Pizza – it’s a dish that looms large in both American and Italian culture and cuisine, an integral part of both countries. It was created in its modern form in Naples in the 18th century, causing the city to become a tourist destination by the 19th century. Kings and Queens dined on the Italian delicacy. But who brought pizza to America?
Pizza came across the ocean with Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, particularly to places like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The first printed reference to American pizza is in a 1904 article in The Boston Journal, which claimed that the first pizza in America was brought to Boston by brothers Giovanni and Gennero Bruno.
Other legends of America’s first pizzas claim that Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant in New York, opened the first licensed pizzeria on Spring Street in 1905. Lombardi’s remains a New York institution to this day. But recent research by historians Peter Regas and Scott Wiener questions this narrative. The two have found that Lombardi started out as only an employee at the grocery store that would become Lombardi’s, making his boss, Filippo Milone, the first person to operate a pizzeria in America.
Milone may have owned as many as six pizzerias in New York and Brooklyn at the turn of the century, having come from Naples where he also worked in a pizzeria. The grocery store opened in 1897, serving what was then called tomato pie. Still, historians are unsure if this was the first pizza in America – just the first, best known pizzeria in the country.
Pizza spread slowly across the country, starting in cities with larger populations of Italian immigrants like Chicago and Saint Louis. New Jersey’s pizza scene was established in 1910 with the opening of Joe’s Tomato pies, followed quickly by Papa’s Tomato Pies in 1912. Papa’s Tomato Pies has been family owned since its opening and continues to operate today. Another iconic family-owned pizzeria, Frank Pepe in New Haven, opened in 1925.
The Chicago pizza scene as we know it today didn’t emerge until the 1940s, with the invention of deep dish pizza. And Saint Louis style pizza, the country’s most controversial regional pie, was popularized by Imo’s which opened its first location in 1964.
Pizza remained mostly a regional dish, predominantly enjoyed by Italian immigrants, until after World War II, when veterans returning from the Italian campaign wanted a taste of the Italian cuisine they had experienced overseas.
The earliest pizza chains were founded in the 1950s – Shakey’s in 1954 and Pizza Hut in 1958. And thus, an American tradition was born. According to research by the Food Surveys Research Group, published in 2014, about one in every eight Americans consumes pizza on any given day. Ciao!
— Alyssa Morris