Manhattan in 1897 and started selling tomato pies to workers at lunchtime.

He sold pizza by the slice and wrapped it up to take out, and it became a popular and convenient spot for lunch. And from there, New York would start its craze for sliced pizza.

In 1905 he was granted a license to start a restaurant, and this is known as the first pizzeria in the United States. It is still run by his grandson, and the pizza is still cooked in a traditional coal oven.

Although it’s a common misconception that pizza translates directly to pie, it doesn’t. Pizza is used only to describe pizza in Italy and no other pie-like dish. There is more on the Italian origins later in the article.

What Does The Word Pie Mean When Referring To Pizza?

Pizza pie is simply pizza and doesn’t refer to a specific type of pizza – even a thin crust can be called a pie. But where it does matter is when used to refer to the amount of pizza.

When referring to a pizza, the word “pie” or “pizza pie” is often used to describe the whole pizza. As opposed to just one piece, which is more often called a “slice”.

Pie is often used in New York where pizza is a noun that has an unknown commodity, in the same way as something like water. You wouldn’t order water, but a bottle of water. And so with pizza, you would order a pie or slice.

This basically translates to a “pie of pizza” or “slice of pizza”. If you just said “a pizza” or a “piece of pizza” it doesn’t make sense there.

Some examples might be when you use it to order pizza – “I bought two whole pies last week, but just a slice today”

You might use it as an extra noun to describe a whole pizza – such as “I cooked a 14″ pizza in my oven, it was a beautifully cooked pie”.

“Tomato pie” commonly has a thick, rectangular, chewy base like focaccia and is covered in quality crushed tomatoes as the main ingredient. It can be finished with a sprinkling of hard cheese such as Parmesan or other Romano cheese, and olive oil.

Who Calls Pizza A Pie?

The use of the word pie with pizza is solely in the USA and specific regions at that. The full phrase is more common in older generations of Italian Americans.

Now the term pie is used more on its own as slang for pizza – as in “I’ll take two pies to go”

Even in the USA, there is different usage, with the northeast coast having the most common usage, particularly in New York. Some Americans haven’t even heard of the term.

Pizza pie never really took off outside of America – that is perhaps why people get confused if they hear the term pie when talking about pizzas as a pie usually has pastry.

Contrary to what many believe, pizza does not mean pie in Italian. Pizza is its own thing and is its own dish, so you wouldn’t use pizza to describe an actual pie in Italy.

There are other words, such as torta or crostata, which are used to describe pies of sweet or savory filling – but pizza would never be used for these. The word pizza is used only to describe this one dish.

So Where Did Pizza Get Its Name?

Language takes many influences over the years and so the origins of pizza have become blurred, leading to multiple viable sources.

The word pizza is likely to be linked with “pitta” from Greece – the round flatbread which can sometimes contain toppings. The Ancient Greek word “pikte”, meaning “fermented pastry” became the Latin word “picta” which fell into Italian hands.

Or maybe it was from the word “pizzo”, meaning “mouthful” from Lombardic origin when they invaded Italy in the 6th century.

The first record of the word “pizza” was in a Latin text dated 997 AD where it stated the bishop of the Italian town Gaeta, was to receive duodecim pizze or “twelve pizzas” on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.

Other Pizza Names Around The World

Pizza is perhaps the most popular food in the world. The humble and staple food from Napoli conquered the globe with many variations.

The term pizza is used commonly throughout most of the world. There are only a few slight differences that are very similar to the original pronunciation such as where it is spelled or pronounced like “pitsa”.

In Vietnam it is called bánh pizza – and bánh actually translates to cake or pie, so you can see the American influence there.

History And The Use Of The Words

Pizza In The United States

So the word pizza is a very old word but remained encapsulated in Italy until fairly recently. The early 1900s saw the first shops and pizzerias in New York and New Jersey, but it wasn’t until the second world war that pizza truly took off.

American soldiers deployed in Italy brought tales of the tomato and cheese pie that they encountered overseas. It was the combined effect of returning soldiers and Italian immigrants in the US which really brought pizza into the mainstream.

Pizza was eaten mostly by Italian immigrants and their descendants between the late 1800s and 1940. After World War 2 it became more widely consumed.

In 1943 the Chicago deep-dish pizza was invented. By 1953 it was popular enough to feature in Dean Martin’s Amore, and in 1960 it was featured in an episode of Popeye the Sailor.

The rest is history and pizza grew to become one of the USA’s most eaten food, with the growing number of pizza chains and fast food outlets.

Pizza Hut was founded in 1958 and Domino’s in 1960 to become the biggest chains. Research tells us 13% or around 1 in 8 Americans eat pizza on any given day.

Pizza Vs Pizza Pie

This chart shows the Google Books Ngram of the two phrases. This shows the yearly count of “pizza” and “pizza pie” found in sources printed from 1800 to the present.

You can see that pizza pie has never been near as popular. It had a slight rise in the 1990s but is dropping again since. It’s interesting to see the rise in popularity of pizza straight after the start of World War 2.

Where Did Pizza Come From?

The origins of pizza can be claimed by many nations. The Chinese, Middle East, and Europeans all serve round flat bread-like foods with cheese and toppings.

However, the pizza that we commonly know today came from Napoli – it was a working-class meal for the people who lived there.

Napoli is an industrial port, and the wives of the port workers and the street vendors would prepare tomato pizzas for the sea workers – and this is where the “marinara” came from. These would be folded up and eaten easily without a knife and fork.

The toppings were sparse so that the meal could be economical, simple, and probably last longer. It was in 1889 when the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, came to Naples to try the pizza.

Pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created a pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and basil to symbolize the national flag. It was a success and the Margherita pizza was born.

Is Pizza American Or Italian?

The pizza that we know today definitely had its roots in Italy.

A simple marinara or margarita or else topped with whatever ingredients were available to working-class Neapolitans. And this was just the start of the wide variety which can be found worldwide today.

But it was when it was brought to America it was reinvented and then re-exported around the world. Much like other things like hamburgers and other foods, the USA took it to a new level, with bigger toppings and bigger companies.

So while Italy was the birth of pizza, the USA most surely has its own style which has its own stamp.

So Can Pizza Be Considered A Pie?

They share some similar traits – both have a crust, both are round, and are cut into slices. Although pies usually have pastry as a key component – so the idea has some flaws.

The consensus is that pizzas aren’t actually pies, but that is just the name that has stuck. Most sources claim that the term is aging and becoming less common, with older Italian-American generations using the term the most.

Whether it is considered a pie is down to the place and context. If you are in the east coast USA then the term would be easily understood as a pie.

Anywhere else in the world, particularly outside of the United States, and a pizza is not usually considered a pie – so you might not get what you asked for!

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Crust Kingdom. As a self-taught cook, he has been perfecting making pizzas at home for over a decade. Now he runs this site to help millions of people make pizza every year. About Tom Hambly.

4 thoughts on “Why Pizza Is Often Called Pie (Is It Even A Pie?)

  1. Thank you! I’ve been wondering why American people say “Pizza pie” and never got clear answer for years.
    Googling a song by System Of A Down “Chic N’ Stu” brought me here. Thank you for sharing your deep knowledge and love for pizza.

  2. Thank you. Very informative. I’m married to an Italian. Last name is Palermo. His mother’s maiden name is Esposito.

    1. I am Italian also. My grandfather was from Palermo, a larger city in Sicily. Most Italian immigrants were poor and came here for work from Sicily, and Naples area and basically the poorest southern part of Italy. Esposito is a Spanish name , but it is to be expected in Italy because the Spanish invaded and conquered most of Italy for hundreds of years. Not until 1860’s did Garibaldi revolt and unite the City- states of Italy into one country – north and south.

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