The Father of American Pizza Is Not Who We Thought He Was

Via:  Bob Nelson  •  one week ago  •  18 comments

The Father of American Pizza Is Not Who We Thought He Was
New research suggests pizza came to the U.S. earlier than 1905, spread by pizza evangelist Filippo

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512The true origins of pizza are lost to the hot, gooey mists of time, though it’s safe to say the modern pie came of age as focaccia-based peasant food in Naples in the 1700s. When it comes to American pizza, though, researchers thought they had things nailed down. The father of American pizza was believed to be Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant who applied for the first restaurant license to sell ’za at a grocery store on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1905. From that NYC epicenter, pizza evangelists spread the gospel of pizza, building to the present where Americans eat 100 acres of pizza per day (and untold numbers of garlic knots). But, food historians have long contended, Lombardi did it first.

Or did he? Independent pizza researcher Peter Regas has scoured 19th-century Italian-American newspapers from New York, finding evidence that pizza became a citizen of the United States years before Lombardi started serving slices.

According to the U.S. Pizza Museum, which will hold a lecture by Regas in Chicago on February 23, Lombardi’s on Spring Street and another of the original pizza joints, John’s on Bleecker Street, were up and running well before Lombardi came on the scene, both likely founded by a forgotten immigrant by the name of Filippo Milone, who was something of a Johnny Appleseed of pizza.

Milone, Regas found, had a pattern of opening pizza joints, sometimes referred to as bakeries, delicatessens or groceries, and selling them off, which appears to be the case with Lombardi's.

The researcher could not track down the legendary 1905 restaurant license that Lombardi supposedly acquired to start his pizzeria, but he did find immigration and birth records for the pizza kingpin, who arrived in New York in 1904. He was just 17 at the time, and his papers classified him as a laborer, which makes it suspect that he opened Spring Street grocery the following year. Instead, Regas believes Milone opened the pizzeria in 1898, sold it to Giovanni Santillo, whom advertisements show was making pizzas there in 1901, before it came, famously, into Lombardi's hands.

John’s on Bleecker Street is also likely older than believed. Legend has it that John Sasso left Lombardi’s to open the restaurant in 1925, but Regas has found evidence it was first opened by Milone in 1915 under the name Pizzeria Port’Alba.

For the pizza world, these revelations are bigger news than that viral video of a rat dragging a pizza through the New York City subway. As Pete Wells, New York Times restaurant critic, put it on Twitter: “This is as if some other dude we’ve never heard of wrote both the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers and then handed them over to Adams Franklin Jefferson Madison Hamilton etc.”

But while today pizza is our shared cultural obsession, it’s not surprising its American origin story is so spotty. Few in the mainstream cared, or even knew what pizza was until after World War II, decades after pie makers first set up shop in Italian neighborhoods.

Food writer Ed Levine’s opus on the “State of the Slice” for Serious Eats explains that it was only when service members stationed in Italy came home with a taste for pizza did things change. Ira Nevin, one of the G.I.s who had acquired serious pizza lust was an oven-repairman and designed the first gas-powered pizza oven, which allowed restaurateurs to make pies without relying on the difficult to operate and maintain wood-fired or coal-fired ovens used by old-style pizzerias. All of this led to the first pizza boom in the States, leading to the early pizza chains in the 1950s. From there, the American pie snowballed like a giant mozzarella-covered meatball until we got the cheese-stuffed-crust, buffalo-chicken flavored, dessert-pizza diversity we have today. Or at least that’s the story we're sticking to until Regas tells us otherwise.

Regas, for his part, said he didn’t intend to blow up pizza history. He was investigating the history of Chicago pizza when he realized the New York origin story of pizza was a little crusty.

There may be more history-shaking discoveries to come. Regas, who hopes to publish a book on the history of American pizza later this year, is posting his source material online and inviting criticism, tips and comments to help him uncover the full, greasy picture of the American pie.



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Bob Nelson
1  seeder  Bob Nelson    one week ago

OK... Let's take a break from all this political stuff, and talk about something serious...

Pizza!   jrSmiley_81_smiley_image.gif

1.1  Jasper2529  replied to  Bob Nelson @1    one week ago

Great article, Bob. I like to learn the histories of foods we enjoy.

Just curious ... did you seed this because today, Feb. 9, is National Pizza Day?

Bob Nelson
1.1.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Jasper2529 @1.1    one week ago

I'd already bookmarked the article for seeding when I learned it's Pizza Day. I'd guess that the Smithsonian Mag was aware, though...  jrSmiley_82_smiley_image.gif

charger 383
2  charger 383    one week ago

I thought the father of American pizza was Chef Boyardee

Bob Nelson
2.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  charger 383 @2    one week ago

Nah... He was French, not Italian.

3  Kavika     one week ago

Are you aware that Hawaiian pizza came for the Big Island and that Frizza is a combo of Italian pizza and Ojibwe fry bread.

Just thought that I'd share some of the really important stuff about pizza. 

Bob Nelson
3.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Kavika @3    one week ago
a combo of Italian pizza and Ojibwe fry bread.

That sounds kinda frightening...

Badfish Hαηd ⊕Ƒ †Hε Ωuεεη
4  Badfish Hαηd ⊕Ƒ †Hε Ωuεεη    one week ago

I don't think we will ever have an accurate answer here as we cannot even find agreement to where and when the first pizza in the world was created. I read an article awhile back that Jews created pizza during the Roman empire using unleavened flatbread.

4.1  Jasper2529  replied to  Badfish Hαηd ⊕Ƒ †Hε Ωuεεη @4    one week ago
I read an article awhile back that Jews created pizza during the Roman empire using unleavened flatbread.

You might be referring to a "meat pizza" (meat with dough) that has a history dating back thousands of years. Depending on the language, it's called lahmacun (Turkish), lahmajoun (Armenian), lahma bi-'ajin (Arabic). Thanks to my wife's Middle Eastern ethnicity, I've learned about this delicious "pizza". 

Spellings from each language (above) vary. 

Perrie Halpern R.A.
5  Perrie Halpern R.A.    one week ago

You know BF, that might be very true. Jews do make pizza out of matzah during Passover. 

Badfish Hαηd ⊕Ƒ †Hε Ωuεεη
5.1  Badfish Hαηd ⊕Ƒ †Hε Ωuεεη  replied to  Perrie Halpern R.A. @5    one week ago

It may be that the first pizza was created in Egypt. 

Split Personality
6  Split Personality    one week ago

The Chinese Origin of Pizza Theory

When Marco Polo came to China, he encountered a baked scallion pancake known as 葱油馅饼 or scallion pie. Scallion pie features unleavened, flat bread folded with oil and minced scallions. The scallion pancake, unlike regular pancakes, uses dough instead of a batter.

Marco Polo returned to Italy and missed scallion pancakes so he decided to try to find a chef who would be willing to make them for him. He allegedly met a chef from Naples at a dinner party and persuaded him to recreate the dish. The chef attempted to make the dish for several hours without much success. Polo supposedly suggested putting the fillings on top of the dough instead of the inside.

The change made the dish work. When the chef returned to Naples, he added cheese and other ingredients to form what is now known as pizza.

The theory of Chinese scallion pie inspiring pizza is believed to come from Marco Polo’s manuscripts, which could have been misinterpreted.

The Pasta Link

Another theory suggests that pasta also did not originate in Italy, instead, it was brought over from China by… you guessed it… Marco Polo.

Since at least 1100 B.C., Chinese have made pasta from many more kinds of flours than Europeans. Italians trace back the history of pasta to a 4th century BC tomb where a depiction of a knife, a board with a raised edge that resembles a modern pasta board, a flour sack, and a pin that resembles a tool used for shaping tubular pasta is prominent. Still, not everyone is convinced that depiction alone certifies that Italians were actually making pasta.

In The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage that mentions his introduction to a plant that could be used to produce flour. The Chinese used a barley-like flour to create pasta-like dishes, including one described as Lagana (sound familiar?).

Long before Marco Polo’s trip, noodles existed in Asia. Archaeologists believe central Asia was the site of some of the first noodles, produced thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, because the Marco Polo texts no longer exist and are merely passed on by retellings, it’s hard to tell where the truth lies. Did pizza originate in China? Yes and no. The concept was there, but it wasn’t until Italians added tomato and cheese that it became what is now known as pizza.


6.1  Jasper2529  replied to  Split Personality @6    one week ago

Very interesting Wiki links, but thousands of years of thin bread of various ethnic "pizza" forms weren't made from batter and/or noodles (pasta).

Bob Nelson
6.1.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Jasper2529 @6.1    one week ago

Yes. It's logical, of course. Bread is an early discovery, and then people start putting stuff on it before going into the oven.


Split Personality
7  Split Personality    one week ago

 Another good link which bolsters Lombardi's part in American Pizza history.

Bob Nelson
7.1  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Split Personality @7    one week ago

Fun stories.

I don't think this helps Lombardi, though, since it mentions that 1905 date, which the Smithsonian article refutes.

It's cool to have scholars arguing about pizza!

Split Personality
7.1.1  Split Personality  replied to  Bob Nelson @7.1    one week ago
Bob Nelson
7.1.2  seeder  Bob Nelson  replied to  Split Personality @7.1.1    one week ago
What would be on your ultimate pizza? Extra cheese? Pepperoni? Sausage? Onions? Peppers? Mushrooms?

That is a very important question!


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