A humble Italian food that once fed peasants, today pizza is a staple of the American diet. But it wasn’t always so, and we wouldn’t have the bustling pizza industry we have in 2014 (more than 70,000 pizzerias and $43 billion in annual sales) if it weren’t for one man’s change of focus in 1905. That man was named Gennaro Lombardi, and he was an Italian immigrant who ventured to the United States in 1897, like so many before and after him, to capitalize on the boundless opportunity that made America famous.
A baker by trade, Lombardi rented an apartment above the grocery store in which he worked upon his arrival in the Little Italy section of New York City. He often stayed late into the night baking pizzas that the grocer would sell out of his shop the next day. Eventually, Lombardi bought the building that housed the grocery store. It did not take him long to figure out that the thousands of nearby factory workers represented a growth market for his modest business. In 1905, at 32 ½ Spring Street, Lombardi’s became the first officially licensed pizzeria in the United States.
With all that was going on in the nation and world, it isn’t surprising that the birth of American pizza didn’t cause any ripples in the news. After all, pizza was still a poor man’s meal — and the U.S. had its collective eye focused on a revolution in Russia. Looking back, it’s easy to see that 1905 was an important year in history. Aside from the Russo-Japanese War and the aforementioned revolution that resulted from it, 1905 witnessed the founding of the city of Las Vegas and the birth of influential author Ayn Rand. Theodore Roosevelt began a full term as President, while Albert Einstein proffered his theory of relativity to the scientific community. The Wright Brothers put their third airplane in the sky, and this one flew for an impressive 39 minutes. The world’s first U-boat was launched and novocaine was introduced. Christian Dior was born and Jules Verne died.
In New York, all eyes were on the baseball world: the New York Giants won the World Series by defeating the Philadelphia Athletics four games to one.
Amidst all this, Lombardi used his coal-fired oven to turn out thin-crusted beauties fashioned after the traditional pizza of his home city, Naples, Italy. His pizza was simple — tomato and cheese — and received a sterling reception from the lower-middle-class workers in his target market.
The kitchen at Lombardi’s was stocked with able and enterprising pizza makers, and many of them eventually left to start their own pizzerias. Chief among them was Anthony Pero (nicknamed Totonno), who opened the famed New York pizzeria, Totonno’s, in 1924 on Coney Island. Both Lombardi’s and Totonno’s still do a brisk business today and continue to win over critics and pizza lovers alike.
Through the 1920s many pizzerias that can be considered offshoots of Lombardi’s opened in and around Little Italy. It took two decades for pizzerias to gain a strong foothold in New York City’s other neighborhoods, but they eventually did just that. Even then, the typical American outside of New York wasn’t hip to pizza’s attributes. You had pockets — New Haven, Connecticut, for example — that served pizza to the masses, but they were few and far between.
The Chicago-style deep-dish pizza that’s so popular in the Midwest today was invented in 1943, and some claim it was the first truly American pizza. One thing is certain: the product was completely different from the Neapolitan-style pizzas found in the Northeast.
Ironically, it took a World War for pizza to hit its stride. American soldiers stationed in Europe during WWII eventually developed a hankering for the food while on tour in Italy, and when they returned home they raved about it to family and friends. By the 1950s, pizzerias could be found in many of America’s cities and suburbs, even those further out to the West. According to American Heritage, the number of American pizza parlors grew from 500 in 1934 to 20,000 in 1956.
A new deck oven, fired not by wood or coal, but by gas, made pizza production easier and more convenient (and, down the road, conveyors would come into play). As a result, pizza-by-the-slice gained in popularity in New York and tiny pizzerias continued to proliferate throughout the nation. The first Pizza Hut, in fact, was opened in 1958 by Frank and Dean Carney in Wichita, Kansas.
The No. 2 chain, Domino’s, was born shortly thereafter when brothers Tom and James Monaghan borrowed $500 to purchase DomiNick’s Pizza in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960. A year later James traded his share of the business to Tom for a car (a Volkswagen Beetle, for the record), and Tom changed the pizzeria’s name to Domino’s. What distinguished Domino’s from everyone else was the delivery aspect of the business.
Aside from witnessing the birth of Domino’s, the 1960s saw franchising become a hot growth vehicle. This continued through the following decade, and the 1970s were a period of major growth for pizza chains as they realized they could offer value pricing and gain market share through advertising. Pizza chains proliferated in the 1980s and some of today’s major players — Papa John’s, California Pizza Kitchen — popped onto the scene. In California, the “gourmet” pizzas many Americans enjoy today were invented by personalities like Alice Waters and Ed LaDou, the man who brought specialty pizzas to the repertoire at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, Spago. During the 1980s the pizza chains refined their practices and began a cutthroat price war that still defines the pizza category today. Meanwhile, independent pizzerias continued thriving with grassroots marketing, community involvement and a dedication to offering their customers hand-made pizzas topped with high quality ingredients.
More than a century after Gennaro Lombardi opened America’s first licensed pizzeria, the U.S. pizza market is filled to the brim with independents and chains alike. In fact, the pizza segment is one of the few foodservice categories that isn’t entirely dominated by major chains, and that’s part of what makes the industry so competitive, fresh and fun more than 100 years after its beginning in New York City.