Pizza Pi: The innovation of the Italian favorite

Italy is the birthplace of pizza. That is no surprise. The modern form was believed to have been first created in Naples, though its roots seem to stem well back to the Romans. Their rudimentary pizza was a flatbread-type food which led to the pie with sauce and cheese. It’s crossed oceans and taken on new sizes and shapes today to become a food favorite.

Pizza in its purest form was basically peasant food. It was hearty, cheap and could be consumed quickly by laborers. What catapulted pizza’s popularity was when Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. The queen was apparently bored with the standard royal menu items and was intrigued by this street food she had heard about. Her choice of topping was mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. The Margherita pizza was born. Is it coincidence that the colors resemble the Italian flag?

America is pizza’s second home. The last best estimate available points to over three billion pizzas consumed every year in the United States alone. Pizza first landed on the shores of New York City at the dawn of the 20th century by Italian immigrants. It was an instant hit and word spread from coast to coast. After World War II, the expansion of the automobile and suburban sprawl made pizza a natural delivery food fast for hungry Americans.

Pizza has been an innovator, setting the standard for the food industry. A pair of entrepreneurial brothers in Michigan named Monaghan perfected speedy pizza delivery and expanded across the country. They called their company Domino’s and the innovative pizza race was on. The number of styles, shapes and ingredients expanded too. Those pizza purists from Naples didn’t seem to approve. They’re probably not alone. There’s breakfast pizza and dessert pizza. Pineapple on pizza or barbecue sauce replacing tomato definitely has its adversaries. Cheeseless pizza does too. But pizza makers will continue to innovate. That’s what they do.

Domino’s considers themselves a tech company as much as a pizza company. It has its own “Innovation Garage.” Domino’s is the one that came up with the concept of 30-minute delivery, which set the bar for the industry. The advancement of the worldwide web made ordering pizza easier, more accurate and especially cost-effective for the restaurants. Pizza has embraced the Digital Age better than any other food.

Pizza is a $46-billion industry in America. It’s dominated by four companies, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s and Papa John’s. They combine for nearly half of the pizza market. These large organizations were supremely positioned to capture even more business when the pandemic hit in 2020. They had already made major investments in logistics and their digital infrastructures. People were long accustomed to and comfortable with pizza delivery. Small, independent restaurants around the country struggled. Pizza delivery thrived.

Pizza continues to be one of the most popular foods on the planet. And everyone has their favorites. Domino’s is the largest chain with stores in over 90 countries. This year it lost one. Seven years after entering the Italian market, Domino’s is closing up shop in the homeland of pizza. The company had plans to open over 800 Italian stores through 2030. No longer. It shut down its last store. Did Domino’s really think they could succeed in the pizza homeland? That’s my rhetorical question.

Domino’s opened its first store in Milan in 2015. It was through a franchising agreement with a local business. The goal was to create a modern, national home-delivery model that could take on the local artisanal pizza parlors and provide an alternative to Italy’s traditional dining-out culture. Domino’s wanted to make pizza digital in Italy. The move was controversial at best. It was not widely celebrated. It worked for a little while. Covid changed everything.

The small “mom & pop” restaurants were forced to embrace digital and delivery during the pandemic in order to survive. They finally allowed buyers to order quality products and gourmet items straight to their homes. That was completely new. Theirs was the pizza Italians crave. Domino’s lost its edge. Local artisans beat Domino’s at its own game. Italy reclaimed pizza. Some are surprised Domino’s lasted 7 years. Hand-crafted and personalized can indeed compete in the digital age.

March 14 is a busy day for math and pizza lovers. It’s Pi Day: 3/14, stemming from the mathematical constant of approximately 3.14. Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. A pizza is amongst people’s favorite circles. Non-math people often get lost when the subject of Pi comes up. But many get excited when the topic of pizza arises. Restaurants often have special deals for pizza on Pi day. March 14 has turned into one of the busiest days for pizza sales. Innovation is the pizza story.

What’s next on the innovative front? New shapes, sizes, and ingredients are guaranteed. People will try pretty much anything on a pizza. They’ll try anything to make the pizza and deliver the pizza. Robots will be pizza makers. Robots will be pizza deliverers. Artificial Intelligence is used to measure quality and heat in pursuit of the perfect pizza and replicated. The process can be tracked, step-by-step, on an app.