A Slice of Heaven: A History of Pizza in America

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Once upon a time, around the turn of the last century, pizza in America was an inexpensive peasant food, made casalinga (home-style) by southern Italian immigrant women in their kitchens. Adverse economic conditions had forced four million southern Italians to come to America by 1900. Descendents of all the seminal American pizza makers indicated their ancestors learned to make pizza by watching relatives make it at home.

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In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied to the New York City government for the first license to make and sell pizza in this country, at his grocery store on Spring Street in what was then a thriving Italian-American neighborhood. In 1912, Joe's Tomato Pies opened in Trenton, New Jersey. Twelve years later, Anthony (Totonno) Pero left Lombardi's to open Totonno's in Coney Island. A year later, in 1925, Frank Pepe opened his eponymous pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1929, John Sasso left Lombardi's to open John's Pizza in Greenwich Village. The thirties saw pizza spread to Boston (Santarpio's in 1933) and San Francisco with the opening of Tommaso's (1934), followed shortly thereafter with additional openings in New Jersey (Sciortino's in Perth Amboy in 1934 and the Reservoir Tavern in Boonton in 1936). In 1943, Chicago pizza was born when Ike Sewell opened Uno's. What did New York, New Haven, Boston, and Trenton have in common? Factory work available to poorly educated southern Italian immigrants. Pizza at this point was very much an ethnic, poor person's food eaten by Italians in the urban enclaves in which they had settled.

The mainstreaming of pizza into American life began after World War II, when American GIs stationed in Italy returned home with a hankering for the pizza they had discovered overseas. In 1945, one of these returning soldiers, Ira Nevin, combined his eating experiences during the war with the know-how he had gained repairing ovens for his father's business to build the first gas-fired Bakers Pride pizza oven. These pizza ovens allowed retailers to bake pizzas quickly, cleanly, efficiently, and cheaply. Armed with a little knowledge, a Bakers Pride oven, and a by-then ubiquitous Hobart Mixer, aspiring pie men were ready to go into business.

Between 1945 and 1960, pizzerias began sprouting up all over the country. Most were owned by independent operators, some Italian, some Greek, but all of them American. People were either making their own mozzarella or buying fresh mozzarella from a local purveyor. They were originally making their own sauce from fresh tomatoes, but at the very least they were making it from canned tomatoes. Dough was made in-house. Toppings were made in-house or locally.

The pizza-eating habit spread quickly to workers on their lunch hour, families looking for a cheap and satisfying meal out, and bar habitués looking for a food chaser for their alcohol. It is no coincidence that so many pizzeria/bars opened up after the end of Prohibition in 1933. And unlike other classic American foods such as hot dogs, meat loaf, ham sandwiches, and hamburgers, pizza was a perfect communal food. In fact, it was meant to be shared. There were no slices in most places, so you needed a group to order and eat a pizza. The group could be coworkers, teammates on a ball team, or a family.

Many of the seminal pizzerias started as taverns, which could be frequented only by adults or kids accompanied by adults. At Vito & Nick's in Chicago, there's still a sign that greets you, saying, "No one under 21 is allowed in unless accompanied by adults." Lots of seminal pizzerias have "tavern" in their names: Reservoir Tavern in Boonton, Star Tavern in West Orange, Top Road Tavern in West Trenton. Jimmy DeLorenzo told me that the original DeLorenzo's in Trenton had a dance floor that made it the best place to meet girls in the city at the time it opened in 1936. Sociologists talk about the need for third places in every culture, the one place people can gather besides work and home. It seems to me that pizzerias were a third place in many Italian-American communities.

The pizza at most of the early American pizzerias was thin-crusted and casalinga in style. This kind of pizza is still being made all along the Jersey Shore at places such as Pete and Elda's/Carmen's in Neptune and Vic's in Bradley Beach, on Long Island at Eddie's in New Hyde Park, and in Chicago at the aforementioned Vito & Nick's. I've eaten at many of these pizza taverns in researching A Slice of Heaven. The pizza tends to be very good, it's always made by hand, and it tastes great as long as you don't overanalyze it. It's true that none of this pizza is as good as the classic coal-fired pies that were coming out of the ovens in New Haven and New York and even Trenton before they changed over to gas. But that doesn't matter. This pizza was honest, handmade food that brought people together. Pizza is, after all, the ultimate populist, minimalist food.

What changed the pizza-scape in this country forever was the proliferation of chains. Pizza Hut started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958; Little Caesar's emerged in 1959 and Domino's in 1960 (both in Michigan); and Papa John's opened in 1989 in Indiana. None was started with the idea of making the great home-style pizza the founders grew up with. If you go to each of the websites, you find that they all started as, first and foremost, a business proposition.

The chains made pizza a commodity. Though they still made pizza by hand, they used sauce and cheese and dough made in a central location and shipped to each city and location. Pride in the pizza-maker's craft disappeared. Chain pizza shops sold cheap, communal food with a fun image. Independents couldn't compete on price. At House of Pizza and Calzone in Brooklyn, former owner John Teutonico told me that when a Domino's opened a couple of blocks away, he knew his business was in trouble. "How can I compete with this?" he asked, showing me a flyer offering a large pizza with two toppings for $10. Teutonico and his partner sold the business in 2004.

The chains produced a chain reaction (pun intended). The independent pizza makers were and are being driven out of business. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of independents decreased markedly while the number of pizza chain outlets increased exponentially. As a result, many people had their first exposure to pizza in a chain restaurant. The Pizza Huts of the world became the pizza taste standard bearer in their minds. Even chain pizza tastes eminently satisfying, especially if you've never had the real thing.

But the chains haven't won the war. I found there are still hundreds of independents selling good, honest, handmade pizza all over the country, and it's these pizza makers that I've tried to identify and celebrate in A Slice of Heaven. I'm sure I haven't hit them all, and for that I apologize. Please let me know about the ones I've missed. No matter where you live, you can find them. And you don't have to be a food critic to be able to taste the difference. The best pizza has the taste of great handmade food; it's the taste of love and family and community, and it's the taste we all should seek out no matter what we want to eat. The chains are not going to go away, but that doesn't mean we have to eat at them if we have a choice. And in most places we do have a choice. We might have to pay a little more for a pie, but what we get in return is a better-tasting pizza made by hand, with love and perhaps with a local ingredient or two.

The last time I went to Pizzeria Bianco, a young man with a short haircut and a baseball cap on backwards was leaving the restaurant as I was talking to owner/ pizzaiolo Chris Bianco. "Are you the owner?" the young man asked Chris. "I am," Chris answered. "Well, I just want to tell you that your pizza rocks. It's way better than Pizza Hut." After he left, Chris smiled and said, "I guess that's progress."

Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the New York Times Dining section and is author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. This entry is an excerpt from his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, published on Slice through special arrangement.