You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six. -– Yogi Berra, American baseball player and manager
On November 10, 2005, Lombardi’s Pizzeria, in the Little Italy
section of Manhattan
, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first pizza sale in the United States
by lowering the price of its pizzas to the 1905 price –- 5 cents a pie. Pizza prices in the United States have come a long way since then, and so have the many ways in which Americans make, sell and eat their pies. And what started as an ethnic regional curiosity has grown into the most popular single food sale item in the entire United States. Consider this:
- Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza each day, or about 350 slices per second.
Pizza is a $30+ billion per year industry. There are approximately 69,000 pizzerias in the United States. Approximately 3 billion pizzas are sold in the U.S. each year. (Source: Blumenfeld and Associates)
Pizzerias represent 17% of all restaurants in the U.S., and pizza accounts for more that 10% of all foodservice sales. (Source: Food Industry News.)
93% of Americans eat at least one pizza per month. (Source: Bolla Wines.)
Each man, woman and child in America eats an average of 46 slices – or 23 pounds, of pizza per year. (Source: Packaged Facts, New York.)
Yet while you really can’t argue with the fact that the pizza has left its mark on the American palate, it is equally clear that America has left its own mark on the pizza itself. Indeed, the story of the pizza in the United States echoes a recurring national theme, in which Americans take the best of what immigrants bring to their shores, and adapt it –- some might say “dumb it down” -– to their own unique needs and tastes.
If you’re looking for the first signs of anything resembling a pizza, you have to go back several millennia, likely to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, or Phoenicians. It is in those early cultures where you will first find the flatbreads –- ground flour, mixed with water, and baked near an oven –-- of the sort from which modern pizza derives its origins. After cooking, this flatbread might be seasoned with a variety of different toppings and used instead of plates and utensils to sop up broth or gravies. It is said that the idea of using bread as a plate came from the Greeks who ate flat round bread (plankuntos) baked with cheese, olive oil, and other toppings.
In his first history of Rome, Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.), also known as Cato the Elder, wrote of a "flat round of dough dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey baked on stones." A form of pizza also makes an appearance in Virgil’s Aenid (“Beneath a shady tree, the hero sprad his table on the turf, with cakes of bread”). Evidence of a flat flour cake was found in the ashes of Pompeii and nearby Neopolis, the Greek colony that eventually became Naples. Evidence was also found in Pompeii of shops, complete with marble slabs and other tools of the trade, which resemble the conventional pizzeria.
But a light sprinkling of cheese, olives, and oil on flatbread does not a modern pizza make. Focaccia maybe, but not pizza. No, it seems that ancient pizzas would not begin to resemble their modern-day brethren until centuries later, when Spanish conquistadors first brought the tomato back to Europe from the New World.
You Say Tomato, I Say Nightshade
Spanish explorers discovered tomatoes –- growing wild in the Peruvian Andes, already farmed in Mexico –- in 1522, and promptly shipped them back to Europe. Interestingly, though, Europeans –- at least the wealthy ones –- were initially reluctant to accept the new plant, which is a member of the Nightshade family, a known poison.
The peasants could not afford to be so discriminating, however. Indeed, the tomato found a particularly welcome home in Naples, which had rich volcanic soil for the plant’s growth. The Neapolitan peasants added the new tomatoes to their yeast dough and created the first simple pizza, as we know it. By the end of the 16th century, Neapolitan pies were generally acknowledged to be the best, and soldiers frequented the Tavern of the Cerrigloi, in Naples, to sample the specialty of the house - pizza.
Fast forward a few centuries. The pizza -– Italian for “pie” –- has achieved a strong foothold in Italy, and Naples in particular, where visitors to Naples would routinely venture into the poorer sections of town to taste the peasant dish made by men called pizzaioli, or pizza chefs. Not even royalty was immune to this peasant treat. Indeed, Queen Maria Carolina d'Asburgo Lorena (1752-1814), wife of the King of Naples, Ferdinando IV (1751-1821), had a special oven built in their summer palace of Capodimonte so that their chef could serve pizzas to herself and to her guests.
The Modern Pizza Is Born
But the first truly modern pizza would not take shape until another Queen hit the scene, Queen Margherita di Savoia (1851-1926), wife of the King of Italy, Umberto I (1844-1900). Legend has it that the Queen, in Naples on holiday, called on the most popular pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, owner of the famous pizzeria Pietro il Pizzaiolo, to make a private sampling for the royal couple. Esposito prepared three kinds of pizzas: one with pork fat, cheese, and basil; one with garlic, oil, and tomatoes; and another with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes. This third pizza, so the story goes, was made to resemble the Italian flag, with basil for green, mozzarella for white, and tomato for red. This third pizza so entranced the Queen that Esposito, ever the promoter, named the dish after her, the Pizza Margherita.
You can still buy a Pizza Margherita in gourmet pizza places like the California Pizza Kitchen today, due in large part to the magic combination of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Once this taste sensation hit the Italian streets, it took off like wildfire, and the resulting “tomato pies” became a staple of the Italian peasant diet. And those Italian peasants were about to become Italian immigrants as they headed across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
I Love New York
The influx of Italian immigrants into the United States -– and particularly New York –- beginning in the late 1880’s created a ready-made market for Italian foods. Italian immigrants new to the United States, much like immigrants of any other nationality, naturally sought out the familiar cuisine of their home country. So pizza and other Italian foods found their first U.S. home in Manhattan’s Little Italy, the bustling district nestled between Canal and Spring Streets in lower Manhattan.
One young immigrant in particular, Gennaro Lombardi, saw this opportunity and took advantage of it for all it was worth. Lombardi came to the U.S. from his home in Naples when he was 14 years old. He immediately started making Neapolitan-style pizzas out of a grocery on Spring Street.
Lombardi’s creations were nothing fancy. They were just cheese and tomato sauce, tied in a paper bag and served cold in the mornings to Italian workers on the way to the factories in Soho. These workers, who often put in 14 hour days, six days a week at the factory, would heat the pies on the furnaces at work for lunch and dinner.
Well, it seems that Lombardi’s pies were so popular that the opened up his own pizzeria in 1905, on 53 ½ Spring Street in Manhattan, becoming the first commercially licensed pizzeria in the United States. Now, there's no question that Lombardi was old school. He learned how to make pizzas in the old country, and kept on making them the same way his whole life. But there were some differences between American and Italian pizzas, even at the very beginning.
For example, Lombardi had to rely on local tomatoes, not the kind grown in the rich, volcanic soil of Naples. The mozzarella cheese came from cows, not water buffalos. But perhaps the biggest change came from the ovens. You see, the New York pizzaioli like Lombardi weren’t just starting from scratch –- they took advantage of what was around them at the time. And unlike Naples, which had mostly wood-fired ovens, New York, with its existing manufacturing base, had a lot of coal-fired ovens available to use. These coal-fired ovens could reach a temperature of up to 2000º Fahrenheit, with a cooking temperature of 800º at the outside of the stove, where the pizzas were placed. These higher temperatures allowed the pizzas to be cooked faster, resulting in a softer crust than the Neapolitan style. A real slice of N.Y. pizza will droop when you pick it up. Neapolitan won’t.
Patsy’s Slice: The Cutting Edge
Over time, some of the pizzaioli who worked for Lombardi left to start their own shops, and soon there were Lombardi-style pizzerias sprouting up all over Little Italy and beyond. But while some of these new pizzerias made it as far uptown as Harlem, their popularity generally ended there. There was no broad demand for pizzas outside the traditional Italian immigrant community, which itself hadn’t expanded much outside of lower Manhattan.
Then in 1933 came a pizzaiolo named Patsy Lagheri, who changed the way pizza would be served. You see, before Patsy’s, which still stands in East Harlem today, pizza was only sold by the pie. Never by the slice. To the old-time pizzaioli, slicing up a pizza was sacrilege. Each pie was a work of art, meant to be consumed in one sitting as a single meal.
Patsy’s contribution to pizza history was to realize that not everyone wanted a whole pizza all at once, and that he could make more money selling pizza by the slice. The free advertising Patsy’s got when someone walked down the sidewalk wolfing down a fresh, hot slice didn’t hurt, either. And while traditionalists like Lombardi were outraged –- you can still see “No Slices” signs on some New York pizzerias today -– the convenient, portable slice took off, pushing the pizza further into the American mainstream.
Go Deep: Pizza Hits Chicago
Then a decade later came World War II, and with it came GI’s returning from Italy with a newfound love for pizza. And while those who called New York home could find their new culinary darling in the pizzerias of Little Italy, other GI’s weren’t so fortunate. To meet this new, as yet untapped, market came an expansion in pizzerias up and down the East Coast and out to the Midwest. Perhaps the most successful expansion took place in Chicago.
In 1942 –- when the war was barely started -– a man named Ike Sewell noticed the increased demand for pizzas in Chicago, his adopted hometown. Sewell himself was a Texas native, and he decided to team up with a local Chicago restaurant guy named Rick Ricardo (not kidding) to start a new Chicago pizzeria.
But Sewell didn’t just want to reproduce the New York style pizza. No, Ike’s Texas-sized appetite was looking for something a little more . . . filling. So he and Ricardo started experimenting. They took an iron skillet, lined it with pizza dough, and began adding ingredients. First the cheese. Then the pepperoni, sausage, peppers, and other fillings. Finally, the tomato sauce. In other words, the exact opposite of a New York pie. They called their creation a Deep Dish Pizza.
Sewell and Ricardo set up shop in the basement of an old mansion in downtown Chicago, and they called their restaurant Pizzeria Uno. They almost didn’t make it. Sewell was seriously ahead of the curve as far as demand goes. Those GI’s wouldn’t be coming back in any significant numbers until 1945. To make matters worse, the customers who did come in the shop –- and who did know what a pizza was –- hardly recognized Sewell’s creation, which was unlike any pizza they had ever seen.
The story goes that Sewell and Ricardo were about to go under when a reporter, and former war correspondent, just happened to walk into their restaurant and ordered a pizza. A glowing review ensued in which the reporter said that he’d had pizzas of the Italian and New York varieties, and that as far as he was concerned, the Deep Dish Pizza won, hands down.
The rest was Chicago pizza history. Pizzeria Uno grew so popular that Sewell had to expand, creating Pizzeria Due in 1955 in a Victorian house a block away from his first store. Deep dish pizza not only took off with the American public, it was also the first time American pizza makers really cut loose from the constraints of the old Italian pizzaioli. And what had been a regional, ethnic food was about to go mainstream national.
In 1958 two brothers, Frank and Dan Carney, took over the lease of an old bar in downtown Wichita, Kansas for $500. The bar was in a squat sort of building, with a red shingled roof and oddly shaped windows. The brothers borrowed another $600 from their mother to buy some second-hand pizza equipment.
History doesn’t tell us exactly why the brothers did this. They weren’t Italian. They didn’t know how to bake or cook, much less make a pizza. And they had only eaten pizza a few times before embarking on their new venture. What the brothers did have, though, was a strong work ethic and a lot of luck.
For example, it seems that the sign from the old bar had just enough room to spell out the word Pizza and then three more letters. Not having enough money to buy a new sign, the brothers set out to think up a good name. Dan’s wife, Beverly, suggested Hut. When the brothers complained, Beverly just said that the squatty little building looked like a hut, and that’s what they should call it. So that’s what they did. They called it Pizza Hut.
The brothers were lucky in choosing their product, too. Not having much of a stake in the escalating pizza wars between Chicago and N.Y. style pizzas, the Carney brothers went both ways, offering both types to attract the widest range of customers. The strategy worked, and five new Pizza Hut restaurants popped up all over Wichita over the next few years.
The expansion picked up steam when Dick Hasser, the manager of the first Pizza Hut restaurant, wanted to go into business for himself. The Carney brothers agreed to let him use the Pizza Hut name -– for a price, of course -– as long as Hasser didn’t set up shop in Wichita. Thus was born the first pizza franchise, the Topeka, Kansas Pizza Hut, in 1961. And the Carney brothers just kept on going. As one pizza historian –- yes, there are such things –- put it, Pizza Hut just “kept expanding because they couldn’t find a reason to stop.” Just fifteen years later, Pizza Hut was a multi-billion dollar company, with sites throughout the United States and the rest of the world. More importantly, it had brought American pizza into its own, finally cut loose from its Italian origins.
Ypsilanti, Michigan. December 9, 1960. Two more brothers –- Tom and James Monaghan –- buy a dilapidated pizzeria called Dominick’s for $500. They get a five-minute lesson on how to use the pizza equipment, then they’re in business.
Unlike the Brothers Carney, however, the Monaghans weren’t near so lucky. In fact, business was so bad in the first year that Jim Monaghan sold all of his shares in the company for a VW bug. He would live to regret it.
After Jim left, Tom kept trying to make the business a success. Unfortunately, Dominick re-entered the market, and wanted his name back. So Monaghan changed the name of the store to Domino’s Pizza because: (1) it ended in a vowel, and sounded vaguely Italian; and (2) it would show up in the phone book right after Dominick’s. Monaghan also decided to expand his market, and therein lay his fortune.
You see, Ypsilanti is the home of Eastern Michigan University, and Monaghan soon realized that he had a vast, untapped market of college students hungry for his pizza. The problem was that the students had no way to get to his store. So Monaghan started a delivery service, and soon began setting up new locations wherever students were living. The combination of hungry college students and pizza delivery led to explosive growth, and by 1969 there were 42 Domino’s franchises in the United States. There are over 7,500 throughout the world today.
How did Domino's manage such an expansion? Well, as you might expect, it takes attention to consistency and quality control, just like any food franchise such as McDonald’s or Taco Bell. So you see such measures as the standardization of ingredients via a commissary system, and “idiot-proof” manufacturing systems like the conveyor-driven air impingement ovens (a little piece of NASA technology).
But it also takes a keen eye for technological innovation. You see, unlike other food franchises, Domino’s has to maintain its product quality en route to the customer’s house. Early cardboard boxes wilted under the heat, while cheese would stick to the top of the pizza box and the pizza would arrive cold because the heat was escaping through the flimsy cardboard.
So Domino’s went back to an older technology, corrugated cardboard. First used for structural support in top hats, corrugated cardboard offered two advantages. First, the system of cardboard arches offered greater structural support, preventing the boxes from wilting. Second, the air trapped between the cardboard layers acted as an insulator, preventing the heat from escaping as rapidly. Other innovations would follow, from early thermal bags to more recent Heatwave® bags that actually heat the pizza en route. At the end of the day, though, the fundamental principle of Domino’s success has been the “dumbing down” of pizza making to a paint-by-numbers process.
Pizza’s Are Really Just Fancy Circles, Aren’t They?
As you might expect, this growing standardization of the pizza industry –- which shows up not only with Domino’s and other delivery chains, but with the recent explosion of frozen pizzas for home use –- has led to a bit of a backlash in the pizza industry. No, not from the little pizzerias run by pizzaioli. Those guys have always been there, and they’ve always had a backlash to virtually any modernization in the pizza industry. No, I’m talking about new pizza purists coming back full circle with gourmet-style pizza chains, that make pizzas the old way, one pizza at a time, but with a twist.
California Pizza Kitchen is, of course, the prime example. The brain child of a California dropout named Ed LeDoux and two L.A. real estate lawyers, it’s easy to see how people might dismiss California Pizza Kitchen as an L.A. pizza travesty, all glitz and no substance. But they’d be wrong.
Ed LeDoux dropped out of school and started making pizzas in California at the age of 19. He specialized in off-the-wall, irreverent combinations of ingredients on his pizzas, while at the same time preparing the pie with the hand-craftsmanship of a Neapolitan pizzaiolo. In 1980, LeDoux was discovered by Wolfgang Puck, when he served a handcrafted pizza made with ricotta cheese, liver paté, and roast asparagus. Two years later, LeDoux was the head pizza chef at Puck’s L.A. hotspot, Spago’s. LeDoux, irreverent as ever, broke away from Puck just one year later, but by 1985 was approached by L.A. lawyers Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flack to be the head chef of their new restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen. The experiment was a resounding success, and by 2005 there were 180 California Pizza Kitchens worldwide, grossing over a half billion dollars per year.
I honestly don’t know. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I’d be out making money making pizzas. But I can go out on a limb and say that the pizza -– in whatever shape or form it may take –- will likely be a favorite of Americans for years to come.
- American Eats , The History Channel, airdate July 2, 2006. These two reports about pizza from the History Channel’s American Eats series formed the backbone of this writeup. Well-researched and entertaining, I highly recommend watching these shows when they re-air.
- Pizza History, (www.inmamaskitchen.com/FOOD_IS_ART/pizzahistory.html)
- History and Legends of Pizza (http:www. whatscookingamerica.net/History/Pizza/PizzaHistory.htm)
- Slice: Pizza History Archives (www.sliceny.com/archives/pizza_history/)
- Pizza History, with personal anecdotes (www.foodhistory.com/foodnotes/leftovers/pizza.htm)