How Pizza Became an American Classic

Food, People
on October 18, 2012

As he bites into a slice of pizza at Lombardi’s in New York City’s Little Italy district, Joseph Morabito savors the crispy, charred crust with its puffy, crunchy rim.

“The crust is the hook for me,” says Morabito, 65, a bus driver from the Bronx who has eaten at Lombardi’s—America’s first licensed pizzeria—every weekend for 18 years. “It’s very tasty and crispy. I believe the flavor from the coal gets into the pizza.”

Lombardi’s coal-fired oven, which bakes the tasty pies at 900 degrees in 3½ minutes, is a key reason for the eatery’s enduring success, says co-owner John Brescio, 63. And the oven door, with “1905 Lombardi” written in black-and-white mosaic tiles, is a reminder of the pizzeria’s honored place in the nation’s pizza past.

An Italian gift
In 1897, Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant, opened a grocery store and bakery in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood and began selling slices of baked bread topped with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese for a few pennies. His Naples-style pizza was similar to the pizza made in his homeland, but Americanized by necessity. In New York City, the fuel of choice was coal, not wood, and mozzarella was made from the milk of cows, not water buffalo.

Fellow immigrants welcomed the familiar tastes, and Lombardi acquired a business license to sell pizza in 1905. Through the decades, the pizzeria evolved into a high-end Italian restaurant that closed in 1984 when business slowed. The oven, too, had deteriorated from repeated vibrations of the subway beneath the restaurant. Ten years later, Brescio convinced his childhood friend, Gennaro “Gerry” Lombardi, grandson of the founder, to reopen Lombardi’s about a block away in a defunct bakery that also had a coal-fired oven.

The partners restored the bakery’s oven and crowned the project by installing the original Lombardi’s oven door.

To this day, Brescio uses the brick-lined oven to roast peppers, onions, clams and mushrooms, and to bake as many as 600 pizzas on a busy day.

Lombardi’s walls are papered with photos of celebrity diners such as Jack Nicholson and regular customers, including Morabito and his friend Anthony McCaffrey, 48.

Manager Gilbert Soto, 28, calls the restaurant a New York City treasure. “Visitors go to see Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building and Lombardi’s,” Soto says.

Tomato pies
Although Lombardi’s was America’s first pizzeria and gave birth to New York-style pizza, another Italian family claims credit for the nation’s longest-running pizza parlor. In 1912, Guiseppe “Joe” Papa opened Papa’s Tomato Pies in Trenton, N.J., and today his grandson, Nick Azzaro, 65, and great-grandson, Donnie Azzaro, 41, operate the eatery.

“Tomato pies” began to be called “pizza” during the 1950s, Nick says, because neon sign makers charged by the letter and the shorter word was less expensive. Tomatoes, nonetheless, still get top billing at Papa’s. The pizzeria reverses the usual order of toppings, putting mozzarella on the thin crust, then crushed tomatoes. The Azzaros credit the region’s water, which is relatively free of hard minerals, with reacting perfectly with the flour and yeast to yield good dough.

Customers enjoy the flavorful pizza, along with the homey atmosphere at Papa’s. Since 1977, Brenda and George Vanicsko of Levittown, Pa., have eaten at the pizzeria on Wednesday nights and have become friends with other regulars.

“It’s like our second home,” says Brenda, 52, as she bites into a slice of mushroom and sausage pizza.

All-American favorite
From an ethnic food served in Italian neighborhoods, pizza’s popularity spread like melted cheese and has become an all-American favorite served at 65,300 pizza restaurants nationwide. Fifty-seven percent of the pizzerias are individually owned, while the rest belong to chains, including Domino’s, Little Caesars, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut.

Pizza gained popularity during the 1940s after servicemen stationed in Italy during World War II acquired a taste for the flavorful fare. Another boost came in 1943 when Ike Sewell invented Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The Texas native planned to serve Mexican food in his bar, but when his partner Ric Riccardo sampled his fare and got sick, Riccardo suggested pizza as an alternative.

“Ike took some pizza dough and threw it in a cast-iron skillet and put a bunch of cheese and basically everything in the house on it, put it in the oven, and invented deep-dish pizza,” says April McRaven, 33, manager of Chicago’s original Pizzeria Uno. “The business was basically a bar and he gave away the pizza. Nobody knew what it was.”

Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is akin to a casserole, served with a fork and knife. The eatery’s bestseller is Numero Uno with “the works,” which includes sausage, pepperoni, onions, peppers and mushrooms.

“It’s a fun pizza because each slice weighs about a pound,” McRaven says.

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