America’s appetite for pizza is stupendous. Every day we eat 100 acres of it—some 3 billion pies per year (with pepperoni the most popular topping). How did we get here? The story is nearly as old as the New World.
The Pie’s Humble Origins
Although humans’ appetite for yummy, hot flatbread dates back at least 12,000 years, pizza didn’t start taking shape until Spanish explorers brought tomatoes from the Americas to Europe. At first, chefs worried that the exotic red fruits were poisonous—and prudes thought them sinful because their flesh felt human. But cooks in southern Italy weren’t so timid. They figured out that squashing a few ripe ones on flatbread before baking made something wonderful.
Pizza got a big boost in 1889 when Neapolitan baker Raffaele Esposito presented Queen Margherita of Italy with a pie in the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes with green basil and white mozzarella. When the queen told Esposito how much she liked it, he named the combo for her. Today, pizza Margherita is known around the world.
Coming to America
A few years later, in 1897, Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery store and bakery on Spring Street in New York’s Little Italy. To make the most of the oven’s heat after the morning loaves were done, he baked flattened bread dough topped with crushed tomatoes and sold each pie for five cents. They were such a hit that in 1905 Lombardi opened America’s first licensed pizzeria. Like Lombardi’s, many of the old-time pizzerias that still thrive in the Northeast started the same way, as bread makers putting out pizza on the side. Roseland restaurant, which opened as a bakery in Derby, Conn., in 1935, became a pizza parlor when World War II gas rationing made delivering bread impossible.
Prior to the war, most Americans hadn’t even heard of pizza. It was foreign food, a novelty dish found only in Italian neighborhoods. Even at Roseland, which catered to an Italian-American clientele, pizza was a bit mysterious at first. Lina Scatolini Lucarelli, whose father, John Scatolini, cofounded the eatery and whose children now help run it, remembers that when they started serving pizza, her father had her draw a picture of a pie and take it around to the tables so customers knew what they were getting.
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