The story of pizza in America starts in New York City. In 1897 Gennaro Lombardi, a bread maker from Naples, opened a grocery store on Spring Street in lower Manhattan. From his coal-fired oven, he began selling tomato pies wrapped in paper and tied with a string to local factory workers.
In 1905, Lombardi was granted the first license in the United States to open a pizzeria restaurant. His Little Italy location not only became a popular eatery, but also a community resource. “Italians met there and caught up on local news and gossip; Gennaro would also help other Italian immigrants find jobs when they first arrived,” according to current Lombardi owner John Brescio.
Eventually, Gennaro employees would go on to open their own pizzerias, including Totonno’s in Coney Island and John’s Pizzeria in the West Village. Business also grew because GIs had acquired a taste for pizza in Italy during World War II. As pizzerias opened across the United States, regional differences prevailed, just like in Italy. Chicago is known for deep-dish pizza, while New York pizza has thin crusts.
Americans, in general, like cheesier pizzas than Italians and some prefer breadier crusts This is why some Americans don’t understand the VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) designation. These authentic Neapolitan pizzas are thin and have modest amounts of toppings. The United States “equivalent” of the “Associazione Verace Pizza Napolentana” is the Pizza Hall of Fame, which was established in 2005 by the industry’s pizza magazine. This virtual hall of fame (www.pizzahalloffame.com) showcases legendary pizzerias and pizzaioli who have helped build America’s pizza culture. For membership, a pizzeria must meet the following requirements:
- The pizzeria must be currently open for business
- The pizzeria must have been in operation for at least 50 years
- The pizzeria must be recognized as a pillar in the community
- The pizzeria must be able to provide photographs of its early days of operation, including original owners and their family
Not surprisingly, Lombardi’s is in the hall. So are Totonno’s and John’s Pizzeria in NYC, along with Patsy’s in East Harlem and Denino’s on Staten Island. New York City is one of the most competitive pizza markets in the world. Each pizzeria must find a way to survive. John’s, for example, is a cash-only business with a limited menu and a vintage environment, where a 1930s register still makes change for customers.
Another east coast restaurant worth noting is Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, another American city rich in Italian immigrant history and the home of my husband. Pepe was an immigrant from the Amalfi coast who came to New Haven in 1920. He opened a bakery and delivered goods to the neighborhood by cart. One day he flattened some bread dough, put some leftovers on top of it, and baked it. Pepe’s pizza was born. He is credited with New-Haven style pizzas, which are legendary for their misshapen appearance, thin crust, and charred edges. Today Pepe’s is best known for its white clam pizza.
It is not by accident that the Pizza Hall of Fame opened in 2005 and inducted Lombardi’s as its first member on the pizzeria’s 100th anniversary. To commemorate the anniversary, Lombardi sold entire pizzas for 5 cents, their 1905 price at the pizzeria’s opening.