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.
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.”
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.
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’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.