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 Milone
The 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.