One of the most important events in the gustatory history of the country – and an immeasurable future boon to children, college students and the makers of heartburn remedies – seems to have begun officially in 1905 when Gennaro Lombardi, a native of Naples, opened the first licensed pizzeria in America in Manhattan’s Little Italy, Lombardi’s. He had been making versions of this strictly Neapolitan fast food at the bakery in which he worked, which was also being done elsewhere, at least in his neighborhood. The New York Tribune noted a couple of years earlier in 1903 in Little Italy that “apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie. The ‘pomidore pizza,’ or tomato pie.” These pizza pies were just the province of these Neapolitans; in Italy at the time, it was not found outside of the vicinity of Naples. “There are only two places in New York where you can get real, genuine Neapolitan pizze. One is on Spring Street and one on Grand. The rest are Americanized substitutes,” reported an informed source, “the Dago,” in a Sun piece in the summer of 1905. With that first pizzeria at 52 Spring Street, Lombardi used a coal-fired oven, a typical commercial oven at the time. Though wood was used in the pizzerias in Naples, coal was readily available in New York and burned more efficiently than wood. The coal-fired ovens would help give New York pies a distinctive crust and a little different taste than their progenitors on the Bay of Naples. It was often charred, crisp yet pliable, though not soggy, as the centers of the pizzas in Naples are.
These pizzas first found an audience with those recently arrived Neapolitans and quickly spread to all the Italians living in the neighborhood. Pizza has proven to be a very easy sell over the years. In the 1920s and 1930s Lombardi’s former employees, all Neapolitans, opened pizzerias in Brooklyn, East Harlem and uptown Manhattan that would be destined to become icons in their own right. But, pizzas were really an ethnic, mostly Italian, specialty until after the Second World War, even in New York City. Also in the 1920s, pizzerias were opened by Neapolitan immigrants in the Italian neighborhoods of New Haven, Connecticut, Trenton, and Boston. Philadelphia and Chicago were two of the few other cities with Neapolitan pizzaiolos and pizza before the Depression. Pizzerias were then still run solely by these Neapolitans and their offspring. Pizzas began its worldwide conquest from Naples and being strictly Neapolitan to being Neapolitan-American then Italian-American and then becoming Italian. Pizza was very difficult to find outside of the Naples area before 1960, the early 1960s, in fact.
Another trademark American quality, in addition to convenience and efficiency, is size. The size of pizzas grew in diameter from its original ten inches or so, eventually settling at between 12 and 14 inches. Instead of just one, these now fed two to four people, perfectly suited for families and groups of friends. This was the result of the ingredients available to those immigrants working in New York. The very fine '00' flour Neapolitan pizzaiolos used was not available, so unbleached flours of higher protein were used enabling the pizza-makers to make bigger, but slightly thinner pizzas that dwarfed their progenitors. The ones made here were all fairly similar, still thin-crust with a minimal number of toppings, if more and different than those in Naples and the earliest pizzerias here. Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, ground beef, onions, and that Italian-American creation, pepperoni, were common, and often used in combinations.
The easier-to-manage gas ovens eventually took over from coal in nearly all pizzerias in New York, making for a slightly different crust including a lack of sootiness. The newer pizzamakers tended to adhere to the American maxim of more is better and put much more cheese on the pizzas than the original Neapolitan-American places, who remained true to their early minimalist ethos. The margherita morphed into the cheese pizza, more cheese and with dried oregano replacing the fresh basil, which was more difficult to have on hand year-round in New York than in Naples. The cheese that became popular with the eventually ubiquitous restaurants was use of low-moisture mozzarella over fresh mozzarella, which is not well suited to the lower temperature and longer cooking times of the gas ovens. An even more noticeable change was that pizza in New York eventually became to be served by the slice in addition to the whole pie. This seemingly very simple thing allowed for smaller establishments ̶ as a slice is essentially take-away or quick-eating fare ̶ that are cheaper to start and run allowing for many more pizza shops, further expanding the reach of the pizza.
A New Haven pizzeria founded by a Neapolitan immigrant, Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana, eventually introduced a version topped with clams (in the 1960s), but there still were not many regional differences. Pizzas were simple, satisfying, affordable, and easy-to-like. One variation to the standard pie, found in St. Louis to Chicago and east to West Virginia often in taverns, was cut the thin circular pizzas into squares that were easy to eat with one hand, beer in the other. Pizzerias in St. Louis also began putting Provel cheese on their pies, a bland processed cheese that melts well, an Italian-American Velveeta, and another step toward industrial Americanization.
Somewhere along the line, the Sicilian pizza also joined the mix, likely the result of a pizzeria worker or owner from Palermo. It was derived from the sfincione from Palermo, a type of spongy focaccia usually topped there with vegetables or tomato sauce and cheese or sardines or anchovies. So, customers at some pizzerias began to have two options dished with the same sauce and toppings: the original circular thin-crust, and a rectangular construction, the Sicilian, with a thick, softer crust.
Pizza spread throughout the country after the Second World War, becoming far more common a sight than in Italy where it was still mostly confined to Naples and its environs. In fact, it was difficult to find pizza north of Naples through the 1960s. Here, it began to be served well beyond the Italian neighborhoods. Starting and growing in areas with virtually no competition from pizzerias with Italian antecedents, several regional, national and international pizza companies got their start in the mid-1950s to 1960: Shakey’s in Sacramento (humorously, I guess, named after one of the malaria-damaged owners) in 1954, Pizza Hut in Wichita and Pizza Inn in Dallas in 1958, Little Caesar’s in suburban Detroit in 1959, and Domino’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960. The commercially made gas then electric pizza ovens, along with large mixers for the dough introduced in the mid-1950s, helped make the creation of the pizzas easier, far less dependent on a seasoned pizza-maker. American business know-how helped even more. The franchise system increased the number of branches and market presence quickly. Even if far from the best pizzas around – the pies usually featured doughier and blander crusts and lower-quality toppings – these pizza chains have been greatly enjoyed by millions over the years. Not incidentally, with tremendous insight, or luck, Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn and Domino's first opened right near college campuses.
Pizza has helped others gained their slice of the American dream, too. Greek-owned places created many oregano-heavy pizzas in the New York area, in New England where they developed a distinctive style, and elsewhere. Beginning in the 1990s, Albanian immigrants have owned and operated many pizzerias in the northeast. These groups have also helped reinforce the truly American styles of pizzas, all of which have their roots in New York.
Chicago began to go a different route starting in 1943 with the first deep-dish pizza, to the everlasting disdain of New Yorkers. Created at Pizzeria Uno by non-Italians, this hefty dish was really more of a casserole than a pizza (but still a pie), in line with the city’s big-food traditions. It was baked at lower temperatures for around forty-five minutes or so, far longer than the thin-crust versions, but contained the usual pizza ingredients and flavors and grew to become the fiercely loved, dominant style in and around the Windy City. Chicago-style has come to mean deep-dish.
Another type of pizza was added by a non-Italian, the designer pizza, or the California pizza, introduced in the early 1980s by Wolfgang Puck at his Spago restaurant in Los Angeles. This helped expand the range of toppings thought possible. Goat cheese, salmon, chicken, shrimp and even caviar were all successfully found atop Spago’s finely crafted pies. Its success created a designer pizza craze in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. And, though Alice Water’s Chez Panisse might have been the first to do so a few years earlier and inspired Puck, Spago’s example was the one that really popularized the idea that pizza could be served at serious restaurants. In the past half-dozen years or so, pizzas, and their simpler, easier-to-make cousin, the flatbread, have become a popular starter at many at fine dining or ambitious restaurant across the country. There are great margins in these.
The most significant and interesting development the couple of decades is the emergence of the truly Neapolitan pizza. There is even a certification body, Verace Pizza Napoletana Association (VPN) that looks at the use of the oven, wood-fired, of course, and the use of Neapolitan ingredients like the finely milled '00' flour made from soft wheat, San Marzano tomatoes from near Naples, and buffalo milk mozzarella, usually along with previous enrolment in one of their classes. La Pizza Fresca was one of the very first in New York and the country in the mid-1990s. Others acclaimed ones opening since then include Ribalta, Naples 45, Keste, Motorino and Don Antonio by Starita, a top pizzeria in Naples. There Una Pizza Napoletana opened in New York in 2004 then relocated to San Francisco that helped to raise the form to great renown here, and stridency.
Pizza, more than ever, and in many more forms than ever, is an integral and ubiquitous presence in Americans eating habits. I've come to know that even more with my ongoing Margherita Pizza Project. It’s the third popular food in America according to a recent survey. An example of how ingrained pizza has become in American culture is a vignette related by the former head of the Italian trade mission in New York. Soon after arriving in the late 1990s he was asked in earnest by an American friend, “Gioacchino, how does one say ‘pizza’ in Italian?”
A margherita pizza, or is it a cheese pizza, at Mascalzone in Houston.