According to a well-established legend, Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, was the first person to open a pizzeria New York City.
Since then, pizza has become such an ingrained part of American cuisine — a staple of New York’s gastronomical culture that it is almost impossible to imagine a time when it did not exist.
According to History magazine, Lombardi came to the United States from Italy in 1897 and began to sell pizza from his newly opened grocery shop. His customers loved the hot tomato pizzas (or “pies”) that he dished up every lunchtime, and so, in 1905, he decided to open the first pizzeria in the city, known from that moment on as Lombardi’s.
Lombardi tried to replicate the famous pizzas of Naples but was forced to adapt to the conditions and ingredients he found in New York. According to History, instead of baking his pizzas in a traditional wood-fired oven, he used a brick, coal-powered one, and substituted buffalo mozzarella for fior di latte. The customers came in droves, and the New York “pizza pie” was born.
However, new research by Peter Regas suggests that Lombardi’s was not the first pizzeria in the United States, or even New York. In fact, the establishment that would later become Lombardi’s was originally a pizzeria run by another Italian immigrant, Filippo Milone.
Milone appears to have come to the United States in the 1890s, along with many other Italian immigrants seeking a fresh start and a new life across the Atlantic. Regas believes that one of the reasons his story has been erased from the history books was due to the inaccurate records kept in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century.
According to Regas, the Brooklyn Business Directory often did not record new businesses started by Italians, or would frequently misspell their names. As a result, there may have been several pizzerias, like that of Milone, which simply slipped through the cracks and left behind no records.
In order to trace this undocumented history, Regas has examined newspapers of the period, scouring the daily publications for advertisements that might point to Italian business activity.
He has discovered evidence of several pizzerias in the early 20th century, including one run by Milone at 53 ½ Spring Street, in the same location as the legendary Lombardi’s.
It seems that this pizzeria was actually already well established by the time that Lombardi arrived in New York, and he may even have been employed there in his early years in the city, learning his trade first hand.
The history of pizza in New York, therefore, has much more diffuse beginnings than has previously been thought. It seems that many enterprising Italian newcomers were beginning to make and sell pizza, often to other Italian immigrants eager for a taste of home.
According to History, pizza is a dish that originated in Campania, particularly in the city of Naples, and many immigrants left this region at the end of the 19th century as a result of the economic instability and social unrest that followed unification.
Newly arrived in the United States and longing for home comforts, they began to make pizza, selling them in restaurants and grocery shops, where they began to gain popularity as a takeaway snack or lunch.
Soon, demand was high enough to warrant whole premises devoted to the making of pizza and the first American pizzerias were thus born. According to Regas, there is evidence for the existence of pizzerias in Manhattan as early as 1895, well before Lombardi arrived in New York.
These early pizzerias were catering mainly to a young, male, Italian crowd, and it wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that pizza began to take off as a universally popular form of fast food.
By the mid 20th century, however, pizza was etched into the gastronomic map of the United States, with many hungry punters flocking to New York to sample the original, authentic Italian American creation.
However, it was Lombardi’s name that would go down in history as the initiator of this enduring craze. Milone died childless in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens. He, along with the nameless pizzeria pioneers from Campania in the last decades of the 19th century, is only now receiving the recognition he deserves.