Made in America 1900-1930

from the exhibit A New Age: Early Twentieth Century Modernism at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Self Portrait, Charles G. Shaw
Self Portrait, Charles G. Shaw
Untitled, Louise Nevelson
Untitled, Louise Nevelson
Landscape, Marsden Hartley
Landscape, Marsden Hartley
White Horses, John Marin
White Horses, John Marin
From a Flower, Helen Tor
From a Flower, Helen Torr
Cowboy and Horse, Ben Benn
Cowboy and Horse, Ben Benn
Noise Number 13, E.E. Cummings
Noise Number 13, E.E. Cummings
Oriental Synchromy in Blue-Green, Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Oriental Synchromy in Blue-Green, Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Chinese Restaurant, Max Weber
Chinese Restaurant, Max Weber
Sun, Florine Stetheimer
Sun, Florine Stetheimer
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Make Art, Not War

Russian art from the Soviet Era

From the exhibit, Non-Conformist Art from the Soviet Union, at the Zimmerli Art Museum on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. These are works by underground artists in Russia as well as in some of the former Soviet states, from the 1950’s through the 1980’s.

Krasikov Street, Erik Bulatov
Krasikov Street, Erik Bulatov
Molotov Cocktail, Alexander Kosolapov
Molotov Cocktail, Alexander Kosolapov
Morning Procession, Anatolii Slepyshev
Morning Procession, Anatolii Slepyshev
Ruins of a City, Olga Potapova
Ruins of a City, Olga Potapova

Artists from Georgia

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A Sanctuary for Words

wall of words

Planet Word is a museum of language. (Stifle that yawn!) It is a dynamic and interesting museum. Off the beaten path from the most popular Washington attractions, it is not beset by the hordes of visitors that many DC museums experience. It is only two years old, having opened in 2020. It is a very interactive museum, so my photos don’t really do it justice. It’s a fun place and from what I saw on my visit, kids enjoy it too. And it’s free

Planet Word
(answer at end of post)
The Spoken Word at Planet Word
The Spoken Word. In this room you can get a taste of various world languages. On each of the screens set up on stands throughout the room, you can interact with talking heads to get a quick lesson. I tried Turkish, Ethiopian and Hawaiian.
Word chart at Planet Word.

A few words of wisdom

Planet Word
Planet Word
Planet Word
the answer (from The Lorax)
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A Killer, A Donkey, and an Airborne Toxic Event

Narrative features from the Montclair Film Festival

The Holy Spider

In the holy city of Mashhad, Iran, the spider killer goes out on his motorbike and picks up a sex worker on the street. He brings her to his home, his wife and kids are visiting her family, and strangles his victim with her headscarf. He then dumps the body in roughly the same place each time and calls a local journalist to let him know that he has continued his holy crusade to rid the town of ‘corrupt’ women. He’s done this 16 times.

Rahimi is a very brave and single-minded woman journalist who comes from Teheran to cover this story. She even dons the makeup and poses as a streetwalker herself to find the killer.

This is not a mystery as in who is the murderer. We know that from the get go. The mystery is why the police claim to have no clue, whether he will actually be prosecuted when caught and whether he will be sentenced by a judge in this city.  Perhaps the biggest mystery is why so many townsfolk consider the killer a hero.

While this is a crime story, it’s also very much about the timely topic of the treatment of women in Iran. When Rahimi goes to check in to the hotel where she has a reservation, the clerk whispers to his manager that an unmarried woman wants to check in by herself. That seems to prompt an error in the reservation system resulting in no room being available. And Rahimi’s reputation precedes her. Seems she was fired from a previous job because she refused and reported the sexual advances of her editor. For that she is labeled a slut.

This is a riveting can’t take your eyes off the screen movie. It is brilliantly acted by Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Rahimi) and Mehdi Bajestari (the spider killer). It has a couple of gruesome scenes and is overall disturbing. Even more so when you realize it is based on a true story. This is the best of the films reviewed here.

EO

You may think you’ve seen just about everything in movies, but have you seen a serious adult film about a donkey? EO opens the movie as a donkey in a traveling circus. We see him showered with love and affection by his handler and co-star Cassandra. Due to some government edict we’re not clear about, he is repossessed by the government and shipped to a horse farm. EO sees the horses run free, get their pictures taken, get bathed, while all he gets is to pull a cart. When he rebels against that he gets shipped to another farm. Here there’s other donkeys and he’s treated better. But Cassandra finds him and visits. When she leaves, he knocks down a fence and heads out. Thus begins the donkey adventure which is the main focus of this movie.

EO wanders through forest and town. Along the way he encounters a soccer match, a beer hall, a skinhead attack and a couple dodgy rides in the back of a truck. Some good things and some bad things happen to him. For the odd collection of humans he encounters along the way, it’s mostly bad.

This is a movie of few words. The camera does most of the talking. The views of the Polish countryside are beautiful. There is one scene where EO is in the woods at night with wolves, owls, raptors and hunters. The darkly filmed scene breathes suspense.  This is a film to be seen on a big screen. There are numerous shots of the soulful eyes of the donkey. Are those supposed to be tears? We’re led to believe that EO is dreaming of Cassandra. The movie imbues the donkey with dignity and will power.

The super-heavy eerie soundtrack is overdone in my opinion. On a positive note there is a graphic at the end assuring us that no animal was harmed in the making of this movie. It may be a story about a donkey, but don’t bring the kids.

White Noise

Jack is a professor at the College on the Hill. Fourteen years ago he started the Hitler Studies program. He is looking forward to the Nazi education conference he is hosting. White Noise opens with one of his colleagues lecturing on the joys of American car crashes. I’m not sure if it’s the same class or a different one when we see him later making the case to his students that Elvis was a ‘mama’s boy.’

Meanwhile on a highway nearby a truck driver carrying a tanker full of some toxic substance is reaching for the bottle of Jack Daniels he keeps on the passenger seat. Losing concentration he barrels into a train causing it to derail and jackknife. The resulting explosion causes an ‘airborne toxic event.’ The town evacuates and holes up in a Girl Scout camp. All this blows over and folks head home, although Jack has to live with the thought that he’s going to die because he got out of the car to pump gas while evacuating.

That ends the outdoor part of the movie. Most of the rest of the movie is in Jack’s house with his wife and four kids. As with so many cinematic families, the kids are way smarter than the adults. The oldest, a teenage boy, can explain everything, explanations that are way over his parents’ heads. His sister is a junior detective who uses her skills to expose her parents’ secrets. There’s some mystery pharmaceuticals, some marital infidelity, some violence. Some of it is presented dramatically, but you can’t take it seriously.

There are a handful of things to chuckle at in this movie. Most of it is nonsense. If I appeared to be about to clap my hands when the first credits rolled, it was only because it was over.

(White Noise is scheduled to be released in theaters around Thanksgiving and to be streamed on Netflix at the end of the year.)

Clairidge Theater, Montclair NJ
The Clairidge Theater, where most of the festival screenings took place, is 100 years old. It is operated year-round as a non-profit by Montclair Film. Its previous commercial owner, Bow Tie Cinemas, bailed during the pandemic.
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Families on Film

Domumentaries at the 2022 Montclair Film Festival

Bad Axe

This film could have been titled American Dream/American Nightmare. Instead it’s called Bad Axe, the unlikely name of the Michigan town where it is set. Bad Axe is small, almost exclusively white and Trump signs dot the landscape.

For his first full length feature documentary, David Siev has chosen the subject that he knows best, his family. His dad was one of six kids whose mother got them out of the killing fields in Cambodia. His mom is a second generation Mexican-American. They started out in Bad Axe with a donut shop and martial arts studio, then later started a restaurant. He has two older sisters, 30-something Jaclyn and 20-something Rachel. They are educated, smart, outspoken and outgoing women, exactly the type that usually leave a town like Bad Axe in their wake. But these two never stop supporting their family and working in the restaurant. For a while Jaclyn did so by commuting 2-½ hours every weekend from Ann Arbor where her day job was located.

The film is shot during the pandemic. The family is forced to close their doors and serve takeout only. Not only do they face the challenge of COVID but must deal with the inexplicable wave of Asian-American hatred that swept the country. There’s the red neck vigilantes that try to terrorize Rachel by tailing her after she closes the restaurant. There’s the morons who refuse to wear a mask to enter and become abusive when asked to do so. And there’s the customers who vow never to come back after the two sisters are seen at a Black Lives Matter rally after George Floyd’s murder.

There is an intimacy about the portrait of this family that likely could only be achieved by having a family member behind the camera. It has the feel of a bunch of iPhone videos shot at the spur of the moment. You see everyone’s high and lows, the bickering and the self doubt, but mostly the honesty and commitment.

This isn’t a drama so it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the restaurant has survived, is doing well and has the support of the community. Siev called this documentary a love letter to his family. You can just feel that in scene after scene. These guys are the quintessential 21st century American family.

(Scheduled to open in theaters mid-November.)

Relative

Tracey Arcabasso Smith also chose to make her first feature length documentary about her family. Bad Axe is a feel good story. Relative is anything but.

Smith turns the camera on herself to describe in a fair amount of detail how she was sexually abused as a young teen by two older cousins. She turns the camera on her mother who acknowledges being abused by her grandfather. Her 89-year-old grandmother was abused as a child four times, twice by relatives. A great aunt adds her story about a cousin. And another relative, who later asked to be pulled from the film, was raped by her father.

These interviews are interspersed with a giant archive of home videos: births, weddings, religious ceremonies, every type of family gathering. Everybody looks joyful and smiling. I could only think of how the women who were treated like this had to go to one big family event after another in the presence of their abusers. There is one incredible scene in which four women, all of whom must be 75+ sit around a kitchen table with Smith and talk about how they were abused as young girls, something they likely haven’t talked about for decades. This isn’t a script somebody wrote folks, this is real.

Much of the discussion in the film is about how and why nothing was said. They talked about how as a child you blame yourself. They talked about how they didn’t want to blow up the family and about how maybe it wasn’t that bad because it wasn’t rape. The older women especially, at least on the surface, seemed to say “it happens, then you move on.” Some forgave. Nobody forgot. There is love in this family too. We just don’t see it in the men.

Maybe these revelations are therapeutic. Maybe someone will speak up next time since it has been brought into the open. Maybe it will prevent another young girl from being abused. That’s all good, but it’s still hard to watch.

The Picture Taker

This is a different type of family saga, one about a family trying to keep alive the legacy of a deceased father and grandfather despite some uncomfortable truths.

The picture taker is Ernest Withers. He got his start in the segregated army in World War II. He returned to his home in Memphis and opened a photography studio. He was one of the first Black policemen in a racist city, though he was dismissed from the force for an extracurricular financial transaction that may or may not have happened.

What his contemporaries remember is that he and his camera were everywhere. He chronicled the civil rights movement in Memphis, the Emmett Till trial, a landmark sanitation workers strike and the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King. He photographed famous musicians and the clubs they performed in on Beale Street. He photographed Negro league baseball games. Mostly he photographed his community, their weddings, their funerals, their parties.

Our introduction is of a beloved community resource. That is until we find out he was a paid informer for the FBI. This is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI ever ready to suggest a link between the Communist Party and the civil rights and later the Black power movements. Also ever ready to use whatever surveillance techniques he could find to prove his point. Withers infiltrated local organizations, tracked local activists and fed the info to the FBI.

All that notwithstanding, the archive of Withers’ work is amazing and we see so much of it in this film. It is rare to see a documentary that uses still shots so extensively and that leaves the camera on those stills so we can absorb them.

There are extensive interviews with Withers’ children and grandchildren. There are also interviews with some of the activists that Withers may well have passed information about. It produces a legacy of ambiguity. The filmmakers do not lead us to an easy conclusion.

The documentary opens with a Withers quote: “If you ain’t what you is, you is what you ain’t.” Community legend or traitor, I ain’t exactly sure what Withers is.

(Film is scheduled to be shown on PBS Independent Lens this winter and made available on the PBS app.)

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

This documentary is like two different movies in one. There is the story of the group PAIN and their campaign against the Sackler family, owner of Purdue Pharma, makers of oxicontin. The other is a life story of photographer Nan Goldin.  What ties them together? Goldin founded PAIN.

I described Goldin as a photographer. Having watched this she is or has been an activist, an addict, a sex worker, a curator, a dancer, a bartender. 

Two of the most moving scenes in the movie are about two very different families. The Sacklers reached agreement with a bankruptcy court that they would pay a settlement but would then be immune from civil lawsuits. Part of the conditions of that settlement was that they listen to the families of the victims of pain-killer addiction. In a virtual conference three Sacklers listen to the tearful stories of families who lost their children to overdoses stemming from their oxicontin addiction.

The other scene involves Goldin’s family. While she was a child, Goldin lost an older sister to suicide after her parents, who couldn’t deal with her, sent her to an orphanage. Goldin eventually gets hold of all the doctors’ reports from the various institutions where her sister ended up. It tells the story of a normal rebellious teenager. Loving parenting was the missing ingredient.

There are also moments of triumph like getting numerous museums to turn away the Sacklers donations and taking their name off of galleries, including the Louvre, the Met and the Guggenheim.

Amidst all of these stories is Goldin’s impressive body of work. She was a chronicler of the counterculture of the 70’s and 80’s as well as the AIDS crisis. Some of her portraits reminded of Diane Arbus. Many of her photographs are organized into slideshows with musical accompaniment.

There is so much to this movie. My description only scratches the surface. Sometimes it seems like it’s all over the place. But every part of it is so interesting. So what if it doesn’t all fit together seamlessly.

(This movie is currently playing in a couple New York theaters. HBO owns streaming rights.)

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The Midwest Makes Pizza Its Own

For this one day I’m going to put aside my New Jersey pizza snobbery that has probably been all too apparent throughout this series of the history of pizza in America. In this post I’ll look at some of the regional variations of pizza here, Italian-American pizza if you will. In particular I’ll be looking at some of the new styles of pizza that came out of the American Midwest.

The earliest history of American pizza focuses on the Northeast. Pizza landed on these shores with southern Italian immigrants and those folks at first settled in the cities on the eastern seaboard: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven and Trenton. In the 20th century, as industry and the jobs it provided moved west, so did first and second generation Italian-American families. With them came not only a taste for pizza, but the knowledge of how to make it. Pizza did not really become popular in the larger American market until after World War II. So in the first half of the century, what you needed for a pizza restaurant was an Italian-American customer base to sell to.

Chicago

Of the different variations of pizza that were born in the Midwest, perhaps the best known is Chicago deep dish pizza. That’s in large part because of Pizzeria Uno (now they call it Uno Pizzeria & Grill). The chain has some 75 locations in the U.S. plus franchises in Saudi Arabia and India. While they now sell all sorts of oddities (their Web site is pushing a bacon blue burger) their signature dish is pizza, Chicago pizza, cooked in a deeper dish or pan with a thicker crust and layers of sauce, meat and cheese. (One BBC writer described it as a savory layer cake.)

Pizzeria Uno

While most iconic pizzerias were founded by Italians or Italian-Americans, Uno was started by a Texan. Ike Sewell was a football player of some note at the University of Texas in the late 1920’s. The 1930’s were the missing years as far as available information about Sewell., but in 1943 he opened the original Pizzaeria Uno restaurant. It still exists on East Ohio Street in Chicago’s north side. His partner was Ric Riccardo (no not Lucille Ball’s husband). This Ric Riccardo was an Italian-American artist who moved to Chicago in the 1920’s Some claim he was the inspiration behind the creation of the Chicago pie.

But, like so much of pizza history, there is more than one claimant to the title of founder of Chicago deep dish pizza. Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, also an Italian immigrant, was a bartender and manager at Pizzeria Uno and his descendents claim that the deep dish recipe was his genius. The Malnati’s suggest that neither Sewell nor Riccardo could find their way around the kitchen. Rudy’s son Lou was also a Pizzeria Uno employee until 1971 when he left to start Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Lincolnwood. Malnati’s is still in business and is run by Lou’s descendents. (Fans of the TV series The Bear may be interested in knowing that Malnati’s serves Italian beef.)

But wait, that’s not all. Alice Mae Redmond was a cook at Pizzeria Uno for 17 years. While she did not originate the Uno pizza, she apparently changed the dough, enhancing it with her “secret dough conditioner.” Redmond later left and was hired by Gino’s East, another iconic deep dish pizza restaurant in Chicago, where she worked as kitchen manager until her retirement in 1989.

Detroit

Of the different styles of pizza that have come out of the Midwest, my favorite is Detroit style. I had my first taste of Detroit pizza while watching a baseball game at Citi Field. It was made by Emmy Squared of Brooklyn. I’ve been a fan ever since. Detroit style pizza seems to be increasingly popular and I have found more and more outlets for it in the New York metropolitan area.

Detroit pizza is a derivative of Sicilian pizza. It is square, not round, and is cooked in blue steel pans. The crust of a Detroit pizza is thicker than Chicago style. It is similar to focaccia. It traditionally uses Wisconsin brick cheese and the cheese is melted over the edges of the crust. (If you are trying a Detroit pie for the first time, go for a corner piece.)

Detroit style pizza

Detroit style pizza got its start at a Motor City bar called Buddy’s Rendevous. The Pure Michigan web site offers this brief account of Buddy’s history: “Detroit-style pizza, a descendent of Sicilian-style pizza, traces its roots to one man – Gus Guerra. In 1946, Gus owned what was then a neighborhood bar, Buddy’s Rendezvous, when he decided he needed something new for the menu. He enlisted the help of his wife, Anna, who borrowed a dough recipe from her Sicilian mother. The Sicilian dough, topped with cheese and tomato sauce, would become the model for pizza in Detroit.”

Of course there is never just one story when it comes to pizza history. In this case, the alternative narrative is that Anna’s grandmother had nothing to do with it and that the recipe was created by a Sicilian woman named Connie Piccinato, an employee of Buddy’s.

The Guerras sold Buddy’s in 1953 and opened the Cloverleaf Bar and Restaurant in Eastpointe, Mich. It’s still going strong and still owned by the Guerra family.

St. Louis

I had never heard of St. Louis style pizza until I started doing the research for this series of blog posts. What makes the St. Louis pie distinct is its cracker thin crust and the blend of white cheddar and Swiss cheese that adorns the pizza. Typically it is cut into squares. What also separates it from the others is that it was founded by a musician.

Amadeo Fiore was the son of Italian immigrants who first settled in Chicago. He moved to St. Louis in the late 1930’s. A tenor, Fiore’s musical career included directing the Italian Radio Theater and singing with the New York Metropolitan Opera when it came to town. In St. Louis he worked as both a used car salesman and a handyman before buying a restaurant space and opening the Melrose Cafe with his wife Elizabeth. The web site LostTables.com tells this story, “The restaurant was frequented by a diverse clientele, including guests from the Chase Hotel, sent there by Hack Ulrich, manager of the Chase Club. Legend has it that when hotel guests complained to Ulrich there was nowhere to go in St. Louis for pizza, he convinced Fiore to add it to his menu. Fiore ordered an oven and developed a special recipe; St. Louis style pizza was born.”

1946 ad in St. Louis Post Dispatch
1946 ad in St. Louis Post Dispatch

Fiore bought and sold several pizza places for a number of years. The Fiores eventually moved to California. Their son Amadeo Fiore Jr. opened a Melrose Pizzeria in Florissant, advertising ‘the original St. Louis pizza.” It closed in 1977.

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The History of Pizza in America:

Pizza Comes to America

Who is the Godfather of Pizza in America?

Pizza the Way It Used to Be

America’s Pizza Innovators

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Frida and Diego Come to DC

From the interactive exhibit Mexican Geniuses at the Whitfield Entertainment Group Studios in Washington, D.C.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera on their wedding day

Frida

Frida Kahlo painting
Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick
Two Fridas
Two Fridas
Frida Kahlo painting
The Dream or the Bed

Diego

Detroit Industry Murals
from Detroit Industry Murals
The Artist's Studio
The Painter’s Studio
Mexican Geniuses coloring wall
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America’s Pizza Innovators

Southern Italian immigrants were the inspiration for pizza in America. They were the first pizza makers, the first to create pizzerias and initially the bulk of the consumers. But over the years, Americans, especially Italian-Americans, have put their own stamp of America’s pizza. They created new ways to sell, bake and package pizza, as well as a number of popular variations.

The Gas-Fired Oven

Pizza was traditionally made in a coal or wood fired oven. In recent years a number of pizzerias have sprung up using these traditional hearth-type ovens, usually producing pizzas with a puffier, charred crust. But it was the invention of the gas-fired pizza oven that changed the way most pizza was made and sold in America.

Deck oven for pizza

Like so much of pizza history there is more than one story about this. One of those stories is about an Italian immigrant named Frank Mastro. Writing for PMQ Pizza Magazine, Rick Hynum says of Mastro, “He was the Johnny Appleseed of New York pizza, a business genius and visionary who helped countless Italian-American restaurateurs open their first pizzerias and survive the Great Depression.”

What Mastro did was create a gas-fired pizza oven in a rectangular shape, a deck oven. 

Mastro would buy up equipment from restaurants that were closing, fix them up, and resell them. At one point he had the idea of connecting a gas line to a coal fired oven. He eventually convinced a manufacturer, G.S. Blodgett Company, to produce them and is believed to have sold some 3,000 of these ovens.

And then there is the story of Ira Nevin. Nevin was an oven repairman who during World War II was stationed in Naples. Like so many of the American GI’s who were stationed there, Nevin came back with a taste for pizza. He invented what has been called the first ceramic deck gas fired pizza oven. Nevin eventually created the Baker’s Pride pizza oven company in New Rochelle, N.Y. Baker’s Pride would be the main competitor of the Blodgett oven.

Whoever claims the title of pioneer of the gas-fired oven, it is clear than this invention changed pizzerias in America. It enabled a faster baking pie, a larger production capacity and is credited with enabling the sale of pizza by the slice. With this new oven some pizza makers would half-bake pies then finish one slice at a time upon order.

Bake at Home pizza

An article in the New York Times on June 28, 1950, proclaimed “If staid Bostonians accept a new food product enthusiastically, New Yorkers should like it, too. On this theory baker Leo Giuffre has introduced his ready-to-cook pizzas in this city within the last two weeks.”

I couldn’t find too much information about Giuffre, other than he started in Boston, then moved to New York. He sold a 9” round bake-at-home pizza for 49 cents.

Frozen pizza

The aftermath of World War II launched an era of prosperity. More and more homes acquired freezers. And American women, descendents of Rosie the Riveter, weren’t going to confine themselves to the kitchen. This helped lead to a lifestyle focus on modern household conveniences. One of those was frozen food.

In an earlier post, I offered a brief description of how Clarence Birdseye enabled the frozen food industry back in the 1920’s by introducing his flash freezing method.

It would take about three decades before this was applied to pizza. By the 1950’s, frozen pizza was the next logical follow-on from the refrigerated bake-at-home pie. 

A Philadelphia pizza maker by the name of Joseph Bucci filed a patent in 1951 for making frozen pizzas. The text of the patent describes Bucci’s method:

“The method of making a frozen pizza, comprising preparing a dough; disposing said dough in preliminary condition for cooking; providing a liquid sealing agent selected from the group consisting of tomato puree, cooked tomatoes, diluted tomato paste, and tomato juice; spreading said sealing agent on a surface of said dough; pre-cooking said dough and sealing agent; disposing a wet food constituent on said pre-cooked sealing agent; and quick-freezing said dough, sealing agent and wet constituent combination.”

The patent was granted in 1954, but by then other frozen pizzas were on the market and there is no record of Bucci ever having any substantial success in applying his patent. Two names standout in the development of frozen pizza in America: Celantano and Totino.

The Celantano Brothers operated an Italian food store in Newark in the 1940’s offering various varieties of Italian meats and cheeses. They introduced a square-shaped frozen pizza in 1957 and while this was not the first it is credited with being the first national brand.

Rose Totino was a high school dropout whose first job was cleaning houses. She and her husband Jim Totino, operated a Minnesoa based Italian restaurant. They introduced their frozen pizza in 1962. Not the first. Not even the first to market nationally. But considered by many to be the brand that popularized the frozen pizza. Totino’s brand pizzas are still available today, Rose Totino sold the company to Pillsbury in 1975. She would become the company’s first female vice president.

Totino's 'party pizza'
Totino’s ‘party pizza’

The Pizza Chain

Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson suffered nerve damage during World War II, which gave him his nickame. In 1954 he would open Shakey’s Pizza in Sacramento, Calif., with partner JIm Plummer. The pizza was not the only attraction at Shakey’s. Johnson himself would play jazz piano to entertain his customers. Shaky’s began to expand into Oregon in 1956 and by 1967, the company that would lay claim to being the first franchise pizza chain in America had more than 270 outlets. From there, Shaky’s headed to Canada, the Philippines, Singapore and Japan. At one time there were more than 150 outlets in the Philippines.

Shakey's pizza logo

Johnson and Plummer sold their shares of the chain in the 1960’s. It has since gone through several more corporate acquisitions. What’s left of Shakey’s is about 50 locations. Most are in Southern California with two in Washington state. But look what Shakey’s gave rise to. Pizza Hut was founded in Wichita in 1958 and Little Caesar’s followed a year later in Michigan.

Last year pizza chain restaurants had combined sales of $27.65 billion (statista.com). While the chains make up 47% of the pizza places in the U.S., because of their volume, they produce 61% of the total sales. Domino’s alone has nearly 19,000 outlets and had sales in 2021 of $8.6 billion.

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It is hard to argue that any of these American innovations improved the product that the Napolitano pizza makers graced us with more than a century ago. But each played a role in making what was once considered an Italian peasant food a staple of the American diet. 

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Pizza the Way It Used to Be

Last year, there were more than 75,000 pizza restaurants in the United States. Some 35,000 were chains: Pizza Hut, Dominos, Little Caesars, Papa Johns, et al. They generally offer mediocre product supported by massive national advertising campaigns and often focus on gimmicks like stuffed crusts.

But 53% of the pizzerias in America are still independents. That number is even higher in the northeast. The town where I live in northern New Jersey has some 20 pizza places. Nineteen independents and one sorry-ass Dominos.

Most of these independents are one of a kind, small businesses that are family owned. Many have been in the same family for generations. In fact, some of America’s earliest pizzerias, founded more than a century ago, are still in business, and thriving. In last week’s post I highlighted three New York City establishments that were among the first: Lombardi’s and John’s of Bleecker Street in downtown Manhattan and Totonno’s in Coney Island.

Patsy's logo

There is another iconic New York pizzeria that deserves mentioning. Patsy’s was founded in 1933 in East Harlem by Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieiri. Patsy’s Web site claims they were the first to sell pizza by the slice and suggests that they were the ones who popularized New York style thin-crust pizza. The web site also says that they recently welcomed the fourth generation of pizza makers. What they don’t mention is that this Patsy’s is no longer owned by Lancieri’s descendents. After the original “Patsy” passed away his widow sold the store to Frank Brija in 1991. Brija expanded to other locations. His son, Adem Brija, is the current owner.

But the Lancieri clan was not done. Patsy Grimaldi, a nephew of Lancieri’s wife Carmella, opened another Patsy’s in Brooklyn in 1990. The name was later changed to Grimaldi’s, but this restaurant claims a more direct line of descent from the original Patsy’s than the actual Patsy’s. Are you still following? Well, to make things even more confusing, another pizza-making Patsy, Pasquale Scognamillo, opened a Patsy’s on 56th Street in Manhattan in 1944.

Baseball fans can enjoy a slice of Patsy’s pizza at Citi Field. But exactly which Patsy’s?

In New Jersey, we don’t talk much about “New York pizza.” The editors of Food & Wine recently acknowledged what we all know, that the best pizza state in America is New Jersey. We have our own Patsy’s.It’s in Paterson and has been there since 1931. But the epicenter of New Jersey’s pizza legacy is in the state capital, Trenton.

Trenton is famous for the “tomato pie.” This is a pizza made by putting the sauce on top of the cheese, rather than the other way around. Papa’s Tomato Pies bills itself as the oldest family owned and continuously run pizzeria in the U.S. Giuseppe “Joe” Papa, an immigrant from Naples, founded Papa’s in 1912 in Trenton.

Joe Papa
Joe Papa with his wife Adalene

When Papa passed in 1965, the business was taken over by Dominick “Abie” Azzaro and Theresa “Tessie” Papa. Azzaro had been a Papa’s employee and he married Joe Papa’s daughter. Abie and Tessie eventually passed the business on to their son Nick Azzaro, who has since moved the pizzeria to nearby Bedminster.

While New York has its multiple Patsy’s, Trenton is home to the DeLorenzo’s. There is both a DeLorenzo’s Pizza and a DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. Both trace their roots to a pair of southern Italian immigrants, Pasquale and Maria DeLorenzo. Pasquale worked at Papa’s initially, then struck out on his own, founding a tomato pie restaurant in Trenton in 1936. In addition to making pizza, the DeLorenzo’s had 12 children.

Manco & Manco pizza
A tomato pie

Here’s where it gets confusing. One of the DeLorenzo children, Chick, opened his own pizzeria in Trenton in 1947 with his wife Sophie. This is the current DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. They were succeeded by Chick’s daughter Eileen, her husband Gary Amico and their so Sam Amico. In 2007, Sam opened a second location in nearby Robbinsville, When Eileen and Gary retired, they closed the Trenton location, so the current DeLorenzo’s is in Robbinsville.

Delorenzo's Pizza logo

Now, back to DeLorenzo’s Pizza. This restaurant was run by a number of the DeLorenzo childen, including Rick, who is the father of the current owner Rick DeLorenzo Jr. At one time they had three locations in Trenton. Currently they are operating out of a single location in Hamilton.

These are only a few of America’s original pizzerias, still churning, and still related to the founders. Here are a few others:

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Conn., dates back to 1925. Pepe was an immigrant who originally started selling pizzas by walking the streets carrying several on his head. The business is now run by his children.

Boston’s Regina Pizzeria opened its doors in 1926. Originally founded in Boston’s North End it has expanded to 11 locations. Baseball fans can sample this pizza at Fenway.

Marra’s in Philadelphia started doing in business in 1929. If was, of course, started by immigrants from Naples, Salvadore and Chiarina. It is their grandhildren who are currently running the business.

In Perth Amboy, N.J., Scioritino’s is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. Paulo and Francis Scioritino got it going in 1934.

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Who is the Godfather of Pizza in America?

When writing the history of pizza in America, much of it is pretty straightforward. Pizza was brought to these shores by southern Italian immigrants. It was at first largely consumed by Italian-Americans and the first American pizzas were made privately in their kitchens. Pizza was prevalent in the towns where Italians immigrated to find jobs: New York, Boston, Chicago, Trenton, New Haven.

The first pizzerias emerged around the turn of century. Likely they were in New York. After that, things get a bit fuzzy. There is more than one claim to being the Godfather of pizza in America.

Much of the pizza history research centers on an address in downtown New York, 53-½ Spring Street. This is in a neighborhood that is now called Nolita. In 1900 it was a predominately Italian-American enclave. At that site was a pizzeria called Lombardi’s. It still exists, but it moved down the street. Lombardi’s address is now listed as 32 Spring Street. 

Original stie of Lombardi's pizza
53-1/2 Spring Street

Lombardi’s web site (https://wwwfirstpizza.com) lays claim to being America’s first pizzeria. They stake the claim for Gennaro Lombardi as the Godfather of American pizza. Lombardi came to the United States in 1897 and first operated a grocery store. According to the Lombardi’s web site:  “Since 1905 Gennaro Lombardi crafted pizza in the United States using his bakers trade he learned from Naples. Lombardi is credited with developing New York style pizza and making Lombardi’s the first pizzeria in the United States.”

Lombardi's Pizza
Lombardi’s Pizza

Should we consider Lombardi the Godfather, or was it his pizzaiolo, Anthony Totonno Pero. Totonno started another of New York’s legendary pizza joints, Totonno’s of Coney Island. On their web site (https://www.totonnosconeyisland.com) they claim Totonna Pero “ immigrated from Naples and began making pizzas for Lombardi’s grocery store on Spring Street in Manhattan.  Because of Totonno’s work, Lombardi’s became the first licensed pizzeria in America and Totonno became the first pizzaiolo.” Totonno’s opened in Coney Island in 1924 The restaurant is currently being run by his grandchildren.

Filippo Milone
Filippo Milone

But pizza researcher Peter Regas has challenged the whole Lombardi’s story. (Regas’ research findings are published on his web site https://pizzahistorybook.com). Regas suggests that another Italian immigrant, Filippo Milone, is the real Godfather of American pizza. Milone was a pizza maker in Naples before coming to New York in 1892. Regas claims he is the one who opened the grocery store at 53-½ Spring Street in 1897 and by 1898 was advertising the availability of pizza at that location. He believes that if Gennaro Lombardi was involved with the store in 1905, it was as an employee not an owner. 

Regas also points to a 1902 business directory that lists Giovanni Santillo under the category of “bakers, pie,” as the owner of the store at 53-½ Spring Street. Based on some advertising that Regas uncovered “we can definitively say that by August 1904, 52 Spring St. was a pizzeria owned by Giovanni Santillo.” And, you guessed it, Santillo was another Neapolitan pizza maker who moved to New York.

The story of Filippo Milone brings another address into play that is part of New York’s pizza history. 175 Sullivan Street was a bakery that Milone took over in 1915, according to Regas. It would eventually become John’s Pizza and later John’s of Bleecker Street. This is another New York pizzeria that is still in business and is enormously popular. They offer this version of their history on the web site (https://www.johnsofbleecker.com):

John Sasso

“John’s of Bleecker Street was founded by Italian immigrant Giovanni ‘John’ Sasso at the turn of the 20th century. John’s was originally established on Sullivan Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village. After losing his lease on Sullivan Street, John Sasso dismantled his original coal fired brick oven and moved to 278 Bleecker Street where he continued to run and grow his business and refine his pizza recipe to perfection.”

This much we know, the Godfather of pizza in America, came from Naples and immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the century. whoever is was, we should be thankful that he did. I haven’t been to Lombardi’s but I’ve been to both John’s of Bleecker Street and Totonno’s and the pizza is amazing in both.

John's of Bleecker Street
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