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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you for a fascinating story. I learned so much about things I have just taken for granted. I have a much better appreciation now.
PS: Last week, I visited Bayonne and Jersey City and savored authentic Napolitano pizza at independently operated shops. What a pleasure. No other pizza beats it.
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I always enjoy reading about pizza, even the not so great kind! Actually Totino’s pizzas are a real comfort food for me, even though I will be the first to admit they’re cheap and kind of horrible. My grandma would always make me one for lunch when I spent the day with her, and I still love them for the nostalgia factor of happy memories with my grandparents, so my mom always stocks the freezer with a few when I visit.
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This line of blog posts is making me hungry, Ken. ;0)
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