Pizza toppings go well beyond the humble pepperoni these days. The simple dish has become increasingly complex over the years, and pizzerias have gotten bolder with their choices. You can get BBQ chicken pizza, Thai chicken pizza or Jamaican jerk pizza from a franchise, whether it be Papa John’s or California Pizza Kitchen.
Frankly, there are only two pizza ingredients that will get you a sideways glance these days. One is pineapple, which is a divisive choice.Then, there’s anchovies — if you like anchovies on pizza, you are considered weird.
This is a well-established food trope, but how did it come to be?
Anchovies are synonymous with pizza — despite the fact that nobody likes anchovy pizza —
and you generally won’t see them unless they’re in a fancy Caesar salad or crammed together and packed in olive oil. People don’t put other kinds of fish on pizza, even sardines.
Anchovies’ ties to pizza, though, go back to the beginning.
Fish on bread has been eaten in Italy since the days of Ancient Rome, and that practice continued with the invention of the pizza. One of the very earliest pizza variants offered was pizza marinara, which came with tomatoes and anchovy (and, in the first iterations, no cheese). Why anchovies? Because they were cheap and abundant. They are, after all, small little fish that filled the Mediterranean. They were also easy to preserve with a little oil and salt. Pizza was a “peasant food,” the 18th-century equivalent of fast food, and peasants liked stuff that was cheap and didn’t go bad, hence anchovies. They weren’t weird. They were commonplace and traditional.
When Italians started immigrating to the United States, they brought their foods with them, including pizza, and including anchovy. Pizza started to click with non-Italians in the 1910s, and then pizzerias started catering to other palates. These people did not grow up eating salty little fishes on their pizzas, and so anchovies became less popular, until they weren’t popular at all. Ham, and even Italian sausage, just made more sense.
When, however, did anchovy pizza become a joke, shorthand for “this person likes weird food?” A Slate article notes that the Patrick Dempsey vehicle Loverboy made a joke about anchovy pizza in 1989. Michelangelo, the noted party dude amongst the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, put anchovies on pizza, and he was well-known for his bizarre pizza concoctions. One time he combined anchovies with onion and, um, butterscotch. Obviously, that’s gross. I’m not going to defend that. The Olsen Twins bring up putting fish on pizza in their infamous rap, but they didn’t specify anchovy — they were very pro fish on pizza. On the other hand, they were also pro ice cream on pizza. They were dangerous lunatics and their behavior should not be condoned.
There’s also an entire Futurama episode based around Fry’s love of anchovies, and when everybody else eats them they think they are gross. Save for Dr. Zoidberg, that is. So, in short, the only characters who enjoy anchovies are inveterate gross loser Fry and eternal punching bag Zoidberg, who has been referred to as a “grotesque, stinking lobster” who “smells like he eats garbage, and does.”
Naturally, this could all only end in one way. I had to eat an anchovy pizza and know for myself. Would it be gross? Would I understand why anchovies had such a bad, laughable reputation? Or would I zig where most zag, and become an anchovy advocate?
Photo by Chris Morgan
In high school, my friend Kevan and I once ate spoonfuls of salt at a diner — I’m talking big heaping spoonfuls — until my heart started racing and he got nauseous and lightheaded. Those spoonfuls of salt were only slightly saltier than this anchovy pizza. The second I bit into that pizza all I could taste was salt—then I was hit with a fishy aftertaste. The consistency was still the same. The crust was actually quite good, not soggy at all, but I can’t tell you a ton about the cheese, sauce or onions, because anchovies are overpowering.
That’s not to say the pizza was bad. The anchovies weren’t unpleasant, especially once I got accustomed to their salinity. The fishiness under the salt does have a nice flavor, but it can get exhausting if you’re eating an entire pizza.
It makes sense why anchovy pizza became a thing centuries ago in Italy. The fish were cheap and readily available so why not slap them on bread with some sauce? Back in the day, you took what you could get.
Culture changes and traditions change. We still have Thanksgiving, but we don’t eat the foods they ate at the first Thanksgiving. We eat turkey instead of deer or whatever. Likewise, we eat pepperoni instead of anchovy. We don’t live right off the Mediterranean where anchovies abound. Anchovy pizza is antiquated, a relic of a bygone era that was destined to fall out of favor. It’s also not bad.
They aren’t going to overtake pepperoni and mushroom anytime soon, but if you’re a fan of salty foods, don’t be afraid. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Chris Morgan is the author of The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. He’s also on Twitter.