A brief history of pizza in America until it become popular
One of the most important events in the gustatory history of the country 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.
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 pizzaioli and pizza before the Depression.
Pizza spread throughout the country after the Second World War, as 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 in 1954 – the name referencing one of its malaria-damaged owners – 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. Commercially made gas and 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, Dominos and Pizza Inn first opened right near colleges and universities whose enrollment grew tremendously from the 1950s on, something that these chain pizza joints rode to continued and continuing success.
An even briefer history of pizza in Italy outside of Naples
“Pizza, which was unknown in north Italy before the war” recounted cookbook author Marcella Hazan in her memoir Amacord. Pizzas was difficult to find anywhere outside of the Naples region through the 1950s. Even in southern Italy beyond the greater Naples area, it was not be found. A family friend from Reggio Calabria, the city at the toe of the boot, did not have her first pizza until she arrived in New York in the late 1950s. She said that Naples was the only place in Italy to get pizza then.
It came to those other cities with transplanted Neapolitans who traveled north to find work in the industrial boom after the war. For example, in Hazan’s northern region, Parma, a well-to-do and university city, got its first pizzeria in 1960 started by a person from Salerno, south of Naples. Though now popular throughout Italy, pizza has taken hold the most in a city closer to Naples, Rome, which has developed a couple distinctive versions. The first was pizza tonda, a round pizza with a blistered cracker-thin crust that grew out of the Neapolitan versions. Then came pizza al taglio, a long rectangular pizza without Neapolitan antecedents, which is more like a focaccia and sold mostly in take-away places. It has become synonymous with Roman pizza outside of Rome. The Eternal City also currently boasts some excellent pizzerias making version similar to those in Naples.
It is true what Carol Helotsky wrote in her book Pizza - A Global History: “Pizza went from being strictly Neapolitan to being Italian-American and then becoming Italian,” though I’d clarify, adding that it became American after Italian-American.
Brandi in Naples, the birthplace of the margherita pizza, and the home of the best margherita pizza I've ever eaten.