From Napoli to New York City: How Pizza Conquered America

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What’s not to love about a triangle of dough, cheese, and tomato sauce served piping hot? Pizza is the little black dress of food: a slice to grab on the go, a cheap meal for family and friends, the life-saving pie that’s a phone call away the night before Thanksgiving. The average American will likely consume 6,000 slices of pizza in their lifetime.

But pizza hasn’t always held such a place of honor. Italians outside of Naples, pizza’s birthplace, once considered the city poor, dirty, backwards—beneath them. Pizza became guilty by association, a symbol of unrefined peasant fare from a backwater. In fact, John Dickie’s history of Italy’s cuisine, Delizia!, notes that the word pizzeria doesn’t even appear in Italian dictionaries until 1918.

Pizza is the little black dress of food

But by 1918 over in America, pizza had had a warmer welcome. Many southern Italians emigrated to the US in the late 1800s, seeking economic opportunity and bringing their cuisine with them. In 1905, a grocery store in New York run by Italian immigrants named Lombardi’s began serving pizza to the general public. A few years later, another pizzeria opened in Trenton, New Jersey. Pizzerias popped up in Italian neighborhoods across the country, serving their own and attracting other Americans with their tasty, affordable fare. Along the way, pizza began to change shape.

I grew up in the pizza belt, loosely defined as covering New York City, all of New Jersey, and portions of eastern Pennsylvania. In the pizza belt, you’ll find generously sized slices covered with little more than cheese, sauce, and olive oil. The crust is thin but floppy and foldable and has a good chew. It is heaven. Trenton tomato pie, which showcases the bounty of the Garden State, is also a thing of beauty: a rectangular pie covered in gloriously red tomatoes, just barely crushed and their flavor mellowed by heat, finished with a dusting of Parmesan. When I began dating my now-husband, I learned about pizza in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, a town that styles itself the Pizza Capital of the World. This pizza is a play on Sicilian-style, rectangular and with a sauce that’s onion-forward and just a touch sweet, balancing the salty, silky deliciousness of the cheese.

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Upon moving to the Midwest five years ago, I discovered they have none of the pizzas described above. Nothing close. I can’t learn to like the prevailing Midwestern pizza, which often features a cracker-like crust overloaded with toppings. Midwesterners love toppings. It defies all my notions of what pizza is: a meal, not a snack; cut into wedges, not squares; chewy, flavorful crust, not a cracker. They inexplicably cut round pies into squares and call it party-cut. I shudder.

But I’ve lately been able to come around to the idea of pizza as a diverse food, reflective of the history of a place and the people who moved there and set up shop. Italian immigrants had to contend with differences in fuel, lack of ingredients they were accustomed to, differences in how they learned to make pizza, variances in tastes of their audience. Italian cuisine was often denigrated by nutrition experts of the day, who pushed the belief that garlic stoked lust and violence, evidence of the discrimination that Italian immigrants were up against.

When American soldiers returned home after World War II, they craved the pizza they’d snacked on in between their battles and marches and toppling Mussolini. More pizzerias sprang up across the country to satisfy this desire. Chains like Little Caesar’s and Pizza Hut followed, proliferating in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Independently-run establishments and chains alike all created their own twist on the original Neapolitan style. Detroit-style pizza takes deep dish a step further and adds a super caramelized crust. California got a hold of pizza and topped it with all manner of vegetables and unexpected flavors. Turns out California isn’t so different from the Midwest after all.

 Mystic Pizza (1988)

Mystic Pizza (1988)

What unites all the styles of American pizza—whether it’s pie-cut or party-slice, deep dish or cracker-thin—is the communality of it. You may decide to eat a whole pizza alone (and for that I applaud you), but, at its heart, pizza is a food meant to be shared. There are no side dishes. The pizza is everything, and everyone has a bite from the same pie. It’s democratic. Though its origins are Italian, it’s become a thoroughly American food.

Around the world, pizza transforms to suit the tastes of its host cultures. Notably, Japan is experiencing quite the pizza boom, with chefs returning from Naples and opening their own pizzerias and training aspiring pizzaioli. Vice TV airs its own Pizza Show. And, in December 2017, Neapolitan pizza was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Once maligned, now adored by billions, pizza is a shapeshifter, adapting to wherever it lands and welcoming tweaks to the dough and new toppings. Not too shabby for a peasant dish from Naples.

Words: Theresa J. Beckhusen