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A History of Pizza in America – Get Back Into The Past

Lary Michael

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A History Of Pizza In AmericaPhoto byLary Michael

Here you are going to read the history of pizza in America. A long time ago, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, pizza wasn't fancy or expensive in the U.S. It was simple, homemade food cooked by Italian women from the South who came to live here. They made pizza in their kitchens, following traditional ways. Tough times made about four million southern Italians move to America by 1900. The families of those who later became important in American pizza learned to make it by watching relatives at home.

Early Pioneers – Comprehensive Details with Time Frame

Do you know who was the first person who asked the New York City government to allow him to sell pizza in the country in 1905? And interestingly, that time was initial. He did this at his store on Spring Street, in a lively Italian-American area. In 1912, Joe's Tomato Pies started in Trenton, New Jersey. Twelve years later, Anthony (Totonno) Pero left Lombardi's and began Totonno's in Coney Island. The next year, in 1925, Frank Pepe started his own pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut.

By 1929, John Sasso left Lombardi's to start John's Pizza in Greenwich Village. In the 1930s, pizza spread to places like Boston (Santarpio's in 1933) and San Francisco, where Tommaso's opened in 1934. Soon after, more places opened in New Jersey (Sciortino's in Perth Amboy in 1934 and the Reservoir Tavern in Boonton in 1936). In 1943, Chicago got its own pizza when Ike Sewell opened Uno's.

What was the common link between New York, New Haven, Boston, and Trenton? Jobs in factories for southern Italian immigrants with little education. At this time, pizza was mainly food for poor Italian people in the city neighborhoods they settled in.

Mainstream Integration

Pizza becoming popular in America really started after World War II. This was when American soldiers who were in Italy came back home and really wanted the pizza they had there. In 1945, one of these soldiers, Ira Nevin, used what he knew from fixing ovens for his dad's business and what he learned about food during the war.

He made the first gas-fired Bakers Pride pizza oven. These ovens let stores cook pizzas quickly, neatly, and without spending too much. With a bit of knowledge, a Bakers Pride oven, and the easy-to-find Hobart Mixer, folks who wanted to make pizzas could start their own shops. Moreover, packaging has also attracted more customers to pizza shops. Therefore, this trend is continuing and so on. In addition, utilize custom pizza boxes to promote the brand just like other popular food chains.

Spread of Pizzerias

Between 1945 and 1960, pizza places began showing up all over the country. Most were owned by different people, some Italian, some Greek, but they were all Americans. People were either making their own mozzarella cheese or getting it fresh from local sellers.

In the start, they made their own sauce using fresh tomatoes, or at least they used canned ones. They also made the dough right there. The stuff on top was prepared there or nearby.

Pizza as a Social Catalyst

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Social CatalystPhoto byLary Michael

The love for pizza quickly spread to people on lunch breaks, families seeking an affordable and satisfying meal, and those at bars wanting a snack to go with their drinks. It's interesting that many places combining pizza and bars opened up right after Prohibition ended in 1933.

Unlike other classic American foods like hot dogs, meatloaf, ham sandwiches, and hamburgers, pizza was a great meal to share with others. It was actually meant to be enjoyed together. Most places didn't sell individual slices, so you needed a bunch of people to order and eat a pizza. This group could be colleagues, teammates, or a family.

Pizzerias and Third Places

Lots of the early pizza places actually began as taverns, which were mostly for grown-ups or kids with grown-ups. Even today at Vito & Nick's in Chicago, there's a sign that says, "Kids under 21 need adults with them."

Moreover, important pizza spots are having “tavern” in their names. For example, Reservoir Tavern in Boonton, Star Tavern in West Orange, and Top Road Tavern in West Trenton.

Jimmy DeLorenzo said the first DeLorenzo's in Trenton had a dance floor, making it the best place to meet girls when it opened in 1936. Sociologists talk about "third places," spots where people hang out besides home and work. Pizzerias seemed like that "third place" in many Italian-American neighborhoods.

Traditional Styles and Changes

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styles and changesPhoto bylary michael

Early American pizza places mostly had thin and home-style pizzas. You can still find this kind of pizza at spots like Pete and Elda's/Carmen's in Neptune and Vic's in Bradley Beach on the Jersey Shore, Eddie's in New Hyde Park on Long Island, and Vito & Nick's in Chicago. I've eaten at many of these pizza places while studying for A Slice of Heaven.

The pizza is usually really good, always made by hand, and tastes fantastic if you don't overthink it. Further, this pizza is not as good as the classic coal-fired ones. Everyone enjoyed the best quality pizza in New Haven, New York. This pizza was genuine, homemade food that brought people together. After all, pizza is the ultimate simple and shared food.

Rise of Chains

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Photo byLary Michael

Pizza got immense popularity in the U.S. only because of the rise of chain restaurants. Just take the example of Pizza Hut. It began its operations in Kansas, in 1958. In addition to this, little Caesar’s opened in 1959 and Domino’s in 1960. Interestingly, both food chains started work in Michigan. Later on, a new brand named Papa John’s came into existence in 1989 in Indiana.

None of them began with the aim of recreating the delicious home-style pizza the founders enjoyed as kids. If you visit their websites, you'll see that their primary focus at the start was creating a business.

The Impact of Chains

The chains made pizza like a regular thing. They still made it by hand, but the sauce, cheese, and dough came from one place and went to different cities and shops. The pride in making pizza disappeared. Chain pizza places sold cheap, shared meals with a fun image. Independent shops couldn't match their prices.

John Teutonico, who owned House of Pizza and Calzone in Brooklyn, said when a Domino's opened nearby, he knew his business was in trouble. He showed me a flyer with a large pizza and two toppings for $10 and asked, "How can I compete with this?" Teutonico and his partner sold the business in 2004.

Resilience of Independents

The chains started something big (pun intended). The smaller pizza places had a hard time. From 1960 to 2000, there were way fewer small places, but lots more chain pizza shops. So, many people tried pizza first at a chain restaurant. Places like Pizza Hut became the standard for how pizza should taste. Even chain pizza can be really satisfying, especially if you've never had the real deal before.

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