Basic fare: pizza

pizza2For decades pizza was seen as a light snack rather than a meal, much as it had been on the streets of Naples for centuries. An English visitor to Naples in 1843 noticed small bakeshops where “a constant hissing and thick smoke indicated the preparation of pizze, (composed of flour, lard, eggs, and garlick) and muzzarella.” In 19th-century Italy, as now, there were a variety of toppings: grated Swiss cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, and anchovies or other fish. Southern Italians brought the dish to America, and in 1903 a New York newspaper took note of a dish known as “pomidore pizza” or “tomato pie” sometimes topped with salami.

By 1905 there were a number of shops selling pizza in Italian neighborhoods of New York City, one on Spring Street (probably this was run by Gennaro Lombardi), the other on Grand. Evidently there were others but, according to an early pizza connoisseur, their pizzas were inferior “Americanized substitutes.” Although Lombardi is often cited as America’s first pizza maker it seems most likely that pizza shops existed earlier, probably beginning in the 1880s when numbers of Southern Italians began coming to this country.

Early pizza places were rarely frequented by non-Italians, and outside that community few Americans had heard of pizza before WWII. A few pizzerias here and there caught the attention of columnists and guidebook writers in the 1930s and early 1940s, such as Tom Granato’s Pizzeria Napolitana in Chicago, Lupo’s in San Francisco, and Salvatore “Sally” Consiglio’s in New Haven CT. In 1943 Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo put aside their idea of starting a Mexican restaurant in Chicago and instead opened Pizzeria Riccardo on the corner of Ohio and Wabash. After launching a second place, they rechristened the original as “Pizzeria Uno.”

towerofpizza296Boosted by prosperity, casual suburban lifestyles, and burgeoning youth culture after the Second World War, pizza leaped into popularity. But it was not known well everywhere. For instance, in 1948 a Corpus Christi TX restaurant review referred to the “unusual” item as “pietza pie.” It was much better known in Chicago. In 1953 there were already more than 100 pizza parlors there.

By 1956 pizza had outstripped the hot dog in popularity. But that was only the start. Pre-made crusts and frozen pizzas were coming on the market in the mid-1950s, ready to spread pizza parlors to areas of the country where few Italian-Americans had ever set foot. Increasingly, many operators of pizza parlors were not of Italian ethnicity, including the founders of the big chains such as Pizza Hut, Shakey’s, and Domino’s, all of which got their start around this time.

In the last 30 years pizza began to turn into a major cheese-delivery vehicle. Largely because of pizza, annual cheese consumption more than doubled from just over 8 pounds per person in 1960 to over 17 pounds in 1978. By 1981 most mozzarella cheese produced in the US – more than 600 million pounds a year – was for the pizza industry. Today on average we each eat somewhat more than 30 pounds of cheese a year, mozzarella is #1, and pizza has surpassed hamburgers in popularity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under food

8 responses to “Basic fare: pizza

  1. I’m the son of Tom and Jennie Granato and people still tell me that they cannot find good food like they could at Granato’s Restaurant! The reason, Tom and Jennie did most of the preparation and the cooking for almost 24 years. No body makes Pizza LikeTom Granato: they had people from all walks of life come to Granato’s for a meal just like home or sometimes better then home. What a Great Restaurant.

    • Tom Granato Jr.

      Granato’s: The Restaurant was opened in 1924 and my Mom and Dad worked together for almost 40 years!!, 24 is in correct!!
      tom jr.

    • Sheri Hodorowicz

      I looked up Granato’s because I noticed in a cookbook I have on Etsy, the Italian Cookbook, 160 Masterpieces of Italian cookery, the credits listed Marion Granato, Consultant, Granato’s Pizzeria Restaurant, Chicago. Your grandfather? I don’t know, but how cool is that? Sheri

  2. Kathryn

    You can still have pizza at Lombardi’s in New York. It has moved down the block from the original location but they still use a coal fired oven (one of very few places in the city allowed to do so).

    It’s very good pizza.

  3. GREAT post once again Jan.

    I’ve never been able to warm up to pizza of any kind. I think it has something to do with all those English Muffin Pizza (s) I experimented with when growing up…

    Thanks for sharing:)

  4. Hi Amy — Pizza’s growing popularity post WWII — 1950s and 1960s — was probably limited to certain urban areas of the US. What happened later, especially with the availability of convenience pizza “components” and pizza franchises, was that pizza spread to the entire country, to places where there had not been any small pizzerias. — Jan

  5. Amy

    It is surprising to me that the popularity of pizza is so relatively new since pizza parlors were ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s Bronx when I was growing up. I always assumed they dated from the late nineteenth century.

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