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.
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.
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.
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.