New York Pizza History – Where It All Begins

The story of pizza in America starts with New York pizza history. It all began in New York City, on Spring Street in lower Manhattan, in 1905 when Gennaro Lombardi, a baker and pizzaiolo from Naples is granted the first license in the United States to sell pizza.

Note: much of this history comes from several articles in Ed Levine’s classic book, Pizza – A Slice of Heaven.

Lombardi had come to America at the age of 14. He was already a baker by trade, and soon found work in a Brooklyn bakery and a grocery store on Spring Street in Manhattan. He had the idea of baking pizzas at the bakery and selling them the next morning at the grocery. It was a very good idea.

Three years later, the aging owner of the grocery offered to sell the store to young Gennaro, who jumped at the chance. Within a few years, he realized that while bread and groceries were business, the future was made of pizza. Lombardi wanted to have a real American pizza business, and so acquired that first pizza-selling license for his location at 53 1/2 Spring Street.

Lomardi's - Where New York Pizza History began

He had a coal-fired oven built into the store, added chairs and tables, and sold one kind of pizza – tomatoes and mozzarella, and kept the place open from 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily, for back in Naples people ate pizza at any meal (I’m rather partial to pizza for breakfast myself! – Cary) He made the dough himself and the cheese when necessary. This was the first New York pizza.

Don Gennaro, as he came to be known, was the first of a new breed – the American pizzaiolo. The first generation trained by Lombardi to make New York pizza included Antonio (Totonno) Pero, who went on to open Totonno’s (the first pizzeria in Brooklyn) in 1924, John Sasso, founder of John’s of Bleecker Street, and, perhaps, Patsy Lancieri of Patsy’s of East Harlem.

All of these pizzerias are still operating today.

The Families of New York Pizza

Here’s where it might get confusing without a scorecard:

Gennaro Lombardi – first of the New York pizzaiolos. Lombardi’s begat Totonno’s (Brooklyn, 1924), John’s (Greenwich Village, 1929) and Patsy’s (East Harlem, 1933).

Lombardi’s was reopened by Gennaro’s grandson Gennaro (don’t ask – it’s an Italian thing) in a new location in the 1970’s. The oven had collapsed at 53 1/2 Spring, so they opened at 32 Spring Street.

Antonio Pero opened Totonno’s in Coney Island in 1924. Not only is it still open, it’s great pizza. You’ll see our review in the Restaurant Reviews section.

John Sasso opened John’s on Bleecker Street. His nephews took over the business in 1947 and his grand-nephews have been running the place since the 1970’s. They no longer use canned tomatoes but a sauce, not home made. As we say in New York, “whadda you gonna do?” It’s still good.

Patsy Lancieri (Patsy’s) had a nephew named Patsy (see? I told you), whose last name was Grimaldi, who opened Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn. Still open, with three more locations. Except Grimaldi’s is no longer owned by Patsy Grimaldi, but Julianna’s (around the corner from the original Grimaldi’s) is. As we say in Italian, oy gevalt.

The cheese ain’t all what it used to be.

Most New York pizza today is made with ‘aged’ mozzarella and a thicker crust. It no longer tastes like the old style, referred to by some as “Neo-Neapolitan,” but New York City is still a great place for a pizza hunt.

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We prefer to hunt on Long Island for our local American pie, sometimes venturing into the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. A bit of local trivia: the first pizzeria on Long Island (1935) was Eddie’s, a bar in New Hyde Park, NY — still open and still making what is known as a “bar pie,” with cracker-thin crust. People who drink beer say they go well together. We’ll review that later too (the pizza, not the beer).

New York City will always be the starting point in the search for great American pizza. And New York pizza history is the beginning of American pizza history.

Pizza grows beyond New York City

Frank Pepe's pizzeria sign

A year after Antonio Pero opened Totonno’s in Brooklyn, another Neapolitan immigrant pizzaiolo named Frank Pepe opened Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (1925), the first pizzeria
in New Haven, CT.

There are people in New Haven who will tell you that their city was where pizza in America started, but the math just doesn’t work. Even if you count Frank Pepe selling pizzas from a cart starting in 1919, Lombardi still has him beat by 14 years. Still, Pepe’swas the first pizzeria in Connecticut and New England in general.

Pepe’s was followed later by the other two members of the New Haven pizza triumvirate, Sally’s Apizza (down the block from Pepe’s, opened by Frank’s nephew) and Modern Apizza, all still open and thriving. You’ll find more about New Haven pizza in our forthcoming section on Types of Pizza.

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