Prior to the 1890’s, there were no pizzas available in the United States except those made at home. Those early home-made pizzas were mainly the territory of Italian immigrants in New York. Millions of Italians had moved to the U.S. and they brought their beloved pizzas with them. Turn of the century New York City was the center of a growing Italian population and pizzas were well-known as a favorite food, but they were unavailable commercially until Gennaro Lombardi entered the picture as the father of American pizza.
Gennaro Lombardi first opened a grocery store in New York City in 1897. Even though Lombardi’s’ was only a grocery store, it quickly became a popular lunch hangout after Gennaro began selling tomato and cheese pies to take out. Gennaro’s early pizzas were conveniently wrapped in plain paper and became a favorite of workers who ate them right on the jobsite without the need for a table or utensils. The popularity of the take-out pies soon prompted Gennaro to apply for a formal New York City mercantile restaurant license and his little grocery store became the first commercial pizzeria in the United States in the year 1905.
Lombardi’s pizzas were (and still are) baked in giant coal-fired ovens. Unlike the small, home-made pizzas, Gennaro’s commercial pizzas were huge creations with diameters of up to 20-inches. Since most (normal) workers could never consume a whole Lombardi’s pie at a single sitting, Gennaro came up with the idea of offering to sell his pizzas by the slice. At the time, a whole Lombardi’s pizza cost only a nickel, and two cents was enough for nearly half a pie. The triple combination of quality, price and convenience firmly established Lombardi’s early pizzeria as America’s first and ultimate pizza place.
Over time, Lombardi’s New York Pizzeria gathered a cult-like following of pizza fans who would line up daily to purchase their favorite slices of pizza heaven. Repeat customers became territorial about their right to purchase Gennaro’s magical pies and fights, favorites and bribes were not uncommon events in the waiting line. One of the worst fates possible for a true pizza addict at Lombardi’s was falling out of favor with the cooks for an error in lunch line etiquette. Life at Lombardi’s was over for the pizza fan that earned the ire of the pizza chef and was sternly told “No pizza for you!” The scenario was repeated so often it became part of New York culinary folklore, and eventually worked its way into a modern-day television comedian’s routine after “pizza” was replaced with “soup.”
Gennaro eventually passed away and a succession of sons and grandsons took over the pizzeria until 1984 when the family closed the doors. One decade later, Lombardi’s reopened one block away at 32 Spring Street where the business still stands today. If you like old-fashioned coal-oven-fired pizza with a history of over one hundred years of thin, crisp crust topped with fine mozzarella and tomatoes, Lombardi’s is still the first and only place to eat.