Why Do Pizzerias Offer Anchovies?

Almost no one likes them.

Those few Americans who do order anchovies might eat them on a cheese pizza, but the original Italian anchovy pies came without cheese.

Photo by Juanmonino/iStockphoto

It’s not clear whether the start of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Thursday will really cost the nation billions of dollars in lost productivity. But common sense tells us that sports-watching means more pizza-eating, so the Explainer turns to what might otherwise seem like a random question from a Slate reader: Why does virtually every pizzeria offer anchovies, even though no one ever orders them?

They’re traditional. Italians have been putting fish on bread for at least 2,000 years. Ancient Romans topped their flatbreads with garum, a ubiquitous condiment made of fermented fish parts, and fish was one of the toppings for pizza when the dish was first developed, in Naples during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The original varieties were pizza bianca, with olive oil and salt, pizza margherita, with milled preserved tomatoes, pizza con pomodori, with sliced tomatoes, and pizza marinara, with tomatoes and anchovies. This was peasant food, and anchovies made an ideal topping—they were cheap, plentiful, and could be preserved almost indefinitely in oil and salt. There’s no indication that Neapolitan sailors, from whom pizza marinara got its name, ever asked for green peppers or pork products on their pies.

When the first wave of Italian immigrants came to the United States in the late-1800s, they brought pizza with them. Neapolitan-owned bakeries sold the pies to factory workers on the street, still keeping to the traditional formulations. In the 1910s and 1920s, as the immigrants prospered and Anglo-Americans began to sample the exotic food, pizzerias started catering to local tastes. They offered a la carte toppings like vegetables and pork, particularly in Chicago, the country’s meat-processing capital. The new toppings soon crowded out the anchovy. (American innovation eventually went even further. When pizza became a mainstream product after World War II, magazines recommended that home cooks experiment with nontraditional toppings like Swiss cheese, onions, and liverwurst. Canadians got into the act, too: an Ontario restaurateur claims to have baked the first Hawaiian pizza in the 1960s.)

Still, some of the original Neapolitan varieties, like pizza bianca, are now unusual in mainstream American establishments, while anchovies remain a standard option. Why has the fish topping kept its spot on the menu? It’s certainly not on account of its popularity. One pizzaiolo told the Explainer that he gets about 18,000 customers per week at his store, of which approximately 50 ask for anchovies. (The most popular toppings are cheese, pepperoni, tomatoes, and onions, according to a 2011 food industry survey.) The 1989 Patrick Dempsey movie Loverboy featured a running joke that no one ever orders anchovies. It seems that pizzerias persist in offering them more out of nostalgia than a desire to sell more pies, and because the cost of doing so is minimal: Preserved fish filets are cheap and last a long time in storage.

There are some American anchovy-lovers, of course, but even these die-hards tend to violate one of the strict, originalist standards for pizza. Pizza marinara, like the other early varieties, was not made with cheese. When Neapolitans started adding dairy, it usually came in the form of a hard grated cheese, like Pecorino Romano, sprinkled on top after cooking. (Parmigiano-Reggiano was expensive and from a different region.) The thick coating of mozzarella was an American addition to the pie; Neapolitan cuisine does not usually mix fish with cheese. Another thing: Tradition dictates that the anchovies used on pizza should be rinsed of salt before baking. Anchovies ought to be savory, not aggressively salty.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks John Arena of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas and Carol Helstosky of the University of Denver, author of Pizza: A Global History.