The Legend of Modern Day Pizza Is Re-Written
This is the story of coal-fired brick-oven pizza and where it started in the United States.
How much do you know about modern pizza? Most can guess it was invented in Italy. Some know it was spawned from street vendors topping off flatbread in Naples. You may even know its youthful ‘pie’ history started in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It took less than twenty years to cross the Atlantic.
We could get deep in the weeds and talk of pizza’s deeper history, but for our story, we will summarize quickly. Pizza has been around for hundreds of years in one form or another. It didn’t take on the flavor profile we know until the new world explorations abroad resulted in the import (1522) of ‘the love apple’, or as we like to call it, the tomato. Italy would never be the same.
But our story is about the historical start of modern pizza in America. Who made the first pizza in America and who opened the first pizza parlor?
The modern pizza began in the mid-1800s. The dough would be brushed with olive oil, quickly baked with tomato sauce where chemistry performs artful magic. You may think That is the recipe that crossed the Atlantic to lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. Actually our modern pizza evolved from tomato pies, no cheese. The cheese didn’t come until after the second world war. These pizza pies were more pie than pizza.
The closest pizza today to resemble the pizza in the United States around 1900 is tomato pie. If you want a good idea of what a turn of the century tomato pie tastes like, you’ll have to visit Serpe’s bakery in Wilmington Delaware. This writer can tell you the taste is stunning. One bite takes me back to age seven when my mother would pick up a few slices after work and offer them as a treat. You eat them cold or at room temperature.
Who made the first one? Who opened the first pizza parlor in the United States? Up until 2019, the world believed it was Lombardi’s Pizza in New York City. It’s a tasty pizza. It’s legendary. While the taste isn’t under fire, the legend of their place in pizza history is now in dispute.
Check out this passage from Pizza Today 1996. Its narrative is dictated by Lombardi’s Pizza parlor. No research was conducted to dispute this story. Upon reading it you will find this has been accepted without question worldwide for many years. We will tell a more historically accurate story.
Pizza For A Nickel
Can you imagine America in turn of the century 1900 in New York City? Take yourself back in time, walking cobblestone streets and sidewalks and the smell of fresh tomato pie is wafting through the air. It was at this time grown men knew where to find an on-the-go meal. Pizza was fast food at this time and a small self-serve pie was only a nickel.
The passage above confidently proclaims Lombardi’s is the owner of this history. But what if someone else had a more realistic claim to producing those first pizzas in the United States? Let’s begin again.
The story begins with an immigrant from Naples. If you know the now legendary Lombardi’s Pizza parlor in lower Manhattan then you know the name of that immigrant. Gennaro Lombardi!
Legend tells of Gennaro Lombardi owning a bodega that opened in 1897. That may be Gennaro’s only part in the story, (which isn’t true) and yet most everyone who visits Lombardi’s today (Yes you can still go there for pizza), associates Gennaro Lombardi as the man who first brought pizza to America. Did he?
One truth often speculated upon is that Gennaro Lombardi wasn’t the first or actual maker of pizziolas or as we call it now — pizza. That honor should be attributed to another employee at the Spring Street grocery.
Fun Fact: If you missed it, pizza started in a grocery, not as a pizza parlor.
A few years pass. It’s apparent to Gennero this pizza product is enough to support its own storefront. According to Lombardi’s historical narrative, Gennaro acquired a license for Lombardi’s Pizza in 1905. Remember that date. It’s important.
Is Lombardi’s A Fraud?
If you go by Lombardi’s family history, Gennaro worked at a grocery at 53rd and one half on Spring Street which opened in 1897 where he started at age thirteen. Then his age was updated to age fourteen. Neither is accurate.
For some time, it has been assumed the grocery was named, Lombardi’s. However, a 2019 investigation of Gennaro Lombardi’s birth record resulted in historical records that contradicted his place in time as the grocery store owner — at least not the original owner.
Documents, including naturalization, indicate Gennaro arrived in the United States at age 17 in 1904. That is seven years after the grocery opened!
It’s not possible for Lombardi’s Grocery store to use his name since 1897 when his arrival to America was in 1904. This information gives cause to scrutinize the Lombardi’s Pizza history as told by the Lombardi’s alone.
New research suggests Filippo Milone was the putative founder of what was to become Lombardi’s Pizza. We’ll get to that.
What should be in question is the Lombardi’s Pizza claim of a business license in 1905. This is the year prior articles state Gennerro opened up a pizza parlor. Again. Remember this year, 1905. Before we drill into the dates, a good question to be asked is, Was Gennaro a smart business owner who fostered an employee’s idea or was Gennero just a smart young man who knew a great product when he saw one. Then later in life took credit for as much as he could? Or maybe Gennero’s ancestors just embellished history in good marketing?
What is certain is that Lombardi’s grocery (it was never Lombardi’s grocery), made a name for itself by offering what amounted to turn of the century fast food — small tomato pizziolas wrapped in brown paper and string. Perfect for on-the-go working men who mobbed his store location at lunch. But who made these pies if Gennaro had not yet arrived in the U.S.?
Anthony Totonno Also Made Pizza
Before going too far, let’s give credit to another worker at this small grocery turned pizza parlor. Anthony Totonno. We know for certain he made pizza. We can’t confirm if it was at both the grocery or later when it became the pizza parlor owned by Gennaro Lombardi.
It remains to be answered if Lombardi shared his technique with Totonno or if the pizza concept was Totonno’s idea (or was it taught to both of these men?) We may never know, but Anthony Totonno did eventually step out from under the shadow of Gennaro Lombardi to open his pizza shop many years later in 1924. If you think about all those years working together, it stands to reason these two men didn’t part on bad terms.
Anthony Totonno did have a plan. A good one. Hit virgin territory. Anthony took advantage of New York’s new transit system which recently begun to run service out of Manhattan to Long Island. Anthony Totonno opened his own pizza shop on Coney Island.
While the Totonno’s location is still the original location (it did burn down and reopen) opened in 1924, the Lombardi’s of the early 1900s is no longer in its original location. Lombardi’s closed for a short time (1984) and family members re-opened a block and one half away from its original address (not that either matter). You can still enjoy a coal-fired brick oven pizza today. Lombardi’s is cozy with tourist appeal, while Totonno’s is touristy only due to its location.
Lombardi’s: 32nd Spring & Mott Streets in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy.
Totonno’s: 1524 Neptune Avenue, Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Totonno’s now has multiple locations if you don’t live near or want to trek to Coney Island to try their pizza. They are also located in Manhattan at:
- Midtown at 2nd Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets or
- Downtown on 2nd Avenue between 26th and 27th
Pizza For Everyone
Pizza sold briskly in Italian enclaves through-out the first half of the twentieth century yet didn’t explode in demand nationally until the end of the second world war. Enlisted men from all over America who served in the second world war were exposed to pizza during their Italian campaigns.
How Lombardi’s and Totonno’s Are Alike
There is something special about pizza from Lombardi’s or Totonno’s. No matter their place in history, their pizza is unique and special. Here’s why. The critical element is both are prepared in a coal-fired brick oven. These ovens run intensely hot at 900 degrees. A pizza cooks in ninety seconds.
Coal-fired brick oven pizza is a dying breed due in part to most modern coal-fired ovens don’t meet most environmental standards. They don’t meet New York City standards. No existing or new business may install a coal-fired oven. Fortunately, Lombardi’s and Totonno’s are grandfathered. As long as they stay open, their ovens may continue to be used to bake these very special pizzas.
Now if you thought this story of pizza history ended here, you are wrong. There is indeed a plot twist.
You see for many years, people wrote articles on food or for travel, showcasing Lombardi’s and Totonno’s. These two are tied at the hip as the birthplace of pizza in America. Writers churned this same story out over and over.
Then history caught up with Lombardi’s claim as the first pizza sold in America. As mentioned earlier, the truth about Gennaro’s ownership and the name of the grocery came about in the early 2000s. Twenty years later in 2020, a potential blockbuster is here. The Boston Brunos. That’s right Brunos, not Bruins. The plot thickens.
Did Someone Else Make The First Pizza In America?
All those warm and fuzzy feel-good articles about Lombardi’s in the early 2000s had to have rattled cages of lifelong Italians in various cities along the East Coast of the U.S. Sure enough, historians stepped in to vet the Lombardi claim. Have you remembered our past references of 1905 and the instances attributed to that date? If not, go back and refresh. Here is where our story really gets interesting.
In 2018 & 2019, historians Peter Regas (statistician) and Scott Wiener (pizza historian) independently dug up facts that dispute New York as the absolute first of pizza creation and pizza parlors in the United States. The saying is true, dig hard enough you may find something. They researched directories to city records (like when ovens were installed) even combing through old newspaper archives to see just how well the Lombardi’s Pizza legend held up.
Regas and Wiener did more than reshape the Lombardi grocery store ownership narrative as mentioned earlier. Their independent efforts and evidence conclude Gennaro Lombardi worked for Filippo Milone at the grocery before it became a pizza shop in 1905. If it is true that pizza was made in the grocery before 1905, it wasn’t Gennaro Lombardi who prepared it.
With this new evidence that Filippo Milone was the owner (and he was a baker), the timeline suggests Generro got off the boat at age 17 in 1904 (November 23, 1904), then learned to bake bread and pizza under the guidance of Filippo Milone. History may want to mark Filippo Milone as the first to make and sell pizza in America.
Factual evidence documents Gennaro Lombardi became the pizza shop owner in 1908, not 1905.
Examine the photo below. It’s the same one showcased earlier in the article. This old photo of pizza history is all over the web, often dated 1905. Whose name is on the glass as proprietor in the photo? Gennaro Lombardi. This picture more than likely was taken in 1908 at the earliest. Also note the pizza shop’s name, Pizzeria Napoletana.
The historical disputes in prior publications don’t stop with ownership of the store or when Lombardi became the pizza shop owner. Consider that a 1910 directory of bakers didn’t list Gennaro at his own 53rd Spring Street address. Instead, it listed, Francesco D’Errico. Does all this make Lombardi’s a fraud? That’s a good question, but it does show that other players had a hand in the pizza making and they all had a bit more background in pizza that Gennaro Lombardi, even before he immigrated to the U.S.
Baker Francesco D’Errico came from a family of bakers as did Filippo Milone. Gennaro Lombardi’s background was not associated with baking or culinary in the least. It stands to reason, maybe Milone and D’Errico taught Gennaro and Anthony.
What Is Going On Here With Lombardi’s Story Telling?
It’s understandable a barely twenty-year-old boy may not be listed as a business owner. Perhaps he had financial support that omitted his name and yet no evidence of a business license to Generro Lombardi has been found. Next. How do you explain another man listed as the baker and not yourself at your pizza shop? This news calls into question, “How much you can accept from the Lombardi’s as historically accurate?” To be fair, maybe Lombardi’s ancestors just didn’t know all the facts? Marketing seems to be the best answer.
Many publications dating back to 1953 told a great story about Gennaro Lombardi. Colliers Magazine proclaimed he arrived in 1905 at age thirteen (not 17) as a pizzaiuolo apprentice. There’s no mention of a date but the publication does state he later bought the pizzeria for $200.00.
Fun Fact: In 2020 dollars $200 equates to $5,431.00.
The historians learned the Lombardi’s grocery store owner Filippo Milone was also from Naples (the birthplace of pizza) and that he worked in pizza shops in Naples before moving to the U.S. Here he opened as many as six pizza parlors in Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century. If we use the pizza shop add for Antica Pizzeria Napoletana above in our line of reasoning, the order of ownership is:
- Filippo Milone (1897-1901)
- Giovanni Santillo (1901-1908)
- Gennaro Lombardi (1908-1948).
Was The First Pizza Made and Sold in Boston?
Then Peter Regas own investigation uncovered something more disheartening for pizza faithful. Regas unearthed a 1904 article from the Boston Journal (1833-1917) discussing pizza in Boston. The article featured pizza being brought to Boston by Giovani Bruno (6/21/1883-7/9/1950) and his brother Gennero Bruno from a family pedigree of master chefs who reportedly cooked for kings of Italy. Considering the 1904 article as accurate, the Bruno brothers own a year advantage on the Lombardi Pizza business license (claim-never proved) in 1905.
Fun Fact: Giovani Bruno arrived in the states at the ripe young age of 17, the same age Gennaro Lombardi arrived in America.
In Conclusion | The Boston Bruno’s Are At Least In A Tie for First Pizza In America
Our own investigation of the claim that pizza was first sold in Boston makes the Boston claim a bit hard to swallow. Descendants of Gennero ( with an ‘e’ not Gennaro with an ‘a’) Bruno outline in various publications that Gennero’s arrival in the U.S. was anywhere between 1900 and 1905. Without the ability to confirm Peter Regas’ claim on Boston beyond the 1904 article, the Bruno family has yet to make any mention of Boston. The Bruno family is documented in opening pizza parlors in NYC and Chicago in 1905. Did the Bruno’s drop into Boston, open a shop, and move on? The 1904 Boston Journal article can’t be disputed. The problem is there’s no surviving evidence of a Boston based Bruno pizza parlor. The timeline of the Bruno’s travels in the first ten years of the twentieth century would make this new assertion of Boston being first a good question to resolve.
Try Coal-Fired Brick Oven Pizza
History aside. The good news is coal-fired pizza has a unique taste and we can still enjoy it. Keep in mind, there is ‘wood-fired’ and ‘coal-fired’. There is a difference in heat, but they both taste special. Seek out either type of pizza. It is a treat.
Authors Note: In my hometown of Delaware there are no “coal-oven” pizza parlors. There are wood-burning “brick oven” pizza shops. Two places stand out. The Chesapeake Inn located just over the Delaware line in the quaint town of Chesapeake City and Elizabeth’s Pizza located in the upscale and hardly down to earth part of Delaware —Greenville. Both of these brick-oven pizzas are similar in taste to Lombardi’s or Totonno’s. However, they do lack the final something that Lombardi’s offers. Put it down to the sauce.
You must at least try a coal-fired or wood-fired brick oven pizza. Contemporary pizza prepared in Blogden Ovens hardly compares.
Final Note: As New York is now a second home (work), I’ve tried St. Mark’s Pizza on 8th and 3rd. While it is damn good, I must confess the oven coal pizza at Lombardi’s makes for a better snack. If I can’t get downtown, I like Patsy’s on the west side of Central Park.