Though pizza aficionados know that Gennaro Lombardi is credited with opening the country’s first pizzeria in 1905 in Little Italy, it wasn’t until the WIII years, that the popular food gained mainstream recognition. On September 20, 1944, it’s said that the New York Times first popularized the word “pizza” to those outside of the Italian-American community. From there, other media stories followed and a true pizza frenzy kicked off.
A brief history of Gennaro Lombardi: He arrived in New York City from Naples in 1897, opening a small grocery store in Little Italy. Then in 1905, he opened a coal-oven pizzeria on Spring Street called Lombardi’s, which still exists today. Other early New York City pizzerias included Totonno’s on Staten Island, which was opened in 1924 by a Lombardi’s alum, and John’s of Bleecker Street, which opened in 1929.
As Serious Eats recounts, the coal ovens used at the time produced pies that were best eaten right away, and therefore, most pizzerias only sold whole pizzas. But in 1934, Frank Mastro, who ran a restaurant-supply store on the Bowery, invented a gas-fired pizza oven much like what we use today.
Scott Weiner, pizza historian and founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, explained to Serious Eats: “Suddenly the max oven temperature drops by 400°F. So now that you’re in the 500-to-550°F range, the pizzas take longer to bake and are baking up drier. But they also have a longer shelf life because more of the water is cooked out. So they’re reheatable. Pizza by the slice is—has to be—reheated most of the time. So that oven is a big deal.” After this, “slice joints” were popping up more and more, and pizza started becoming popular outside of Italian-American communities.
By the time World War II came, American troops were plenty in Italy, and they were enjoying the saucy, cheesy delicacy of their host country. The 1944 New York Times article, titled “News of Food: Pizza, a Pie Popular in Southern Italy, Is Offered Here for Home Consumption,” describes the new food as “a pie made from a yeast dough and filled [their meaning for “topped”] with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes. Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, capers, onions and so on may be used.”
The article centers on the restaurant Luigino’s Pizzeria Alla Napoletana at 147 West 48th Street. Here, customers favored the pizza with mozzarella, the equivalent of today’s standard New York pizza. They describe the pizza-making process–”as he spins it about, the circle of dough grows wider and wider and thinner and thinner”–and call out the specially made boxes for patrons to bring “pizze” (how they pluralize it) home with them. Similar to today, the pies were often served with wine or beer and a green salad. Dissimilarly, they also frequently came with tripe and cost from 50 cents to $2.
Three years later, another Times article, “Hot, Hearty Pizzas,” noted the gaining popularity of the food: “The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if only Americans knew more about it.” It then went on to provide a recipe for at-home pizza making, “good for the porch suppers and back yard parties in vogue during warm weather.”
These newspaper articles catapulted pizza into pop culture. History.com notes that following the 1947 Times article, “…Lucille Ball picked up a shift at a pizza parlor on I Love Lucy, a take-out pizza showed up on The Honeymooners and Dean Martin sang about “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.”
And in 1970, the first-ever “best pizza in New York” article came out in New York Magazine, written by Jerome Snyder and Milton Glaser. The article, titled “The Underground Gourmet’s First Annual Pizzarama,” stated:
It wasn’t very long ago — 20 years, maybe — when that current gustatorial staple known as the pizza was regarded as an arcane specialty in the nature of the yak steak. It thrived, if at all, only in the depths of the more inbred of the city’s Italian neighborhoods. Even in Italy itself, the dish was pizza incognita in all regions except the deep south, from Calabria, say, down through Sicily….
Nevertheless, the pizza in America has become a way of life, a worthy competitor, both in popularity and ubiquity, to the hot dog and the hamburger. Naples may challenge the claim, but New York is now the pizza capital of the world.
And we think it’s safe to say, that nearly 80 years later, we still hold the title of pizza capital of the world.
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