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American Pie

May 2024
10min read

How a Neapolitan street food became the most successful immigrant of all

Almost every American food—from egg foo yung to empanadas—is covered in the phone book under the generic heading “Restaurants.” Only pizza stands alone. Pizza, a Johnny-come-lately compared with such long-standing national favorites as the hamburger and hot dog, has secured a special place on the American table. Everybody likes pizza. Even those who claim to be immune to its charms must deign to have the occasional slice; a staggering 93 percent of Americans eat pizza at least once a month. According to one study, each man, woman, and child consumes an average of 23 pounds of pie every year.

But pizza wasn’t always so popular. Food writers in the 1940s who were worldly enough to take note of the traditional Italian treat struggled to explain the dish to their readers, who persisted in imagining oversized apple-pie crusts stuffed with tomatoes and coated with cheese. “The pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew about it,” The New York Times lamented in 1947, illustrating its plaint with a photograph of a pie subdivided into dozens of canapé-sized slices.

That writer’s wistful tone was supplanted in a very few years by a weary one, as culinary chroniclers became jaded by the nation’s voracious appetite for pizza and the pie’s never-ending parade of variations. “The highly seasoned pizza with its tough crust and tomato topping is such a gastronomical craze that the open pie threatens the pre-eminence of the hot dog and hamburger,” the Times reported in a 1953 story about “what is perhaps inevitable—a packaged pizza mix.”

Pizza had wedged its way into the nation’s hearts and stomachs almost overnight, a phenomenon befitting a food that became synonymous with quick and easy. Americans seeking fun in the years after World War II found a good measure of it in pizza, a food that when eaten correctly (a matter of some debate among 1950s advice columnists) forced the diner’s lips into a broad smile. Pizza, like teenagedom and rock ’n’ roll, is a lasting relic of America’s mid-century embrace of good times.

Modern pizza originated in Italy, although the style favored by Americans is more a friend than a relative of the traditional Neapolitan pie. Residents of Naples took the idea of using bread as a blank slate for relishes from the Greeks, whose bakers had been dressing their wares with oils, herbs, and cheese since the time of Plato. The Romans refined the recipe, developing a delicacy known as placenta , a sheet of fine flour topped with cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves. Neapolitans earned the right to claim pizza as their own by inserting a tomato into the equation. Europeans had long shied away from the New World fruit, fearing it was plump with poison. But the intrepid citizens of Naples discovered the tomato was not only harmless but delicious, particularly when paired with pizza.

Cheese, the crowning ingredient, was not added until 1889, when the Royal Palace commissioned the Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito to create a pizza in honor of the visiting Queen Margherita. Of the three contenders he created, the Queen strongly preferred a pie swathed in the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella).

Thus ends the story of pizza, according to most histories of the pie. It’s not a bad story, but it’s only the beginning; Esposito’s adventures in patriotic baking have little to do with why American pizza makers are taxed to exhaustion every Super Bowl Sunday.

By the late fifties it was storming the American kitchen.
getty images2006_2_33

Pizza crossed the Atlantic with the four million Italians who by the 1920s had sought a better life on American shores. Most Italians weren’t familiar with the many regional variations their fragmented homeland had produced, but a longing for pan-Italian unity inspired a widespread embrace of a simplified pizza as their “national” dish. Fraternal “pizza and sausage” clubs, formed to foster Italian pride, sprouted in cities across the Northeast. Women got in on it too, participating in communal pizza exchanges in which entrants competed with unique pies, some molded into unusual shapes, some with the family name baked into the dough.

Although non-Italians could partake of pizza as early as 1905, when the venerable Lombardi’s—the nation’s first licensed pizzeria—opened its doors in Lower Manhattan, most middle-class Americans stuck to boiled fish and toast. The pungent combination of garlic and oregano signaled pizza as “foreign food,” sure to upset native digestions. If pizza hoped to gain an American following beyond New York City and New Haven, it would have to become less like pizza. By the 1940s a few entrepreneurs had initiated the transformation, starting a craze that forever changed the American culinary landscape.

The modern pizza industry was born in the Midwest, not coincidentally a place of sparse Italian settlement. Although pizza had pushed into the suburbs as second-generation Italians relocated, most of the heartland was pizza-free. Its inhabitants had neither allegiance nor aversion to the traditional pie. The region also boasted an enviable supply of cheese.

Despite such advantages, Ike Sewell still wasn’t thinking pies when he partnered with Ric Riccardo to open a Chicago restaurant. Sewell, a native of Texas, planned on offering a menu of Mexican specialties. Riccardo willingly agreed, having never tried Mexican food. His first meal changed his mind so completely that, he liked to say later, he fled to Italy to recover from it. While there, he sampled classic Neapolitan pizza and found it much better than Sewell’s Mexican offerings. Sewell eventually agreed to forgo enchiladas for pizza, but not until he’d inflated the thin-crusted Neapolitan recipe to make it more palatable to Americans. “Ike tasted it and said nobody would eat it, it’s not enough,” Evelyne Slomon, author of The Pizza Book , said. “So he put gobs and gobs of stuff on it.”

Sewell’s lightly seasoned deep-dish pie, introduced in 1943, the signature item at Pizzeria Uno, was the first true American pizza. The pie was a uniquely Chicago institution, like a perennially losing major-league baseball team, that other cities showed no interest in adopting. Until Uno’s opened its first location outside Chicago in 1979, people had to go to East Ohio Street to sample anything like Sewell’s idea of a pie. But its success liberated pizzeria owners nationwide to tinker with their product, ultimately paving the way for the megafranchises.

Sewell was followed in the next two decades by scores of independent operators who deleted the traditional herbs and went easy on the garlic in hopes of gaining a bigger clientele. Pizza was no longer the province of firstand second-generation Italians. Americans of every ancestry wanted a slice of this pie. “I make any kinda pizza you want,” the New York pizzeria owner Patsy D’Amore told The Saturday Evening Post in 1957. “One day a man order a lox pizza with cream cheese. It turn my stomach, but I make it for him.” Professional pizza chefs like the unnamed Japanese-American woman who stumped the panel of the TV show “What’s My Line?” in 1956, and the Mexican-Americans who helped make pizza the second-best seller at the 1952 Texas State Fair (edged out only by the irresistible corn dog), and fledgling franchises like Pizza Hut, gradually shed all Italian imagery from their advertising campaigns.

But despite the best entrepreneurial efforts, most Americans remained unfamiliar with pizza well into the 1940s. “We had to give it away at first,” Eugenia DiCarlo told a McNeese State University interviewer of her husband’s attempt to establish a pizzeria in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1947. “They had never, never heard of it down here. And, boy, every time they’d take a piece of it, they liked it. And more and more liked it, told other people, and then got to the place where that was the biggest part of our business.”

Miss Rheingold enjoys a match made in heaven in the early 1960s.

The urge to tell other people about pizza was apparently a universal impulse that seized knowing literati like Ora Dodd —who in 1949 penned a two-page paean for the Atlantic Monthly : “It is piping hot; the brown crust holds a bubbling cheese-and-tomato filling. There is a wonderful savor of fresh bread, melted cheese and herbs. This is a pizza ”—and World War II servicemen returning from Italy. Veterans ranging from the lowliest private to Dwight D. Eisenhower talked up pizza.

Led by the servicemen’s newfound cravings, Americans timidly sampled their first pies. Most weren’t crisp, bathed in olive oil, or sprinkled with mozzarella; if cooks followed the advice offered by Good Housekeeping in 1951, their pizzas were biscuit rounds or English muffins topped with processed Cheddar cheese, chili sauce, salt, pepper, and salad oil. Cooks could also opt to add deviled ham, stuffed olives, or canned tuna to the “cheese treatment.”

Americans who ate at any one of the country’s rapidly proliferating pizzerias (the number of parlors in the United States skyrocketed from 500 in 1934 to 20,000 in 1956) enjoyed a pie that cut a neat compromise between the traditional Italian pizza and Good Housekeeping ’s “Yankee” variety. Pizzas at the Pennsylvania parlor where Andy Zangrilli got his first job were massive rectangles speckled with slithery pepperoni disks. “It was a hit,” said Zangrilli, who today owns a chain of pizzerias. “If you didn’t like the pepperoni, you’d take it off. It was the Model T of food.”

Unlike other ethnically derived foods that enjoyed faddish popularity in modern America, pizza never masqueraded as exotic. Its consumers didn’t aspire to be cosmopolitan or courageous. They were simply drawn in by the bewitching interplay of tomatoes, bread, and cheese—drawn in so strongly that by 1958 the novelty singer Lou Monte could issue an album called Songs for Pizza Lovers .

A serving plate from the early 1960s.

But it wasn’t just the taste that Americans liked. The social aspect of the pie appealed to a nation riding the postwar boom economy. It seemed uniquely suited to the fun that defined the 1950s, easy for “the gang” to share and informal enough to figure in slumber parties and sock hops. While the early New York pizzerias had been forced to sell by the slice to draw lunchtime business, most pies outside the five boroughs were sold whole, making it nearly impossible to eat pizza alone (although Jackie Gleason attributed his girth to having accomplished the feat many times, sometimes within the span of a single meal).

“I call it happy food,” Slomon said. “It’s a communal thing. You can have two people enjoying a pizza or you can have a group.” Sophia Loren in 1959 told the Los Angeles Times that having been raised in Italy to consider pizza the food of poverty, she pitied Americans when she saw how many pizza joints they had. “So I think America not so rich after all. Then I find eating pizza here is like eating hot dog—for fun.”

Eliminating cutlery made pizza eating seem raffish to more staid diners. Although Dear Abby urged her readers to respect the pizza as a pie and reach for a fork, the etiquette authority Amy Vanderbilt condoned eating slices “out of hand,” adding that “pizza tastes best as a finger food.” Look magazine in 1954 published an illustrated step-by-step guide, instructing readers to hold pizza from “the arc edge,” rather than the measly tip, and “roll it in a log.” Bob Hope still had reservations when his buddy Jerry Colonna prepared a pie. “It’s a tough baby to cut,” Hope complained. “I never cut it,” Colonna responded. “It’s hand food. Chew it down and have fun.”

Pizzeria owners accelerated the fun by hiring dough-tossing showmen to divert patrons by spinning pies skyward, sometimes sending the dough 12 feet into the air (and creating an overly dry pizza in the process). Tossers such as Aldo Formica, who demonstrated his talent on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s television show, became second-rung celebrities. “Then it started coming out that maybe the guy with the hairy arms in the dough wasn’t turning people on, and maybe he was turning people off,” the pizza consultant John Correll said of the tosser’s ultimate disappearance from the scene. “But pizza has stayed locked in to the image of fun and frolic.”

The image was polished in 1953 when Dean Martin swung his way through “That’s Amore!,” an Italian-flavored love song that famously compared the moon to “a big pizza pie” (a phrase that irritated exacting food writers, who insisted it was redundant).

By the mid-1950s pizza was everywhere. Although it would be another decade before baseball stadiums and zoos offered the snack, political parties, fundraising groups, and synagogue sisterhoods were plying their members with pizza. Fun and flavor aside, the price was right: Zangrilli sold two slices at his Pennsylvania State College parlor for a quarter. “Pizza fit students’ needs perfectly,” Zangrilli said. Sometimes too perfectly, as a 1950s Atlanta restaurateur discovered when he added pizza to his menu and immediately attracted hordes of Georgia Tech students who would congregate around a single pie and linger for hours. He dropped the pies.

An anonymous pizza baker in 1957 blamed James Dean for inducting teens into the pizza fraternity. “Jimmy loved pizza,” he complained to The Saturday Evening Post . “His fans knew that, so they loved it too.” Pizza was pitched as the ideal snack for hard-to-please high schoolers by companies such as General Mills, whose Betty Crocker character appeared in a 1960 comic strip to solve the “Problem of the Puzzled Parent,” who is perplexed by what to serve her daughters’ friends after a roller-skating outing. What do “most teenagers” like? she wonders. Refrigerated pizza dough, Betty Crocker assures her. Betty is proved right, as always. “Gee, Mrs. Steward, you sure know what’s good,” one handsome teen raves (although he disconcertingly appears to be eyeing her twin daughters rather than her pie). By 1963 pizza was a staple of the school lunch menu. The American School Foodservice Association that year announced it was bested only by hamburgers and hot dogs in the cafeteria popularity contest.

Adults weren’t ready to cede pizza to children, though. People of every age and income bracket went for it, as Lucille Ball, who met her second husband, Gary Morton, on a blind date in a pizza parlor, could attest. George Liberace was so enamored with pizza that in 1959 he contemplated abandoning the brothers Liberace to open a parlor, reconsidering only when brother Lee, the pianist of the duo, teased him ruthlessly.

Pizza’s mid-century journey from unknown to unparalleled was captured in a raucous 1956 skit aired on “Caesar’s Hour,” the show’s second gag that year grounded in pizza adoration. Pizza was to Sid Caesar’s writing team what domestic tranquillity was to the creative staff over at “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”: a source of endless inspiration. In “The Commuters,” three couples are absorbed in a competitive Scrabble game. The word pizza is played, but nobody’s too sure how to spell the name of their new favorite food (the word routinely shows up on first-grade spelling lists today). So the couples consult a dictionary, taking care not to drool on the definition. The men, now rapturous at the thought of a pie, flee for the nearest pizzeria, promising to return with pizza for everyone. This being comedy, they hit a snag on the way home: Their car breaks down, and the pizzas are in danger of getting wet. One of the men decides to shield the pizzas beneath the hood, a bit of chivalry that manages to jump-start the engine. Powered by pizza, the men arrive home to find their wives asleep, to be awoken only by having fragrant slices of pizza dragged beneath their noses. Pizza was a dream come true.

The premise of Caesar’s skit quickly became dated as Tom Monaghan institutionalized the innovation that transformed America’s infatuation with pizza into a lasting relationship: home delivery. In 1960 Monaghan and his brother James bought an Ypsilanti, Michigan, pizza joint called Dominick’s (James traded his share to Tom one year later in exchange for a Volkswagen Beetle). According to Correll, Monaghan was forced to rechristen the store as Domino’s when Dominick complained he was “besmirching his name” with a lousy product. But Monaghan wasn’t fixated on quality: He decided to best the competition by offering free delivery, a service that every major chain later added to its repertoire. Pizza purveyors tested lots of new concepts in the 1970s and ’80s: There were restaurants that explicitly wedded pizza to entertainment, such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, where a life-sized rat boogied through the arcade, and restaurants that emphasized fresh and novel ingredients, such as California Pizza Kitchen, home to the caramelized pear and gorgonzola pie. Nothing, however, has yet supplanted the large pepperoni pie delivered hot within the hour as the quintessential American pizza experience.

Pizza’s firm hold on the American appetite is unlikely to slip anytime soon. With very little nudging from pizza marketers, Americans have made pizza the traditional food of the emerging national holiday Super Bowl Sunday; almost 70 percent of viewers eat pizza while watching the game. Both spontaneous and economical, ordering pizza remains a signifier of carefree camaraderie; pizza seems to automatically make any event a little more fun. “We will have pizza(!),” the Carleton College history department announced last year in a memo meant to lure students to a meeting. It’s hard to imagine fried chicken or tofu having the same drawing power. “Pizza is more popular than ever,” Slomon said. Not bad for a food that most Americans had to have explained to them just 50 years ago.

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