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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Pizza Comes to America

Who brought pizza to America? That’s a no-brainer. It came with Italian immigrants and especially with the arrivals from the Campagna region of southern Italy, a region that includes Naples.

The largest wave of Italian immigration to the U.S. started in the 1880’s. It peaked between 1900 and 1910 when some 2 million Italians arrived on these shores. Many were from southern Italy and were experiencing rural poverty. Mostly they settled in the urban areas of the northeast and took on industrial jobs.

pizza
(Photo by Nik Owens)

When pizza came to America it wasn’t sold in restaurants or stocked by grocers. Considered a peasant food in Italy, it became a working class food in America. The first pizzas were made here in the kitchens of the men and women from Italy, making it to feed themselves and their families.

Those Americans not of Italian descent knew little about it. I searched newspapers.com for the word pizza from 1850-1900. I got lots of hits. But few were about pizza the pie. It seems that in the 19th century the word pizza was used for an architectural feature, something that was similar to a patio or porch. Likely it was a shortened version of the word piazza.

pizza
(Photo: Saundarya Srinivasan)

An article in the Brooklyn Citizen in 1894 contained this rather unappetizing introduction to pizza as part of a larger story about bakeries in Italy:

“At Naples there is a species of pie once known forever remembered called La Pizza. This remarkable dish is made thus: A double, nay, triple-thick crust of dough is cooked into an india-rubber-like elasticity, combined with a density akin to that of leather. While still on the fire such additions are sprinkled over the combination as red peppers, smelts, cheese, tomatoes, sardines and garlic, all in minced form. La Pizza stands alone in more senses than one as a chef d’ouvre of the cuisine. 

“‘I Pizzainoli,’ venders of this popular stomach tangler, traverse the streets at all hours of the day and night, bearing like royal crown bearers great flat pie plates with the pie still attached and warm. They sing out, ‘Ah Peetz.’”

The New York Tribune seems to have discovered pizza in 1903 (Dec. 6) and offered this description:

“Pie has usually been considered a Yankee dish exclusively, but apparently the Italian has invented a kind of pie. The ‘pomidore pizza,’ or tomato pie, is made in this fashion. Take a lump of dough, and, under a roller, flatten it out until it is only an inch thick. On this scatter tomatoes and season plentifully with powdered red pepper. Then bake the compound. ‘Salami pizza,’ or bologna pie, is made with this under layer of dough and a combination of tomatoes, cheese, red pepper and bologna. To use a slang expression, this might be said to be a ‘red hot’ combination.”

It would still be a while before most Americans would make this discovery. Pizzerias began to be established in the first decades of the 20th century. They primarily served the Italian-American population and were found where those folks had found jobs: New York, Boston, Trenton, New Haven, Chicago.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the rest of America began to realize what they had been missing. Some say this started with U.S. servicemen who had been stationed in Italy and returned home with a taste for pizza. But it was also something the post war age of prosperity brought about as Italian-Americans expanded beyond the northeast industrial centers to suburbs and towns from coast to coast.

pizza
(Photo by Ivan Torres)

By the late 1950’s and early 60’s many of the big chains that we are now familiar with began to take shape. They produced a commodity pizza, but one that was available in more and more locales. 

There are now more than 75,000 pizza shops in the U.S. While the big chains, Dominos and Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s and Papa John’s, have hundreds and hundreds of stores, 53% of  American pizzerias are still independent. Many are operated by Americans of Italian descent and quite a few are family-owned businesses that have been making tomato pies for generations.

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The First Modern Art Museum in America

The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Luncheon of the Boating Party
Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Phillips Collection bills itself as America’s first museum of modern art. It dates back to 1921 when it opened as the Phillips Memorial Gallery. Much of the collection was acquired by Duncan Phillips, a Washington D.C. collector and philanthropist who passed away in 1966. The museum is housed in what was Phillips’ home, an 1897 Georgian Revival house that has had several additions.

Sunday, Edward Hopper
Sunday, Edward Hopper

Village, Lionel Feininger
Village, Lionel Feininger
Highlanders, Lee Gatch
Highlanders, Lee Gatch
Deerfield in Twilight
Deerfield in Twilight, Augustus Vincent Tack
Ulysses, Markus Lupertz
Ulysses, Markus Lupertz
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Beaux Arts

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Woman in Expensive Jacket, John Currin
Woman in Expensive Jacket, John Currin
Untitled (The Dishes), Nicolas Baier
Untitled (The Dishes), Nicolas Baier
Woman Sitting on a Bed, George Segal
Woman Sitting on a Bed, George Segal
Large Pair: Head of a Man and a Woman
Large Pair: Head of a Man and a Woman, Stephan Balkenhol
Action Painting II, Mark Tansey
Action Painting II, Mark Tansey
Simeon the God Receiver, Kehinde Wiley
Simeon the God Receiver, Kehinde Wiley

Mercenaries II, Leon Golub
Mercenaries II, Leon Golub
The Woodcutter, Ferdinand Hodler
The Woodcutter, Ferdinand Hodler
Embrace, Pablo Picasso
Embrace, Pablo Picasso
Bill at St. Mark's, Elaine de Kooning
Bill at St. Mark’s, Elaine de Kooning
Yellow Street II, Lyonel Feininger
Yellow Street II, Lyonel Feininger
The Pink Flamingo, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
The Pink Flamingo, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
A Cliff at Pourville in the Morning, Claude Monet
A Cliff at Pourville in the Morning, Claude Monet
Mother and Her Children in Church, Therese Schwartze
Mother and Her Children in Church, Therese Schwartze
Evening on the Terrace (Morocco), Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
Evening on the Terrace (Morocco), Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
Transporting the Wounded (fragment from the panorama The Battle of Rezonville, Aug. 16, 1870), Edouard Detaille
Transporting the Wounded (fragment from the panorama The Battle of Rezonville, Aug. 16, 1870), Edouard Detaille
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Am I Still in Montreal? Or is this China?

Dream Lake Garden, Montreal Botanical Garden

Chinese garden at Montreal Botanical Garden

Dream Lake Garden is designed as a replica of a Ming-era (14th-17th centuries) garden in southern China. It was designed by Chinese architect Le Weizhong. It was built in China then disassembled and shipped to Montreal where it was reassembled in 1991.

Chinese garden at Montreal Botanical Garden
Chinese garden at Montreal Botanical Garden
Entrance courtyard, Chinese garden, Montreal
Stone boat, Chinese garden, Montreal
Stone boat
Chinese garden at Montreal Botanical Garden
Saxifragaceae
Tower of Condensing Clouds
Tower of Condensing Clouds
Montreal Botanical Garden
Dream Lake
Dream Lake

Some Montreal Botanical Garden flowers:

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Art on the Streets, Montreal

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen
McGill University

Montreal car port
Macadam Park, Montreal
Partly Cloudy with High Possibilities of “WOW,” cooling trail in Macadam Park
Montreal mural on Mont Royal St.
Statue outside Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal
The English Pug and the French Poodle

Queensbridge Houses mural, Montreal
MIle End sculpture
Jurassic Fish, Glen LeMesurier
Montreal mural
Sculpture on grounds  of McGill University
Montreal sculpture
Old Port fireworks, Montreal
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The Darkness and Light of Ellis Island

Having lived in the New York City area for most of my life, I am somewhat less enamored by many of the city’s tourist attractions than the millions of visitors who come to see them. Ellis Island is an exception. Standing in the refurbished great hall, you can feel what America is about. Unless you’re a Native American, we all have ancestors who came from somewhere else. For most, it was not an easy trip.

Ellis Island

In my mind Ellis Island should represent the fulfillment of the promise of the Statue of Liberty, the place where we swing open the doors and take in “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Two books that I read recently suggest that the people who came through here thought of it as something completely different.

Ellis Island: A People’s History, by Malgorzata Szejnert, is a history of the island, from 1892 when an Irish girl named Annie Moore stepped ashore until they turned the lights out in 1954. Szejnert is from Poland  and the book was originally written in Polish. Using a lot of the registry records, Szejnert offers snapshots of many of the immigrants who came to the island and somewhat more detail on the commissioners and others who worked there.

The Next Ship Home: A Novel of Ellis Island by Heather Webb is a piece of historical fiction, a story of how the paths of two young women crossed there. One is an Italian immigrant fleeing an abusive father in Sicily. The other is a German-American whose abusive stepfather sets her up with a unwanted job on the island.

These two works show the island as something other than a beacon of hope and light. The Polish author Szejnert offers the comment “the rest of the world associates it more with the end of hopes than the beginning.” And in Webb’s novel, Italians christened Ellis Island  “L’Isola delle Lacrime (Island of Tears).”

One of the immigration port’s commissioners, Frederick Wallis, is quoted by Szejnert upon his resignation as saying “the suffering we see at the island daily is indescribable and would melt a heart of granite.”

young immigrants

This is a place where desperate people, after a most often arduous journey, are subjected to life altering decisions. Decisions made by overworked staffers who don’t speak their language, may not have the best of intentions and who make those decisions quickly and often arbitrarily. And, assuming Webb’s tale is accurate, that’s not the worst of it. New immigrants may well have found themselves extorted and exploited by the more unscrupulous of agents. One of Webb’s characters, an inspector who extracts sexual favors from female immigrants in order to let them through, is based on a real Ellis Island inspector named John Legerhilder.

Szejnert offers the statistic that of the 16.6 million who disembarked on Ellis Island, only 610,000 were turned away. That’s a pretty small percentage, but it tells you nothing of the heartbreak of the 610,000 or of the families split apart, likely forever.

What is striking in reading these two books is how things are pretty much the same a century later when it comes to immigrants. In The Last Ship Home, Francesca Ricci, a beautiful, hard-working and courageous young woman, is reviled because she is Italian. Reviled by German-Americans, immigrants themselves who arrived a generation or two earlier. Now it’s Mexicans and Haitians and Central Americans who are vilified by people whose ancestors also came here as immigrants for many of the same reasons and whose ancestors may very well have been regarded as “undesirable” at the time.

Nor were the politics of immigration all that different. Under some administrations, officers were appointed who had some empathy for the arrivals and who tried to treat them fairly. But the appointees from other administrations looked at every immigrant with suspicion and thought of their jobs as protecting the country from these people.

Both of these books have their flaws. In reading Szejnert’s book I kept wanting to find out more about the immigrants she would so briefly introduce us to. The emotions are thick in Webb’s history that sometimes feels like something akin to a romance novel.

Registry Room

In the future, I will likely find my way back to Ellis island. I’ll stand in awe in the middle of the great hall. But I’ll remember there’s another side to the story. After all, as I learned from Szejnert, Annie Moore, the cute 15-year old Irish girl celebrated as the first to come through, ended up living a life of poverty, giving birth to 11 children of which only five survived to become adults, and dying at the age of 47.

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For more photos of Ellis Island see A Place to Celebrate Immigrants

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Boardwalk Gourmet

What to Eat at the Jersey Shore

The Best Pizza

There is no food that is consumed more on New Jersey’s oceanfront boardwalks than pizza. Any town that has a commercial boardwalk, has at least one pizza joint on every block. These two are my favorites.

Mack’s, Wildwood

Perhaps the reason I can’t choose one of these pizza joints over the other is that they’re blood relatives. Their common ancestry goes back to Anthony and Lena Macaroni who operated a restaurant in Trenton. On Memorial Day in 1953, Anthony, Lena and their three sons Joseph, Vincent and Duke opened Mack’s Pizza on the boardwalk in Wildwood. A few years later, in 1956, Anthony, Vincent and cousin Vince Manco opened a shop on the Ocean City boardwalk which they named Mack & Manco. Mary Bangle, daughter of Frank Manco, and her husband Charles Bangle purchased the Ocean City operation in 2011 and renamed it Manco & Manco. In 2017-18, Charles Bangle spent 13 months in jail on tax evasion charges. Mary got three years probation. It had no effect on the pizza.

The Best Fries

They’ll fry anything on the boardwalk.

Curley’s is a Wildwood landmark.

But the best fries are in the Boss’ old stomping grounds, Asbury Park, just a block away from Madame Marie’s and across the street from the Stone Pony.

Best coffee

No contest. It’s Ocean City Coffee Company. Pay no heed that Starbuck’s opened a block away.

Ocean City coffee

Atlantic City’s primary contribution to the culinary world is salt water taffy. There is a story about a storm in the Atlantic in the 1880’s that washed out a storage bin full of taffy at a candy store in Atlantic City run by David Bradley. Perhaps tongue in cheek, he gave the remaining product the name salt water taffy. That may or may not be true, but we know that Joseph Fralinger was the leader in commercializing the sweet treat (a product that includes no salt water among its ingredients). His first competitor was Enoch James.  Today, both brands are owned by James Candy Co. (an outfit that is in Chapter XI) and each still has a branded store on the boardwalk.

In Ocean City, this is the signature sweet:

And in Wildwood, it’s this:

Laura's Fudge
Laura’s Fudge
Kohr's
If you’re on the boardwalk and you don’t see one of these, you’re not in Jersey anymore.

And for some non-traditional boardwalk food, how about a Korean fusion taco, served out of this converted storage container on the Asbury Park boards.

Mogo
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Of Monsters and Music

MoPOP

The Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle

Costume for the Beast
Costume for Beast in X-Men: First Class
Guitars at MoPOP
Buddy Holly guitar
Arkellian Sand Beetle
Arkellian Sand Beetle in Starship Troopers
Grandmaster Flash turntable
Turntable used by Grandmaster Flash in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s
Cyberman
Cyberman costume used in television series Doctor Who
Winged Angel
Winged Angel, stage prop used by Nirvana during In Utero tour
Kurt Cobain artwork
A New American Gothic, Kurt Cobain’s high school art class illustration

Galaxy Quest costume
General Roth’h’ar Sarris costume from Galaxy Quest
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All That Glitters is Glass

Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle

The Museum

Chihuly glass
Sealife

Float Boats

The Glasshouse

Chihuly's Glasshouse
Chihuly's Glasshouse
The Space Needle from inside the Glasshouse

The Garden

Chihuly garden
Chihuly Glass and Garden
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