PIZZA HISTORY ALERT: 118 Years of Gennaro Lombardi

Gennaro Lombardi and Anthony Pero (Totonno) stand in front of 53 Spring Street in 1905.

Today is the 118th anniversary of Gennaro Lombardi’s arrival in America. Just 20 years old at the time, Lombardi arrived at Ellis Island aboard a ship called Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm after departing from the port of Naples, Italy. He ended up on Spring Street, where most of his family worked as tailors. Lombardi took a job at a grocery/bakery on Spring Street, of which he took ownership in 1905 and converted into the nation’s first pizzeria. 

At the time, pizza was only being sold in bakeries as a side item but Lombardi’s was the first to make it the focus of a restaurant. Several of New York’s most storied pizzerias were founded by former employees of Lombardi’s, such as the recently reopened Totonno’s on Coney Island (1924) and John’s on Bleecker Street (1929).

Pizza History: A Treat for Lent, 16th Century

This amazing book by 16th century chef Bartolomeo Scappi (1500 - 1577) has some of the earliest mentions of pizza in history! There are a few pizza recipes, none of which resemble what we think of as pizza today. Scappi was big-time, having served in the kitchen for several popes during his career.

One recipe uses the word pizze to describe a “flaky-pastry for a day in Lent.”

"Get two pounds of flour, warmed milk made from either six ounces of Milanese almonds or else one pound of shelled pinenuts, three ounces of sugar, two ounces of rosewater, one ounce of salt and two ounces of sweet-almond oil; mix all that together with the flour and make up a dough of it that is not too firm. Knead it well for a quarter of an hour, and make a long, thin sheet of it. Brush it with sweet-almond oil or olive oil, sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon, and roll it up like a wafer cornet. When the twist is made, make tiny wheels of it and make pizze of those wheels by spreading them out with the heel of your hand. Those pizza can be baked in a pan like  tourtes, or else you can fry them in oil. Serve them hot with sugar over them.”

This recipe defines pizza as a dessert dish that has absolutely none of the ingredients we think of today. No mozzarella (too expensive), no tomato (it wasn’t brought from the New World yet) and certainly no pepperoni (that isn’t even Italian). We think of pizza as a peasant dish, but here we have the pope’s chef making it, not to mention he’s in Rome and not Napoli. The word seems to have changed meaning over the years, eventually becoming the modern version two centuries after this book was published in 1570.

If you’re interested in more 16th century recipes, check out Scappi’s L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco or The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, recently translated into English!

Pizza Menu Time Machine

Twenty menus spanning half a century from a pizzeria in N. Syracuse, NY.

I’m not a big fan of menus. Lists of options often leave me fixated on all the food I didn’t order so I usually stick with friends’ recommendations or staff picks without even looking at the page. But as much as I dislike using them, menus are incredible tools. They provide an extremely interesting historical record of what was important to a restaurant at a single point in time. In the midst of a recent move, I found a package sent to me by the owner of a pizzeria in North Syracuse, NY called Twin Trees III.

The package contains some pizzeria goodies: a pizza box, a t-shirt, a photo of owner Louis Rescignano showing off his PIZZA vanity license plate and a stack of menus. But this isn’t a stack of menus in the “Hand these out to your friends so they can buy my pizza” sort of way. It’s a stack of twenty menus spanning the past 50+ years. So with an empty new apartment and a Superstorm keeping me inside, I set about reading the story told by this Rosetta Stone of pizzeria menus collections.

Notice the spelling of “muzzarella” in this 1964 menu.

The original Twin Trees opened in 1957 but the oldest menu I have is from 1964. Besides pizza there are steaks, chops, pasta, seafood and salad. At this time, pizza was still soaking into the American consciousness and remained a sidebar in Italian restaurant menus. A note on the page indicates that the pizzas are all 12 inches in diameter. A “Plain-Cheese” pizza is just $1.15 and every topping is just twenty cents more. The most expensive pie is the “Twin Trees Deluxe,” ringing in at a whopping $2.00 for sausage, mushrooms, onions, peppers and anchovies. Pepperoni is an option, but a letter from the owner tells me it wasn’t on the menu when he started making pizzas in 1962. America’s favorite topping was a latecomer to the pizza party, but we’ll see it rise to power in just a few years.

By 1971 the price of a 12-inch pizza is $1.70. Pizza’s still on the right side of the menu, a powerful position since the eye naturally goes in that direction. All the same toppings are there, but as of the 1968 menu anchovies had lost their status as the first listed topping with a drop down to third position. Interestingly enough, a new option appears on this menu: add pepperoni or anchovy to any of the seven listed pizza options for a total of $2.25. Shifting ahead to the contemporary pizza climate, pepperoni is the most popular topping in the US while anchovy is the least (although it’s still listed on the side of most pizza boxes as an option). Nevertheless, as of 1971 these two toppings were on equal ground in North Syracuse, NY.

Check out the font change in 1973. Classy!

No big changes until the introduction of two different sizes in 1978. Small pizzas are 12 inches and large pies are 16. There’s a major price leap from seven years earlier, with small cheese pies fetching $3.15 and a large $4.65. You can see the leap in profitability with the larger size. This menu also has an organizational shift with a simple list of topping options. Pricing now depends on the number of toppings ordered and anchovy somehow manage to claim an entire line without having to share space with pepperoni. We lost my beloved “muzzarella” back in 1975 in favor of the much simpler “cheese.” It’s safe to say mozzarella was the assumed cheese by this point so it was unnecessary to get any more detailed. Anchovy eventually gets squeezed out in 1978 and pepperoni’s back in with its own line (yet it’s not listed in the general topping section).

Gotta love the pizzeria owner showing off his PIZZA license plate. He also sent me a photo of his army of Blodgett ovens.

Sadly, there are no menus from the 1990s in this collection so we can’t pick back up until 2003. By this point it’s a pretty common pizza menu. The fifteen year span added bacon, ham, black olives, roasted peppers, meatball, sliced tomato, hot peppers, green olives, broccoli and pineapple to the previously limited list of topping options. Times have most certainly changed, as evidenced by the addition of a $3.50 salad bar and a pizza buffet for $9.95 every Thursday. I hate to draw the comparison but I remember Pizza Hut having similar options.

This menu collection is a real window into the evolution of a restaurant over half a century. Regardless of year, Twin Trees has always been very clear to its customers that it is “Famous for Pizza.”

This piece originally appeared on Slice: America’s Favorite Pizza Weblog.

New York Public Library Pizza Events

Things got intense during a Science of Pizza event at an event in the Bronx!

I’m super excited to be running a series of programs at NYPL branches around the city over the next few months. Every HISTORY program will feature a live interview with a pizza maker local to the host branch. We’ll talk all about the past, present and future of pizza in NYC and beyond! SCIENCE programs involve live demonstrations of pizza from raw materials to ingredients to finished product. HISTORY events are designed for all ages and SCIENCE events are more geared toward younger folk.

I’ll be posting more specifics about each event on Twitter, so be sure to stay in the loop!

Here’s the full schedule:
Thursday, September 27 @ City Island 4 PM – SCIENCE
Thursday, October 4 @ Morningside Heights 5:30 PM - HISTORY
Thursday, October 11 @ 67th Street 5:30 PM (feat. John Arena)
Monday, October 22 @ Inwood 4 PM - SCIENCE
Monday, October 29 @ Richmondtown 6:30 PM - HISTORY                 
Monday, November 5 @
Yorkville 3:30 PM - SCIENCE
Wednesday, November 7 @ Epiphany 4 PM - SCIENCE
Tuesday, November 13 @ Hunt’s Point 4 PM – SCIENCE
Tuesday, November 20 @ Mulberry Street 4 PM – SCIENCE
Tuesday, November 27 @ Heiksell @ 4 pm – SCIENCE
Saturday, December 8 @ Morris Park 2:30 PM - HISTORY
Wednesday, December 19 @ Mulberry Street 5:30 PM - HISTORY

Kids learn about conduction, convection, radiation and moisture during this demo.

Sal from Pugsley’s Pizza in the Bronx explains his pizza passion by playing the saxophone in the middle of a public library!

These kids are keeping their eyes on the pie as it experiences oven spring!

Interested in having me do a science or history focused pizza demo in your school or library? Just contact me through the Scott’s Pizza Tours website!

Today is the 123rd anniversary of the naming of Pizza Margherita. In a letter dated 11 June, 1889 the Italian “Department of the Mouth” issued a letter on behalf of her majesty Queen Margherita, consort of King Umberto I, to thank Raphaele Esposito for presenting “three quality pizzas.” Legend has it the queen’s favorite was a pizza with mozzarella, tomato and basil — a pizza featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients. This dish now carries the queen’s name and helped pull pizza out of the slums and into the mainstream.

Today is the 123rd anniversary of the naming of Pizza Margherita. In a letter dated 11 June, 1889 the Italian “Department of the Mouth” issued a letter on behalf of her majesty Queen Margherita, consort of King Umberto I, to thank Raphaele Esposito for presenting “three quality pizzas.” Legend has it the queen’s favorite was a pizza with mozzarella, tomato and basil — a pizza featuring the freshest seasonal ingredients. This dish now carries the queen’s name and helped pull pizza out of the slums and into the mainstream.

First Reference to Pizza as a Pie?

Here’s a reallyyyyyyy early reference to pizza in the December 6, 1903 edition of the New York Tribune. It’s part of a larger article about how much Italians love hot foods (there’s a section that defines pepperoni as hot peppers rather than the later Americanized cured meat) and includes some rather controversial remnants from our lost pizza past. The article doesn’t mention a restaurant name, so it’s unclear whether this is a bakery, pizzeria or somebody’s house. What is clear is that the author directly compares Italian pizza to American pie, making it the earliest reference to pizza as a pie that I have ever seen. We use this slang in the Northeast, but people outside the area always ask me why I call pizza a pie. Here’s why!

But there’s a lot more mind-blowing info in this tiny paragraph. The article indicates a method of dough stretching that is more or less outlawed in both Naples and New York City pizzerias today: the rolling pin. In Naples, all pizza dough is extended by hand with special care taken to preserve the gases of fermentation. New York pizza makers tend to use more muscle with their dough stretching because American flour is much stronger than its European counterpart. But nobody currently making New York or Neapolitan style pizza even owns a rolling pin.

The instructions also say to roll out the dough to an inch thick. WOW, that’s not thin crust at all! Could it have been a typo? A misunderstanding? Lost in translation? Just the wrong person to interview for the article? We may never know, but what’s certain is that pizza has never been a food with strict definition — that’s what makes it so wonderful!

Read the Full New York Tribune Article

San Marzano Tomatoes: Fact vs. Fiction


We’re nearing the end of tomato season, so why not discuss the most misunderstood tomato available? The single variety with the highest degree of name recognition is clearly the San Marzano. Heralded by chefs and home cooks alike, this bittersweet pear-shaped fruit has found its way onto food obsessives’ lists of buzz words. Yet somehow a cloud of mystery surrounds the San Marzano, with plenty of myths and legends to make even the simplest of ingredients sound intriguing. Let’s scrape away the hearsay and take a look at the facts behind pizza’s most popular pomodoro.

The San Marzano tomato arrived in Naples as a gift from the King of Peru in the early 1700s.

Strange fruits arrived in the Spanish colony of Southern Italy by the mid 16th century. The tomato was one of the specimens brought back from the New World but it most certainly was not the San Marzano. Artwork from the time depicts only large, round, furrowed tomatoes unlike the long, slender, pear-shaped San Marzano. While Peru is accepted as the origin point for tomatoes, they were more likely first cultivated in Mexico because more tomato varieties are in use there.

The San Marzano is a pure-blood ancient heirloom variety that has been used in Italian cooking for centuries.

After its introduction to Europe, the tomato was grown as an ornamental fruit. It makes its first culinary appearance in a 1692 cookbook as a base for a sauce recipe. The San Marzano itself doesn’t show up until much later. According to a tomato manual published in 1940, the San Marzano is listed as a “recent cross” between the Re Umberto and Fiaschetto varieties.

A late 19th century drawing of the Re Umberto tomato, named for King Umberto I.

The San Marzano tomato adorned the historic mozzarella and tomato pizza that was served to Queen Margherita in the Summer of 1889.

The pizza served to the queen, which later received her name, was more likely topped with the tomato that was named in honor of her husband. The Re Umberto tomato was named for King Umberto in 1878 ion the occasion of his first visit to Naples. This tomato is smaller and more plump than the San Marzano. So why is the San Marzano listed as a requirement on VPN pies? As you’ll read below, its current form is better suited for industrial canning. [Note: San Marzanos are not a requirement for Pizza Margherita TSG, the European Union’s protective seal for traditionally crafted foods.]

The San Marzano is grown for fresh use in Italy and we are lucky to get cans of it here in the USA.

One of the earliest literary references to the San Marzano appears in the 1894 USDA Agricultural Yearbook in an article titled “Redesigning the Tomato for Mechanized Production.” With the growing diaspora of Southern Italian immigrants who demanded goods from the mother country, the canning industries in both Italy and the US exploded to fill the demand. Prohibitive tariffs on imported tomatoes allowed American canneries to claim a huge amount of business. A Brooklyn woman named Tillie Lewis saw an opportunity and teamed up with Florindo Del Gaizo, a Naples-born tomato importer, to bring San Marzano seeds to California’s San Joaquin Valley. They opened a cannery in the 1930s and eventually became the country’s 5th largest. The San Marzano is excellent for canning because of its relatively low moisture content and thick flesh. It’s safe to say this variety wouldn’t have a life without the American canning industry.

All San Marzanos are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

As Adam Kuban wrote in a recent post for the pizza blog Slice, San Marzano refers both to a tomato variety and a small town on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius. A tomato grown in the EU-approved region and handled in the proper manner is eligible for DOP certification (or Protected Designation of Origin in English). Not all tomatoes grown in the approved area are actually certified, but the stamp certifies the geography and production methods approved by the European Union. At the same time, you can grow the San Marzano variety in your garden and, even though it might taste better than any canned tomato you’ve ever had, you still aren’t eligible for DOP bragging rights.

All DOP San Marzano tomatoes are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

If the DOP mark was upheld, the above would be a true statement. Unfortunately, the incredible value of this mark on a can of tomatoes has encouraged quite a few Italian canners to falsely label their products to justify DOP markups. In 2010 alone, nearly 500,000 cans of counterfeit tomatoes were caught at the port of Naples. Trust your taste buds, not a label.

Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes.

Correctly labeled San Marzano DOP tomatoes are the purest San Marzano tomatoes available.

Widespread blight pretty much knocked out the San Marzano tomato in the 1970s, forcing canning companies to produce more disease-resistant hybrids. Interest increased in the 1990s, and several companies tried to recapture the genetic code to the lost tomato. Two cultivars prevailed, the Cirio Selection 3 and the SMEC-20 (aka San Marzano 2). Unfortunately, neither have been been deemed fit for mechanical harvesting but the SMEC-20 is currently in use by Sabato Abagnale and his Miracle of San Gennaro brand. Abagnale is a real tomato rebel because he doesn’t remove the tomato skins as required by DOP regulations. When I visited Sabato in 2009, he told me that much of the flavor is in the skin and he refuses to remove them. In reality, the SMEC-20 isn’t in wide production because it falls apart easily without the skin to hold it together.

Just a few weeks ago, I held a blind tomato tasting at the Brooklyn Brainery. We tasted a variety of products from Italy, California, Canada and New Jersey. The vast majority of our group preferred the tomatoes from California and New Jersey over the Italian imports. We even tried some DOP and Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes, the latter of which hailed $10 for a 28 oz can! It’s too bad because those cans came in last, way behind the more available and cost-effective options available at my neighborhood grocery store. I don’t mean to say these tomatoes are necessarily better, it’s just interesting what decisions one makes without the burden of a fancy label.

For further tomato reading, check out these fantastic resources:
Ripe by Arthur Allen
Pomodoro! The History of the Tomato in Italy by David Gentilcore
The Tomato in America by Andrew F. Smith

** I originally wrote this piece for the pizza blog Slice.

A Brief History of Pizza Boxes

Most pizza fans probably agree that pizza is best served directly from the oven, but over 1 billion pizzas are delivered each year and every single one of them is transported to its destination in a cardboard box. The contemporary pizza box remains as anonymous as it is simple, since few of its users know anything about the cardboard coffin’s humble origins. Let’s dig a little deeper into the history of the pizza box to provide some context for an item most of us view as a necessary evil in the life of a pizza eater.

In the early 1800’s, bakers were using copper containers to transport small breads and pizzas on the street. They often employed their sons to cart these stufas (literally stoves) around the neighborhood in hope of selling the scraps for some extra change. It was kind of like Newsies, but with much less singing and dancing. Unlike today’s model of made-to-order pizza delivered hot and fresh to your door, stufa boys were hawking pre-made pies. Stufas kept the pizzas warm, as copper has high heat dissipation capabilities. They also had pointed lids with covered vents to help manage steam exhaust. Brilliant!

The world’s first pizza box? This Stufa was crafted in a Neapolitan workshop.

Jump ahead 100 years and pizza starts to catch on in New York and other industrialized American cities. Legend has it that pizzas were being sold “to-go” rolled into a cone, wrapped in paper, and loosely tied with twine at Lombardi’s (America’s first licensed pizzeria). The small breads were often sold at room temperature and reheated on factory furnaces later in the day. This is early American take-out dining! There’s no evidence of stufa usage in America, but pizza was readily available at the bakery counters of any Italian immigrant neighborhood.

The post-WWII years exposed millions of American GI’s to pizza in Italy, so interest dramatically increased upon their return home. In the 1940’s, lots of pizza purveyors offered take-out pies. The pizza would sit on a stiff corrugated base, which could slide snugly into a large paper bag. The bag’s thin structure would allow steam to escape but only at the price of heat loss. Still, it’s not a bad means of conveyance. You can still find this method in use at Federici’s in Freehold, NJ (which has been bagging pies since 1946) and Vincent’s in Pittsburgh (since 1950).

Lillian of Passion-4-Pizza posing with a paper-wrapped pizza at Vincent’s in Pittsburgh.

The 1950’s brought pizza into the dining rooms of a booming nation and as orders piled up, so did the pizzas. Bags don’t stack very well and we didn’t even have that funky-little-white-plastic-dollhouse-table-pizza-box-support yet (more on that in a future post) so mankind was forced to adapt. Thin paperboard bakery boxes provided a bit more support, and so were born the earliest dedicated pizza boxes. Paperboard did the job for quite some time and remains in use today, but some folks aren’t satisfied. This material was never meant to withstand the intense moisture introduced by a hot pizza. The result is often a weakened box that collapses under its own weight.

A stack of empty paperboard boxes buckling under their own weight. [Photograph: Chuck Tuze]

One of the greatest leaps in the evolution of the pizza box can be attributed to Tom Monaghan, founder of Dominos. Since Dominos focused its business solely on delivery, it should be no surprise that they were the driving force behind pizza delivery technology. In order to deliver hot pizzas in a timely fashion, Monaghan searched for a company to develop a corrugated cardboard box in the mid 1960’s. According to Monaghan’s autobiography Pizza Tiger it was more difficult than anticipated to make a container that was scored properly for folding yet strong enough to hold its form. After a long development process with Triad Containers, a Detroit-based corrugated box company, they finally achieved success. The resulting pizza box has become a standard for the pizza industry right down to the way the box base doubles over itself to lock into the base, known appropriately as “Michigan style”. Regardless of how you many feel about the quality of their edible products, it’s hard to ignore the impact Dominos has made on the history of the pizza box.

Paperboard box (left) and corrugated box with “Michigan style” locking flap (right).

Even with all these years of innovation, we’re still just using a simple cardboard box to transport our beloved pizza. Have we taken the medium as far as it can go or is there room for improvement? Judging by the incredible array of new models at this year’s International Pizza Expo, we may be looking at a new era in pizza box evolution. Some pieces tackle the problem of heat loss while others challenge steam release issues. Wherever the world of pizza box design may be heading, it’ll be a long way from the copper stufas of Naples. Stay tuned for future posts on the technological updates in the pizza box industry.