How did pizza, a saucy dish originating in a southwestern region of Italy, become so dominant in the United States? Legend has long recognized Gennaro Lombardi as the founder of the country’s first pizzeria. He supposedly received his business license for it in 1905. Over a century later, Lombardi’s is still selling slices on Spring Street in Lower Manhattan.
But according to Peter Regas, a Chicago author who is writing a book about the history of pizza, there’s a little more to the story. Before Lombardi immigrated to the U.S, there was another man named Filippo Milone who started pizzerias—including, it seems, the one Lombardi took over on Spring Street. Regas suspects Milone established at least six pizzerias after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1890s, a few of which—like Lombardi’s—became famous under someone else’s name.
This would mean Milone might be the lost forefather of pizza in America, not Lombardi, who was only 18 years old when the restaurant that bears his name is believed to have begun. Milone likely immigrated to New York in 1892. He seems to have made pizza dough back in Naples, and he probably began making and selling pizzas in his early years in the United States.
So why haven’t we heard of him before?
“The Brooklyn [business] directories were not that good at picking up Italians,” Regas says of the period in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, when many Italians were entering the U.S. Even Italians who were recorded may have had their names misspelled or their business incorrectly categorized (one entry labels Milone as a pastry chef, a possible mistake by someone who wasn’t familiar with “pizza pie”).
This means some early pizzerias—like Milone’s—slipped through the cracks.
Despite the lack of directory entries for Italian businesses, there is evidence that other Italian immigrants—one of whom may have been Milone—ran the Spring Street pizzeria before Lombardi. The teenaged, fresh-off-the-boat Lombardi likely began working there as an employee rather than owner. Though he’s certainly an early pioneer of New York City pizza, he’s only one of many people who brought the dish to the city.
Not all Italian immigrants were familiar with pizza around the time Milone moved to the U.S. The dish was local to Italy’s Campania region, home to the city of Naples, where Milone supposedly gained experience making pizzas.
The dish’s emergence in America may have pre-dated him, too. As immigrants from Campania settled in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s, they opened groceries and restaurants that may have served pizza. Eventually, they opened businesses that were dedicated to the Neapolitan dish. Regas found an ad for a “pizzeria napoletana” from 1898, and a directory entry suggesting there was a pizzeria in Manhattan as early as 1895.
Regas says the first pizzerias were visited mainly by Italian immigrants, and likely acted as hang-out spots for men in the evenings. “In the ‘20s and the ‘30s, you start seeing little signs on these pizzeria restaurants…saying ‘women welcome,’” he says. This was perhaps a self-conscious attempt to convince women that pizzerias weren’t just for the boys.
READ MORE: A Slice of History: Pizza Through the Ages
Pizza started to reach people outside of Italian-American immigrant communities in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1947, The New York Times predicted “pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew about it.”
Within the next several years, the Times saw this prediction come true as pizza spread throughout national media and culture: Lucille Ball picked up a shift at a pizza parlor on I Love Lucy, a take-out pizza showed up on The Honeymooners and Dean Martin sang about “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” By 1953, The New York Times’ wrote that “pizza…is such a gastronomical craze that the open pie threatens the pre-eminence of the hot dog and hamburger.”
Yet even though pizza was more popular than ever, Milone’s name had slipped from public memory. Unlike Lombardi, Milone did not have any children who could carry on his pizzerias. He died in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens, his influence remaining hidden until the 21st century.