Pizza History 101: The Making of an American Favorite

Thursday Nov 10, 2016

In the early 1900s, pizza was considered cheap peasant fare, made at home by southern Italian immigrant women. In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied for the first license to sell the pizza he made at his grocery store on Spring Street in New York City, then a thriving Italian-American neighborhood. Soon, pizza parlors popped up in Coney Island and Greenwich Village in New York; Trenton, New Jersey; New Haven, Connecticut; and San Francisco, California.

 

What did such a wide range of cities have in common? All of these cities were homes to factories that employed poorly educated southern Italian immigrants. Pizza was, at this point in time, very much a poor person’s lunch or dinner, eaten in urban enclaves settled by Italian immigrants.

 

Pizza Enters the Mainstream

The mainstreaming of pizza in America didn’t happen until after World War II, when American soldiers stationed in Italy returned home. They wanted more of the pizza they had learned about overseas. In 1945, one of these GIs, Ira Nevin, merged his love of the pizza he had discovered during the war with knowledge he gained from repairing ovens to create the first gas-fired pizza oven he named Bakers Pride. This invention allowed pizzas to be baked quickly, efficiently, cleanly, and most importantly, cheaply.

 

The years between 1945 and 1960 saw pizzerias popping up across the country. Pizza quickly became a common lunch hour meal as well as an inexpensive and filling meal to eat out. Compared to other classic American favorites, such as hamburgers and hot dogs, pizza was perfect for sharing — in fact it was designed to be shared. Since you couldn’t get it by the slice in most places, you needed a group, which helped make pizza a popular choice for team dinners and family nights out. Pizza became, and still is, the ultimate populist, minimalist food.

 

Pizza Evolves from Exotic Delicacy to Diet Staple

The next game-changer came in the proliferation of chain restaurants that began popping up all over the US from 1960 to 2000. These restaurants made pizza even cheaper and easier to find, and they exposed more of the U.S. to the delicacy. And with chains came new flavor combinations, such as BBQ pizza with chicken and BBQ sauce or Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapple. Often chains experimented with pizza crust, offering thick, thin, crispy, stuffed or flavored variations. These developments signal the evolution of pizza from cheap peasant fare, to an exotic delicacy and special occasion eats, to a staple of the North American diet.