The Real History Behind The World’s Most Controversial Pizza Topping

By: Kish
October 22, 2019

Pizza happens to be one of the few foods everyone agrees on. It’s delicious, the toppings, trimmings, and styles are infinite, and it pleases everyone from the pickiest eaters to those with difficult dietary requirements.

Nevertheless, there is one pizza topping that divides friends, families, and even political leaders: pineapple.

In 2019, Dominos advertised it was ready to take pineapple pizza to the next level. And it wasn’t pretty. New Zealand-based stores announced in May that it would be serving pineapple pizzas topped with a can of spaghetti, which had everyone on the internet shocked, but mostly appalled. But why mess with perfection?

As someone who is proudly pro-pineapple, there’s nothing better than the combination of sweet and salty flavors, tempered by juicy bursts of fruit that comes with a slice of a Hawaiian pie. As divisive as pineapple pizza is, it has inspired so many jokes, memes, and Twitter debates, and maybe even broken up a relationship or two.

However, where did it all begin? Who invented the Hawaiian pizza? Does it have anything to do with Hawaii? The inventor, revered by Hawaiian pizza enthusiasts as “Lord of the Pineapples,” and he defended his creation his entire life.

Here’s the history of the always controversial pineapple pizza.

1934 — The Birth Of An Innovator

Sotirios “Sam” Panopoulos was born to Georgia and Vasilios Panopoulos, in the small village of Vourvoura, Greece on August 20, 1934. One of five children, Sam grew up during the Depression, German occupation, and civil war.

Despite living in such a distressing time, nothing kept him from striving for his dreams.

Maintaining his education was important to Sam, as he hoped to one day become a dentist.

As a teenager, Sam put aside his medicinal goals and left the country.

Tagging along with his older brother, before long they were on the way to Canada for a better life.

1954 — Sailing Towards Canada

Daniel Joseph/Pexels

Together they sailed across the Mediterranean sea. Before reaching Canada, they first stopped at Naples where Sam and his brother tried a regional treat.

It doesn’t resemble the pizza we know and love today.

(Kei Photo/Pexels)

But it sounds like an early version of the delicious pie. At a waterfront vendor, they bought a roll that was sliced in half and topped with spaghetti and lashings of sauce.

This version of the meal was pretty new, created in 1889.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

This pizza was baked to honor Italian monarchs, King Umberto and Princess Margherita, while they were visiting the city of Naples. Today, it closely resembles the much-revered Margherita pizza.

Sam wasn’t aware of this, but he did know one thing:

The spaghetti roll left a lasting impression on him. It ended up playing a larger role in his life than he could have ever imagined.

When they arrived in Ontario, Canada, 20-year-old Sam had to quickly find a way to make money.

F.C. Tyrell, National Film Board of Canada/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Working briefly in the mines at Sudbury, he then moved to Elliot Lake, followed by Wallaceburg and then settled on Chatham, almost 200 miles from Toronto.

1959 — Hawaii Becomes A State

Hawaii State Archives/Public Domain

As Sam was settling in up north, big changes were happening elsewhere. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state in the United States.

This is the America Sam would come to know.

And Hawaii would come to be very important to him later on.

1962 — Pineapple Meet Pizza

Flickr/AnoKarina

After their stint in the mines, Sam and his brother Nikitas opened the Satellite Restaurant at 145 King St. W. Serving all-day breakfast and late-night fare, their menu offered traditional American dishes like burgers and fries.

However, Sam was keen to widen the scope of their menu.

Upon hiring a Chinese cook, a slew of American-Chinese dishes flooded Satellite’s offering. New sweet-and-sour dishes opened up diners – and Sam – to a novel taste, and may have inspired what was to come next.

One night, Sam decided to try something new with a can of pineapple.

On a whim, he thought that adding chunks of the tropical fruit onto a pizza could be interesting. “We just put it on, just for the fun of it, see how it was going to taste,” Panopoulos told the BBC. “We were young in the business and we were doing a lot of experiments.”

At the time, pizzas consisted mostly of bacon, pepperoni, and mushrooms.

(bhumann34/Pixabay)

“People didn’t go for a lot of different tastes and foods, you know? The only thing you could find then sweet-and-sour was Chinese, nothing else. Everything else was plain,” he added.

He started sharing it with customers.

“I had pineapple in the restaurant and I put some on, and I shared with some customers and they liked it. And we started serving it that way. For a long time, we were the only ones serving it,” he told Food Network Canada.

And he started mixing it up.

“You could have only pineapple, you could have bacon and pineapple, you could have mushrooms and pineapple, anything. Just like today, you could have a choice.”

In a way, he opened up some serious food fusion doors.

“Today you can go to a Chinese place and have a chicken salad, Thai place they give you something else. But in those days there was no way you could mix flavours,” he told Food Network Canada. “When you told someone to try pineapple on their pizza they looked at you like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

But was he really the first person to put pineapple on pizza?

Yuichi Sakuraba/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Sam insisted that the controversial pineapple and ham combination was a coincidence due to the limitations of pizza toppings. Others are a little more skeptical of his inspiration.

The Greek immigrant has always claimed to be the inventor of pineapple pizza.

However, others aren’t convinced. On the other side of the world, someone else had also come up with a new pineapple concoction.

His claim is disputed by some who insist the dish was invented in Australia.

Flickr/Hellebardius

While others look to an uncanny resemblance between Hawaiian pizza and a 1950s German dish called Toast Hawaii which consists of ham, cheese, and pineapple on toast.

But Sam’s son maintains that’s not the case.

Describing his father as a dedicated family man, one of his sons, Bill Panopoulos  told The Star he“wasn’t looking to get famous.” “He was fiercely loyal, extremely protective, always dependable … extremely funny and generous.”

And the family does not want to debate the merits of the claim either.

“It’s not our story to tell,” his son said.

What’s Hawaii Got To Do With This?

Sam dubbed his pink and yellow-colored pie the Hawaiian but how did he land on the name? Apparently, he just looked at the label on the can and rolled with it.

The timing was impeccable considering the then-popularity of “tiki culture.”

Coinciding with Hawaii joining the United States,  Hawaiian culture was incredibly popular. And Canada was swept into this trend. Mai tais, fruit cocktails, and canned pineapple became a staple in households throughout Ontario.

Pineapple Pizza Topping Was A Hit

Flickr/Peter O'Connor

“People said ‘you are crazy to do this,’” Sam reminisced while speaking with Atlas Obscura. Not only did he love the sweet and salty combination of ham, cheese, and pineapple, but so did his customers at Satellite.

He called it Hawaiian Pizza from the beginning.

In 2015, Sam spoke to Atlas Obscura and when asked whether he still ordered his own invention he responded: “Yeah, I do. I still like it.”

Delivering Was Also A Novel Idea

Wikimedia Commons

Pizza wasn’t as widespread as it was now, existing only in Italy and parts of Detroit – at least according to Sam – which made delivery impossible.

“Pizza wasn’t known at all, actually,” Panopoulos said.

“Even Toronto didn’t know anything about pizza in those days,” Sam continued. “The only place you could have pizza was in Detroit.” Can you even imagine?

But this made fashioning a delivery box impossible.

According to The Globe And Mail, the restaurant cut pizza-sized circles from cardboard boxes scavenged from a nearby furniture store, which they then wrapped in aluminum foil.

1980— Sam Sold the Restaurant

According to BBC, Sam sold the Satellite Restaurant in 1980 and moved to the nearby city of London. He admitted that despite his legacy being pizza-based, he hadn’t cooked one for years.

In fact, he sticks to frozen, store-bought pizzas instead.

His one regret? Not doing more to patent the idea. But ultimately, he’s just “glad we came up with something people like to eat.”

People Are Divided

Despite being an instant hit, pineapple pizza is arguably one of the most divisive toppings. A brief search on Twitter will show you thousands of people on either side of the debate, as passionate as one another.

In 2014, Thrillist published a list of the best and worst toppings.

Security/Pixabay

Pineapple was ranked last. “Poor, misunderstood pineapple. It unanimously scored the bottom spot due to its inherent wateriness muddling the texture of the pizza — not to mention the fact that you just couldn’t find the stuff in Italy back in the day.”

So, pizza purists don’t love it, but why does the president of Iceland hate this pizza topping?

While fielding questions at Akureyri High School in North Iceland in 2017, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson was asked a very important question. One brave student asked the Iceland president his thoughts on pineapple as a pizza topping.

Johannesson joked that pineapple pizza should be outlawed.

Kremlin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

It wasn’t long before news outlets across the world picked up the story. And Sam was contacted with a barrage of requests for interviews.

Speaking with CBC on As It Happens Sam took a few shots of his own.

“He can say whatever he wants,” Sam said of the president’s comments on his invention. “He sells fish over there so he has to put fish on his pizza.”

Johannesseon took to Facebook to clarify his feelings.

The outcry from pineapple pizza enthusiasts was so explosive that the Icelandic president had to clarify his stance. “I like pineapples, just not on pizza,” he explained on Facebook.

He really spells it out for the angry pineapple pizza fans.

“I do not have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza. I am glad that I do not hold such power. Presidents should not have unlimited power. I would not want to hold this position if I could pass laws forbidding that which I don´t like. I would not want to live in such a country.”

He did have a different pizza topping suggestion, though.

“For pizzas, I recommend seafood.”

Justin Trudeau Came To The Rescue

Andrea Hanks/The White House/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Following Iceland president Johannesson denouncing the pizza topping, Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, jumped to its and the creator’s defense.

Trudeau pledged his support with a tweet.

“I have a pineapple. I have a pizza. And I stand behind this delicious Southwestern Ontario creation,” he exclaimed in 2017. Find a more political pizza topping, we’ll wait.

The Great Debate

This inspired a slew of other celebrities to jump in on the heated discussion, drawing a stark line between pineapple pizza topping lovers and haters.

Both sides had a lot of passion.

One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and Michelin star chef, Gordon Ramsay denounced pineapple’s addition to pizza. “Pineapple does not go on top of pizza,” the British chef wrote on Twitter.

Ramsay was then challenged to eat a pineapple pizza.

And even though he complained about the pizza the entire time, at least he was doing it for charity. He didn’t include any of his traditional swearing, as it was on Facebook Live. “It’s like eating moose turds,” he quipped.

“This isn’t a pizza, this is a mistake,” Ramsay said.

He continued to eat the pizza, much to the delight of the crew around him. “The only happy ending for me will be on the toilet tonight, this is gross!” he laughed.

But the naysayers didn’t go unchallenged.

On the other side, Jeff Goldblum was filmed praising the pizza topping, saying there is no such thing as “bad pizza.” And he is the Grand Master, after all, so maybe he’s on to something.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made his own Instagram declaration.

“Keep in mind, I’m the guy who likes to put tequila and brown sugar in my oatmeal,” Johnson admitted, “so pineapple on pizza is MY JAM.”

The pizza was part of his diet for Hobbs & Shaw.

Johnson explained that his trainer specifically told him to eat a ton of carbs, and naturally, pineapple pizza was his choice.

Sadly, Sam Passed Away In 2017

He passed at University Hospital in London on June 8, 2017. Sam left behind Christina Limberopoulos, his wife of 50 years, a son, a daughter, four granddaughters, and a sister, Katerina Papamichael, from Athens, Greece. Both his brothers Elias and Nikitas, passed before him.

He also leaves behind an incredible legacy.

Sam wasn’t just loved by pizza enthusiasts but left a lasting impression on everyone that he meant in his 83 years.

His obituary was a touching tribute to his life.

It described him as an “unforgettable personality” whose “candid and frank sense of humor, his booming laugh, and blunt honesty will be missed by his family, friends, former employees, and customers”.

Fruit on pizza is becoming fairly common.

While we can’t give all of the credit to the inventor of the pineapple pizza, it is safe to say Sam’s bold experiment helped encourage others to try out unconventional pizza toppings.

And for those of you who say fruit doesn’t belong on pizza…

Tomatoes, AKA the base of traditional pizza sauce, is a fruit. (it’s also a vegetable too, but that’s a whole other conversation). So it really isn’t all that far-fetched that people started putting fruit on pizza.

Banana curry pizza is popular in Sweden.

Yes, you read that correctly: banana curry. You can find this pizza on the menu on nearly any restaurant in Sweden that serves the Italian dish. You can make your own with some by putting smoked ham, bananas, and curry on top of your next pizza.

Caramelized apple pairs well with bacon and bleu cheese.

Tart apples, salty bacon, and tangy bleu cheese already sound amazing together. Putting them on top of a pizza just seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

Try placing pears and drizzling balsamic on your next pie.

This recipe from inspired taste has us drooling. This decadent pizza is topped with pears, pecans, mozzarella cheese, and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Or combine honey fig and goat cheese.

Listen, anything with goat cheese automatically has our attention. Add honey figs, and we are officially on board. This flatbread recipe introduces fruit on pizza in a very sophisticated manner.

Feeling wild? Go for a chorizo mango pizza.

Ever think chorizo, mango, poblano pepper, and burrata cheese would make a good combination? Fans of this adventurous fruit pizza swear the dish is a must-try.

Where do you fall on the pineapple pizza debate? Does fruit belong on pizza?