Alberti Grandi and Daniele Soffiati are spoiling for a fight with Italian chefs over the history of pizza. Consider the title of their new book: La Cucina Italiana Non Esiste, or Italian Cuisine Does Not Exist.

Hey, they said it, we didn’t.

In the book and media interviews, Grandi, a professor of food history at the University of Parma—which happens to be the home of the annual World Pizza Championship—boldly asserts that Italians have been taking credit for foods they didn’t really invent. In an interview with La Repubblica, he said Italians have built a national identity, at least in part, around their distinctive cuisine, trying to carve out a niche for themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Related: Does this 2,000-year-old fresco depict a distant ancestor of pizza?

The book, which is written in Italian, reportedly states that Italian-Americans living in the U.S. were the first to put tomato sauce on a pizza, and their relatives back in the mother country adopted the ingredient later. It goes on to claim, according to a summary of the book on Amazon, that “many symbolic dishes of ‘traditional’ Italian cuisine, from pizza to pasta, would not have been possible without the fundamental contribution of Italian migrants, who returned from distant lands with some money in their pockets and food products practically unknown until 1900.”

In addition to co-authoring the book, Grandi and Soffiati host the podcast, “DOI: Denominazione di Origine Inventata” (“Invented Origin Denomination”). They have noted that tomatoes are a New World fruit, although they were brought back to Europe by Spanish colonizers sometime in the 16th century.

Today, Italians certainly grow the world’s most famous tomatoes, the San Marzano variety, which are coveted by pizzaioli everywhere.

Even so, the authors claim their research shows that large-scale production of tomato sauce began in the United States in the 19th century and inspired Italian-Americans to slather on the sauce as a pizza base.

“The plant is from America, and so is the use of tomato sauce as the basis for our cuisine,” Grandi said in an interview with La Repubblica, as reported by The Telegraph. “Italians discovered it overseas, thanks to the industrialization of food production. Pizza became red in America. Before that, it was plain focaccia, sometimes adorned with pieces of tomato.”

Grandi and Soffiati believe Italian immigrants to the U.S. started putting tomato sauce on pizzas, then introduced the innovation to folks back home. They also claim that, when WWII broke out, the U.S. had many more pizzerias than Italy.

“Pizza was such a success in America and pizzerias so widespread that the majority of Americans were convinced that pizza was a 100% Yankee dish,” the authors wrote in their book. “That conviction was reinforced during the war. When American soldiers landed in Sicily, they discovered to their surprise that pizzerias barely existed in Italy.”

The authors’ research runs counter to a long-held belief that many American GIs discovered pizza in Italy and returned to their hometowns in the postwar U.S. craving more of it.

But even if Italians didn’t invent the red-sauce pizza that we know today, Italian-Americans almost certainly did. And many of them were likely born in Italy. So it’s more a controversy over geography and, of course, national pride for Italy.

Regardless, Italian chefs aren’t buying the authors’ story. “That’s rubbish. I don’t believe that’s true,” Gianni Altrui of Pizza Re Trattoria told The Telegraph. “It’s the Americans who learned from the Italians when it comes to food, not the other way around.”

Clariston Alves, a Brazilian now living in Rome and managing Antica Trattoria Agonale, dismissed the authors’ claims as well. “It seems a bit ridiculous to me to say that pizza rossa is not Italian,” he said. “Look at this, it’s pizza rossa. The Americans may have adapted it, but I don’t think they invented it.”

The invention of the classic Margherita pizza has long been attributed to chef Raffaele Esposito, who famously made a pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy when she visited Naples in 1889. But descriptions of that pizza list mozzarella, basil and tomato—not tomato sauce—as the ingredients. As Italy Magazine has reported, an earlier pizza variation featured just mozz and basil. 

“Whatever the real origins of this pizza recipe are, all we know for sure is that Raffaele Esposito’s version for Queen Margherita was the one that made it popular,” that article states. “Since then, it has grown into one of the most recognizable symbols of Italian food culture in the world.”

And therein lies the problem. If you want to take pizza away from the Italians, you’ll have to pry it from their cold, sauce-splattered hands.

Food & Ingredients