Enjoy Your Slice!
Pizza is everywhere. You can't sling a ball of fresh mozzarella anymore without it landing on a pizza of some kind. And what kinds there are! These days it seems you can take anything from anchovies to zucchini, slap it on flatbread, and call it a pizza. (Squid are big in Japan and they like coconut on pizza in Costa Rica.) In fact, in some places if you order a pizza with just the traditional elements – tomato sauce and cheese – you get funny looks and they ask if you're sure that's all you want. Like there's something wrong with a cheese pizza.
I hope you're sitting down because I'm going to reveal something shocking: I never ate pizza as a kid. Me. The part-Italian guy. It wasn't in my mother's wheelhouse so I never had pizza until I was in my early twenties. When I was in high school, Mom and I used to go to Pizza Hut every week – for spaghetti! (Hey, don't judge. It was the '60s, okay?) And the first pizza I ever had was really awful. I was dating a girl who innocently made a pizza from a box mix. It was not an auspicious introduction, to say the least. It was a couple of years later before I tried pizza again. This time, the girl I was seeing suggested we go to Pizza Hut, not for the spaghetti, but for actual pizza – or at least as close to it as Pizza Hut gets. I found it to be way better than the box mix and I was hooked. The relationship with the girl may have fizzled, but my relationship with pizza sizzled and I became a devotee and student of the art not only of eating pizza but of crafting it as well. My Italian roots finally surfaced and I live in a whole different world of pizza today. There's even pizza that's out of this world. Check out the YouTube video circulating of astronauts making vaguely pizza-like things on the ISS.
But there was a time in the not too distant past when Italian pizza makers in America had to give their wares away because American customers simply didn't know what it was. È vero!
Some form of toppings on flatbread has been around in Italy since Roman days. The introduction of tomatoes to the peninsula in the the sixteenth century helped shape the form into the familiar “pie” we know now; the one that was perfected in Naples in the nineteenth century and brought to America by immigrants in the early twentieth.
Break for a quick Italian lesson: have you ever seen the name of a place that serves pizza spelled “pizzaria?” I have, and it's wrong. “Pizza” is a singular noun. And unlike English you don't pluralize something in Italian by tacking on an “s.” The correct plural of “pizza” is “pizze.” The word “pizzas” does not exist in Italian. And since a place that sells pizza usually sells more than one, it is properly spelled “pizzeria.”
The country's first pizzerie (there's that correct plural again) opened on the East Coast shortly after the turn of the century. Lombardi's has been acknowledged by the Pizza Hall of Fame as the first pizzeria in the United States. An immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi started up a grocery on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1897. He converted it into a pizzeria in 1905 and history was made. A place called Papa's Tomato Pies set up shop in Robbinsville, New Jersey in 1912. Under the ownership of a former Lombardi's employee,Totonno's popped up in Brooklyn in 1924. Frank Pepe's in New Haven made the scene in 1925 and introduced the world to White Clam pizza. And Regina Pizzeria moved pizza westward a bit when it opened in Boston's North End in 1926. Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, opened as an Italian bakery in 1921, but Giovanni Tacconelli saw the writing on the wall in 1945 and started turning out pizza to satisfy the appetite of returning WWII GIs who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy.
All these places existed in Italian neighborhoods and primarily served Italian immigrant clientele. The real test came when pizza entered the Midwest and the South.
I grew up in the Midwest: specifically, between Milwaukee and Chicago. There were Italian enclaves in both cities. In Milwaukee, it was the Third Ward, nowadays an upscale artsy neighborhood but a ghetto recently vacated by the Irish and left to the Italians back in the day. The Caradaro Club on Erie Street was Milwaukee's first pizzeria. Conceived by John Caravella and Joe Todaro, when it opened in 1945, it didn't actually serve pizza: it was one of the up and coming Italian restaurants that were gaining post-war popularity by featuring lasagna and spaghetti. Pizza? What's that? The locals couldn't even pronounce it. They called it “pissa pie” among other weird variations. But they had no idea what it was. A recipe of sorts was featured in a 1937 Milwaukee Journal article about Christmas breads. Columnist Jean Templeton wrote, “The day before Christmas is a fast day for Italian families, so they make a bread named pizza.” And there followed a recipe for a sort of dough that would be “spread into a shallow pan or deep baking sheet. … Over the top sprinkle chopped tomatoes … anchovies, onions and grated Romano cheese.” Yummy, huh?
So when the Caradaro Club decided to put pizza on the menu, it was a tough sell at first. In fact, they didn't “sell” it at all; the owners gave it away to restaurant patrons and sometimes even passed out samples on the street. “Here try this,” they would say to some unsuspecting local. “What is it?” “It’s pizza.” It took about six months before pizza caught on and the restaurant actually started putting a price on it.
Down in Chicago, an Italian food and wine merchant named Anthony Paterno, a Sicilian immigrant who came to the Windy City by way of Brooklyn, opened what is believed to be the city's first pizzeria on Grand and Western Avenues in 1938. A few years later, in 1943, a former University of Texas football star, Ike Sewell, and his friend, Italian immigrant Ric Riccardo, opened a place in the River North neighborhood they originally called The Pizzeria. They later changed that to Pizzeria Riccardo and, when they opened a second location nearby, the original became Pizzeria Uno and the new place was called Pizzeria Due. Clever, right? Sewell actually wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in the beginning but it's been said that when Riccardo got his first mouthful of Mexican food, that idea quickly went by the wayside. Anyway, both Sewell and Riccardo and former Uno employee Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, claim to be responsible for that heavy tomato casserole that masquerades as pizza under the name “Chicago-style Deep Dish.” I'm not sure if they had to give it away at first, but I'm certain more than a few people asked “What is it?” when faced with the new creation because it sure didn't look like pizza. (Yes, I'm a snob and a purist. So sue me.)
Okay, so obviously cities with a big Italian presence got aboard the pizza bandwagon fairly early. But what about places like Columbia, South Carolina? While the city had its share of Italian immigrants, it didn't exactly have an Italian-American “community.” What it did have, however, was Fort Jackson, the largest US Army training base east of the Mississippi and temporary home to lots and lots of Italian and Italian-American trainees from the big northern towns. Enter James and Sadie Tronco. James was sent from his native Philadelphia to serve as a WWI medic at then Camp Jackson. He met and married a local girl and moved back to Philly before returning to Columbia in 1930. They opened a fruit store downtown, but Sadie started cooking up spaghetti and meatballs for those hungry, homesick Yankee Italian soldiers out at the fort. The fruit store morphed into South Carolina's first Italian restaurant, a place originally called Tony's Spaghetti House and now known as Villa Tronco. And Sadie, aka “Mama Tronco,” laid claim to being the one who first introduced pizza to the capital city. And again, she initially found herself giving it away because no one other than the Italians from the fort knew what it was.
It is often said that servicemen returning from Italy were responsible for the burgeoning popularity of pizza in the post war years. But believe it or not, comedian Milton Berle also had a hand in it. Host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater from 1948 until 1955, Berle, known as “Uncle Miltie” and “Mr. Television,” was America's first major TV star. His influence was vast and when he occasionally spoke of “going out for a pizza after the show,” millions of ordinary viewers who had never been near Naples or Salerno during the war asked themselves, “What's a pizza?” and then they set out to find one. As a result, mom and pop pizzerie bloomed like wildflowers across the American food landscape throughout the '50s and '60s. For example, my little Midwestern hometown was populated by 5,856 people in 1960 and was served by not one but two pizza shops. A guy named Lawrence Marino opened the first one in 1955 and Luigi Petracchi started up the other one in 1957. The Natale family added a third pizza restaurant to the area in 1963. This was typical all over the country until (dah-dah-DAH!) chain stores like Pizza Hut (Wichita, Kansas, in 1958), Pizza Inn (Dallas, Texas, in 1958), Little Caesar's (Garden City, Michigan in 1959), and Dominos (Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960) started chipping away at the market. (Papa John's came late to the party; Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1984.) That market was further eroded by the Celentano brothers and by Rose and Jim Totino who started commercially producing frozen pizza in 1957 and 1962, respectively.
But fear not, pizzerie are not dead. There are about seventy thousand of them operating in the United States today, only one in four of which is a Dominos, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's. In fact, seventeen percent of all restaurants in the United States are pizzerie. More than ten percent of America's pizzerie are found in New York City. And eighty-three percent of American pizzerie currently offer delivery.
Nowadays, Americans consume an estimated three billion pizze every year. At least, that's the number sold; which doesn't account for people like me who make our own. Ninety-three percent of us will eat pizza at least once in the next thirty days. (I'll be eating mine in the next thirty minutes, thank you.) And the average American eats twenty-three pounds of pizza annually. (Boy, am I above average!) That's a far cry from the days just seventy or eighty years ago when pizza purveyors had to give the stuff away! The closest thing to a pizza giveaway in recent memory was when Lombardi's celebrated their one hundredth anniversary in 2005 by selling a whole pizza for the original price of five cents.
So there you have it; a little American pizza lore with which to amaze and baffle your family and friends while you're waiting for your server, your delivery person, or your oven to provide you with your share of the estimated one hundred acres of pizza Americans will consume today. Enjoy your slice of the pie!