The Real History Of Pizza In America
You can’t say you love pizza, I mean really love pizza without knowing some pizza history! I’ve had the special occasion to talk “shop” with Bill Rice, the owner of TJ’s, on numerous occasions. Inevitably our conversation turns to not just pizza, but famous pizza. Both of us being from the Northeast, we have a special fondness for good pizza and good stories.
Recently, Bill and I were speaking about the best pizza we ever had and the name Pepe’s came up, that famous spot in New Haven, CT…and that was the inspiration for this story! We wanted to trace the history of pizza in America, but to do that we have to give a little backstory of pizza history 101…
So, today, I’m going to trace the history of pizza: an interesting story but at times a tangled narrative. Further down the road, we will do an article on the regional differences that have influenced different pizza styles. And last, we will visit my list of the best pizza in the U.S. All, I am happy to say, I tasted.
Most pizza history begins in Naples, Italy, as if the Neapolitans cooked up the idea out of the air. Actually, flatbreads date back to Neolithic times (12,000 yrs ago). Civilizations throughout the Mediterranean developed their own versions. In fact, there is good evidence that the ancient Greeks brought plakous (their flat and round cheese pie) to southern Italy when they colonized the coastal areas between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C. Pita (which means pie in modern Greek) refers to a leavened flatbread and might be the forerunner to “pizza,” both the word and the food.
There is good evidence that the ancient Greeks brought plakous (their flat and round cheese pie) to southern Italy when they colonized the coastal areas
Ancient Pompeii Oven Ruins from Forno Bravo
In the Mediterranean Basin, the idea of a flat yeast bread covered with baked-in toppings is hardly unique to Italy. Across the French Italian border, Nice (France) has a pessaladiere garnished with caramalized onions, anchovies, garlic and olives. Catalonia (Spain) embellishes its coca with red bell peppers, olives, tuna, sardines and onions. The Turkish version of lahmacun from the Arabic for “meat and bread” is slathered with lamb and a tomato mixture and is often identified as Turkish pizza.
But the story of pizza really begins in the sixteenth century when the name was introduced in Naples, or the eighteenth century when Neapolitans tried it with tomato, or the nineteenth century when a Neapolitan discovered the perfect pizza pairing of tomato and mozzarella.
Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, Oldest Pizzeria In The World
By 1522, tomatoes had made their way over to Europe from the New World. The tomato, though, did not receive a warm welcome; it was greeted with scorn and alarm. Rumors were that tomatoes were poisonous. Europeans, new to the tomato, found its texture suspect (to say the least) and thought they looked spoiled when ripened.
Eventually, the poor people of Naples who only had flour, cheese, herbs and lard in their sparse pantries, added the vilified tomato to their mix, thus creating a simple pizza.
Founded around 600 B.C. as a Greek settlement, Naples, Italy, was a thriving waterfront city. Although known as a well-off city, it was densely packed with multitudes of working poor who typically lived in shanty homes. The workers needed inexpensive food that could be consumed quickly during their days of constant labor. Thus, pizza (with various toppings) for any meal, sold by street vendors or informed restaurants, met the need. Evidently, the poor people of Naples were eating some of the earliest pizzas, garnished with tomatoes, cheese, oil, anchovies and garlic just like we do today.
That’s Some Real Pizza History!
In 1830, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba was opened in Naples. Most historians consider this to be the world’s first pizzeria. It became a meeting place for artists, students or others with little money so, in most cases, the pizza was simple. Wedged between two bookstores, the pizzeria is still in business today serving delicious Neapolitan style pizza and some beautiful pastas.
For a long time, pizzas were derided by food writers. Associated with the crushing poverty of the workers, they were frequently belittled as disgusting by foreign visitors. In 1831, Samuel Morse (the inventor of the telegraph) described pizza as a “species of the most nauseating cake…covered with tomatoes and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients, it altogether looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer.”
When the first cookbooks appeared in the 19th century, they pointedly ignored pizza. Even those cookbooks devoted to Neapolitan cuisine disdained to mention it, despite the fact that there was some improvement in the economic situation of the poor such that they were actually giving rise to pizza restaurants.
There is an old saying that when legend becomes fact, print the legend. The storyline in almost every pizza history is that pizza became mainstream and accepted by the well-to-do because of royalty. Legends hold that the Italian King Umberto and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889.
After they tired of French cuisine (a mainstay of European royalty), Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi was summoned to prepare a variety of pizzas for the bored Queen. Her favorite was the pizza alle mozzarella. Red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil: the colors of the newly unified Italy’s flag. In her honor, Esposito named the pizza Margherita. Brandi Pizzeria received a thank you note signed by Galli Camillo, head of table of the royal household, dated June 1889. Brandi proudly displayed the thank you note.
But historians studying the seal of the letter and comparing the handwriting to other documents written by Camillo concluded this is a forgery. Also, six years before the supposed meeting with the queen, Esposito was petitioning the Naples government to let him call his restaurant “Pizzeria della Regina d’Italia” or Pizzeria of the Queen of Italy. Getting people to believe royalty ate his food was a long term hustle by Esposito, and his tenacity allowed him to fool the world. Pizzeria Brandi is still in operation and the letter is framed on a wall.
The Alleged Sponsor Of Margherita Pizza, Queen Margherita of Savoy
In the end, letter or not, Esposito made a major contribution to the pizza world. Research concludes that he was the first Neapolitan to wed mozzarella to tomatoes…and for that we should be grateful.
If you read pizza histories, over 95% will report the Queen Margherita story verbatim. It’s just not true and confounds me that people who take stances as authorities repeat it! Pizza was slow to move out of Naples, but the move was eventually spurred by immigration. Between 1880 and 1950, more than 25 million Italians left Italy in search of work heading to other parts of Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the world.
Pizza In America
Immigrants from Naples were replicating their pizzas in New York and other American cities including Trenton, New Haven, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. The Neapolitans were coming for factory jobs (as did millions of Europeans in the late 19th century and early 20th century). They weren’t seeking to make a culinary statement. Yet, pizzas were becoming popular because of the sheer number of Italian immigrants. Neapolitans and southern Italians opened bakeries and grocery stores that fed other Italian immigrants. However, for the most part it remained a city thing, an ethnic thing, and few non-Italians in the first half of the 20th century had ever heard of pizza.
Now, we have reached another ‘print the legend’ situation. Folklore has long held that Gennaro Lombardi was the founder of the first pizzeria in the United States. Legend has it that he received his business license in 1905 for a pizzeria at 53½ Spring Street in NYC. This “fact” has always been a closed case. But there is a little more to the story with recent research. It seems that another man, Filippo Millone, who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1890’s, probably started six pizzerias…including the one Lombardi took over. What does this mean? That Millone is the father of pizza in America, not Lombardi, who was fresh off the boat and only 18 years old when the restaurant that bears his name was supposed to have begun.
Filippo Milone, The True Father Of U.S. Pizza
Millone seems to have made pizza in Naples and he arrived in New York in 1892. Records are sketchy, names misspelled, but one immigration note lists him as a pastry chef, probably a mistake by an official that had never heard of a pizza maker. Business directories show that a Filippo Millone opened a grocery store at 53½ Spring Street in 1897. By 1898, he was advertising pizza for sale at this location in local newspapers. By 1901, the shop was owned by a Giovanni Santillo, and in 1905 there is an ad in a local Italian newspaper for a business called Antica Pizzeria Napolitana with Santillo listed as the head pizza maker.
Also around this time, there are business directories indicating that Millone opened a pizzeria on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village called John’s. Thus, Lombardi never owned a pizzeria in 1905. There are no records of him applying for a license. There is a famous picture of him at 53 ½ Spring Street (probably taken in 1908) standing in front of a sign saying “Lombardi’s.” Yet, in 1909, Francisco B. Errico was listed as owner of the restaurant.
That’s Amore, by Dean Martin
What to make of all this? Gennaro Lombardi was certainly an early pioneer of New York City pizza, but he is only one of many people.
Filippo Millone had no family and is buried in an unmarked grave in Queens, but if we look at the record, he is the unknown father of pizza in the United States.
The first pizzerias in the U.S. were visited mainly by Italian immigrants and were probably hang out spots for men, especially in the evening. In the 20’s and 30’s, they started to proliferate, and some even boldly advertised that “women were welcome.” See the end of this article our favorite pizzerias still in operation today.
Yet, pizza still remained an immigrant thing, an inner city thing. However, booming popularity was on the horizon, and after WWII, pizza became a fast food darling as delectable as other post war imports like Gina Lollolbridgida.
Our story has to pause as we reach another ‘print the legend, not the fact’ scenario. Media accounts (and many, many pizza histories) attribute pizza’s growing popularity after the war to soldiers who tried it in Italy during WWII and yearned for it back in the States. In truth, the invasion of Italy was accomplished by a limited number of U.S. troops, maybe 15% of the total troops in Europe. There were many more troops in Japan, England, France and Western Europe. And at the time, pizza was a regional dish confined to southern Italy and Naples, so not many soldiers would have tasted it.
The First Pizzerias In America That Are Still Open Today!
1910 – Joe’s Tomato Pie – Chambersburg section of Trenton, NJ
1912 – Papa’s Tomato Pie – Chambersburg section of Trenton, NJ
1924 – Anthony “Totonno” Pero opened Totonno’s Pizza in Coney Island, NY
1925 – Frank Pepe opens Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitana in New Haven, CT
1926 – Pizzeria Regina opens in Boston, MA
1929 – Marra’s opens in Philadelphia, PA
1933 – Patsy’s opens in East Harlem, NYC
1934 – Sciortino begins business in Perth Amboy, NJ
American GI’s Eating Pizza In Naples Is Unlikely!
Also, when U.S soldiers reached Naples at the end of the war, Naples was destitute. Neapolitans had become so desperate that they actually emptied out the city’s aquarium and ate all the fish. It is highly unlikely that soldiers were eating pizza in Naples.
From the 1950’s and onward, the rapid pace of economic and technological changes in the U.S. changed pizza’s place in America forever. As Italian Americans (and their food) migrated from city to suburb, from east to west, the popularity of pizza boomed. Pizza spread throughout the media and culture. Lucille Ball picked up a shift at a pizza parlor in an episode of I Love Lucy, and a take out pizza showed up in a Jackie Gleason HoneyMooners episode. And, of course, Dean Martin had a number one hit with “Amore”.
Stars like Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Jimmy Durante were seen eating pizza. Pizza was losing its ethnic connotation. It was now threatening the preeminence of the hot dog and hamburger.
Two major developments pushed pizza to the forefront. The first was domestication. As disposable income grew, and fridges and freezers became common, and demand for convenience foods grew, thus the development of frozen pizza. In 1957, Celentano Bros. introduced the first supermarket frozen pizza. The second change was the commercialization of pizza. With the growing availability of cars and motorcycles, it became possible to deliver fully cooked foods to customers’ doors…and pizza was among the first dishes to be delivered. Pizza Hut opened in 1958. Little Caesars in 1959 and Dominic’s (later renamed Domino’s) in 1960. Domino’s especially stressed quick delivery.
Paradoxically, the effect of these changes was to make pizza more standardized and more subject to variation. While a dough base topped with layers of tomato and cheese became the staple, the need to appeal to customer’s desire for variety led to many elaborate pies.
Today’s pizzas are, in most cases, far removed from the simple offerings sold by street vendors in Naples hundreds of years ago. However, pizza is still pizza…whatever the toppings.
Celentano Bros. 1957 Pizza Box
Pizza is the world’s favorite fast food, though when made right, it could be a slow food. We eat it everywhere: at home, in restaurants, on street corners. Some three and a half billion pizzas are sold a year in the U.S. alone…that’s an average of 48 slices per person! World wide, it’s a 145 billion dollar business…all from very humble beginnings. If you want to eat your way through this history listed below are some of the most influential Pizzeria’s still operating in the U.S.
Joe’s Tomato Pie
2505 Bridge Ave,
Point Pleasant Beach, NJ 08742-4260
Papa’s Tomato Pie
19 Robbinsville Edinburg Rd,
Robbinsville, NJ 08691-3006
1524 Neptune Ave,
Brooklyn, NY 11224-2716
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster St,
New Haven, CT 06511-5709
11 1/2 Thacher St,
Boston, MA 02113-1539
1734 E Passyunk Ave,
Philadelphia, PA 19148-1524
2287 1st Ave,
New York City, NY 10035-5010
Sciortinos Harbor Lights
132 S Broadway,
South Amboy, NJ 08879-1764