For a food as universally beloved as pizza, the debate over which toppings are best — or are even socially acceptable — can get pretty heated. Well, Americans have voted, and according to a recent OnePoll survey commissioned by the Ohioan pizza chain Donatos, there’s one topping that’s even more controversial stateside than pineapples, jalapenos, and black olives: anchovies. But anchovy pizza (or a dish very similar to it) actually has a long history in Italian cuisine.
The irony of these survey results is that anchovies are a traditional pizza topping in Italy, and have been for far longer than Americans have been eating any iteration of the dish. Ancient Romans ate flatbreads similar to modern-day focaccia that they would often top with garum, a fermented fish sauce made from the innards of fatty fish species such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerels. Garum and related condiments, such as liquamen, made sense for the ancient Romans: Flavorsome pelagic fish were bountiful in the Mediterranean, and after they were fermented, it was nearly impossible for them to spoil.
The Italian inclination to layer anchovies on baked dough even predates the use of tomato sauce in Italian cooking. Europeans were not introduced to tomatoes until the early 16th century when Spanish conquistadors brought seeds back to the continent from Mesoamerica.
The flatbreads ancient Romans ate can’t technically be called pizza. Modern-day pizza is widely traced back to 18th-century Naples where it became a staple food for the lower class. One of the earliest iterations of these Neapolitan pies was pizza marinara, which, according to the European Commission, came onto the scene in 1734. It was a simple dish made with tomato sauce, anchovies, and little else—not even cheese.
Like the ancient Romans before them, poor Neapolitans turned to cheap, abundant, and highly preservable anchovies to add a punch of umami flavor to their flatbreads at little to no cost.
Pizza’s place in America’s culinary canon began in the late 1800s with the first wave of Italian immigrants. The dish gained popularity throughout the 20th century, and, slowly, traditional toppings like anchovies were forced to compete with foods that were eaten more commonly stateside, as well as those introduced by other immigrant populations. By the time frozen pizzas hit the scene in 1950s Philadelphia, American pizza styles were anyone’s game, and the humble anchovy had long lost its status as a go-to topping stateside.
Why American pizzerias have carried on the tradition of offering anchovies as a topping — despite the revulsion they apparently inspire — is anyone’s guess. Mine is that much like the Italians discovered centuries ago, anchovies are packed with flavor, relatively affordable, and easy enough to keep stocked for those instances when umami-lovers do order them.
If nothing else, in a country that loves to argue about its favorite regional pizza styles, it seems anchovies serve as common ground for American pizza-eaters to unite over hating — and finally give pineapple a rest from being the most controversial pizza topping.