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At a Glance

Lombardi's Pizza

32 Spring Street
New York, NY 10012-4173

Phone: 212-941-7994
Website: www.firstpizza.com

At the corner of Spring & Mott Streets.

Hours: Open Sunday—Thursday
11:30 A.M.–11 P.M.

Open Friday—Saturday
11:30 A.M.—Midnight


Pizza Research

The true origin of pizza is a mystery. It could have been invented by just about anyone who figured out how to mix flour with water and heat it on a hot stone. Carthage? The Greeks? Sicily?

The earliest form of pizza found by archaeologists was a crude bread baked beneath a fire's coals. After cooking, different types of toppings and/or seasonings could be applied, and the bread could be used instead of a plate and utensils to sop up broth or gravies.

This idea of using bread as a plate (a “trencher”) came from the Greeks who ate flat round bread (plankuntos) baked with any number of toppings. This inexpensive cuisine was eaten by the ordinary laboring men and their families.

Fifth century, B.C. — At the apex of the Persian Empire, it is said that the soldiers of Darius the Great (521–486 B.C.) baked flat bread on their shields and then put on a topping of cheese and dates.

Second century, B.C. — Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 B.C.), also known as Cato the Elder, wrote the first history of Rome, noting the common use of flat rounds of dough baked on stones and dressed with olive oil, herbs, and honey.

First century, B.C. — In The Aeneid, Virgil (70-19 B.C.) depicts a legendary origin of pizza: “Beneath a shady tree, the hero [Aeneas, leader of the Dardanians, the allies of conquered Troy and alleged ancestors of the Romans] spread his table on the turf, with cakes of bread; And, with his chiefs, on forest fruits he fed… They sate; and (not without the god’s command). Their homely fare dispatched, the hungry band invaded their trenchers next, and soon devoured to mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour… And Aeneas said… See, we devour the plates on which we fed.”

The ancient Roman cookbook, De Re Coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”), perhaps first compiled in the first century B.C. and erroneously attributed to the ancient gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, mentions a variety of ingredients on a flat round base of bread, similar to a present-day pizza, and recipes that involve putting certain ingredients on a base of a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The recipe lists chicken meat, pine kernels, cheese, garlic, mint, pepper and oil (many of these ingredients can be found in modern-day pizza). The recipe concludes with “insuper nive, et infers” (“cool in snow and serve”).

79 A.D. Although the Romans had no tomato sauce, a pizza-like fresh baked bread smeared with olive paste appears to have served as a snack at the ancient Roman fast-food stands, the thermopolia. Evidence has been found of flat wheat-spelt cakes that were baked and widely eaten not only in Pompeii but also in nearby Neopolis, the Greek colony that would ultimately become Naples, the future home of Neapolitan pizza. Also found in Pompeii were shops eqipped with marble slabs, flour mills, ovens, and other items that one could ascribe to a pizzeria.

1000 A.D. — By the dawn of the second millennium, picea, a disk of dough with a heavy smattering of herbs and spices, was popular in Naples. Pizzas were often used as a snack by Italian women who were waiting for their bread to bake in the local town’s communal ovens. They would break off a piece of the dough, flatten it out, apply some sort of seasoning, then quickly bake it.

1400s — The Tavernia Cerrigloi in Naples was frequented by soldiers because of the fine pizza served there, thus making it (and Naples) the home of Italian-style pizza. Pizza was made throughout Italy, but Neapolitan pies were known to be the best.

1522 — Although there are eight species of wild tomato in Peru, and doubtless some of these made their way to the Old World, modern tomatoes appear to be descended from central American species. Thus, tomatoes were probably first brought back to Europe following conquest of Mexico by Spanish explorer Cortez. Back in Spain they would later be called pome dei Moro (“Moor’s apple”).

1544 — The tomato is first described in European literature by Matthiolus. In Italy they are called pomi d’oro (golden apples), and are “eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper,” according to Matthiolus. These first tomatoes were yellow, having been brought from Central America to Europe via the Medditerranean. Years later two Catholic priests allegedly introduced red tomatoes to Italy.

1700s — Two hundred years after the introduction of the tomato to Europe, tomatoes were finally beomg eaten, as opposed to merely being used as a decorative item.

Late 1700s — Queen Maria Lorena (1752-1814) wife of the King of Naples, Ferdinand IV (1751–1821), had a special oven installed in the summer palace of Capodimonte so that her chef could serve pizzas to her royal self and guests.

1830 — Until 1830, pizza was sold from open-air stands and street vendors working with pizza bakeries, just like the ancient Romans did. However, in 1830 the world's first genuine pizzeria appeared (in Naples, naturally), Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba. Porous lava rock brought down from nearby Mount Vesuvius was used to line its wood-fired oven. This establishment is still in business today at Via Port'Alba

1889 — King Umberto I of Italy and his wife (and first cousin), Margherita Teresa Giovanna, Princess of Savoy, while on holiday in Naples in 1889, issued a royal summons, calling to their residence the most popular of the pizzaioli (pizza chefs), Raffaele Esposito of the Pietro il Pizzaiolo pizzeria, to taste his specialties. Esposito prepared three kinds of pizza for the royal couple. His most innovative was one sporting the colors of the Italian flag: red, green and white. To achieve the color white, he added mozzarella cheese to a more conventional Napolitan pie of red tomato, bacon and green basil. The queen liked the last kind of pizza so much that Esposito named it the “Pizza Margherita” in her honor, and the name stuck. Thus, in 1889 the modern “cheese pizza” was born.

1880s — Italian immigrants start making pizza in New York City.

1905 — Gennaro Lombardi receives a business license for New York's first official pizzeria, Lombardi's.

1924 — Antonio Totonno Pero leaves Lombardi’s and opens Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano in Coney Island.

1925 — Frank Pepe opens his Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Connecticut, to serve up classic “tomato pies.” Today the place is known for its unexpectedly superb clam pizza.

1926 — Pizza is introduced to Boston’s North End via Anthony Polcari’s Pizzeria Regina.

1927 — Italian immigrants Salvatore and Chiarina Marra living in South Philadelphia open Marra’s on Passyunk Avenue.

1929 — John Sasso, another ex-Lombardi's employee, starts up John’s of Bleecker Street.

1933 — Yet another ex-Lombardi's employee, Patsy Lancieri, founds Patsy's in New York.

1939— Pizza comes to Los Angeles, courtesy of the D'Amore family.

1950s — America notices Italian-American celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, baseball star Joe DiMaggio) consuming pizzas. The lyric “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” appears in Dean Martin's song, That’s Amore!

1957 — Frozen pizzas are introduced to stores by the Celentano Brothers.

1959 — The first Famous Ray’s Pizza opens on Prince Street in Little Italy, founded by Ralph Cuomo.

1984 — Lombardi's closes for ten years.

1990 — Grimaldi’s opens.

1994 — Lombardi's reopens.

 


 

Pizza_Hall_of_Fame_logo

Lombardi's in New York City was the first inductee into the Pizza Hall of Fame, founded by Steve Green, publisher of PMQ, the magazine with the largest circulation (50,000) of any trade magazine devoted to the pizza industry. PMQ publishes U.S., Canadian, Chinese and Australian/New Zealand editions, in addition to producing the Orlando and New York Pizza Shows each September and March respectively. The company’s website, PMQ.com is the official website of the pizza industry.

 


 

 


 

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New York's First Family in the Pizza Pantheon

Exceptional Eateries: Pizza

Lombardi's Pizza Restaurant, New York City

By Caitlin Doherty — January 12, 2011

Editor’s Note: Our pizza-ologist Caitlin Doherty recently took on the City of Pizzerias for National Pizza Week, visiting the venerable Lombardi’s pizza restaurant in New York, the first such establishment in the United States.

Plaque on exterior of lombardi's pizza restaurant commemorating its position as the first pizzeria in the united states.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)

I confess—Pizza is my favorite food. I’m not alone. People here in the U.S. eat over 100 acres of pizza a day, that’s about 350 slices per second or 11 billion slices each year.

Although National Pizza Month is in October, National Pizza Week is the second week January, so to investigate the world of Pizza this month, I traveled to New York City, to enjoy one of the best pizzas you can buy at the first Pizza restaurant in America, Lombardi’s. To truly investigate the world of pizza, this is where you start.

the original lombardi's, founded in 1905 by gennaro lombardi from naples. (Photo © Lombardi's Original Pizza of New York, Inc.)

Back in the late 1880s, Italian immigrants from Naples who were bread bakers in New York started taking their extra dough and making pizza, something for which Naples in Italy is famous (called Neapolitan pizza, or pizza Napoletana.) Pizza was simply something bakeries made as a sideline so that the bakers could keep their bread ovens hot and running even after the morning loaves were baked.

In 1895 Gennaro Lombardi emigrated from Naples and came to New York where he made pizza in a bakery on Mulberry Street, using the same dough recipe his father and grandfather had used in Naples. In 1997 Lombardi opened his own grocery store and bakery at 53 1/2 Spring Street in Little Italy, just down the street from its present location. Lombardi soon decided to sell pizza and in 1905 Lombardi’s was issued a mercantile license by the City of New York, becoming America’s First Pizzeria. It was called, simply, Lombardi’s. It was small. It didn’t even have tables and chairs until the 1930s. But it made great pizza, satisfying the cravings of many a homesick Italian immigrant.

lombardi's now occupies the whole corner at mott and spring streets in nolita (which means, “North of little italy”) in manhattan.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)

Lombardi was naturally influenced by the great pizza pie recipes of Naples, but he found it necessary to adapt the pizza to American technology and ingredients. Instead of a wood-fired brick oven as in Naples, he used a coal-fired brick oven. That was a good idea, since the lower temperatures of regular ovens dry out the pizza dough before the outside of the crust is crisp and the topping has cooked. A coal oven, however, can reach temperatures of 850 degrees Fahrenheit or more, higher than most of today’s conventional gas or electric ovens. That means that the oven can cook the pizza dough really quickly. Authentic Neapolitan pizzas bake in about 80 to 120 seconds, while authentic Neapolitan-American pizzas take about five minutes.

vIEW OF lOMBARDI'S FROM moTT STREET. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

Moreover, in Naples Lombardi would have used the excellent mozzarella cheese made from the milk of, would you believe it,the Indian water buffalo (mozzarella di bufala). That’s not so strange because farmers raise domesticated water buffalo near Naples. But in America, he used mozzarella made from fresh pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’ss milk, called mozzarella fior di latte. Thus, the Neapolitan-American pizza was born—“New York Style” pizza— and it began to increase in popularity and evolve.

vIEW OF lOMBARDI'S ON THE SPRING STREET SIDE. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

And so, a Lombardi's employee and fellow Italian immigrant, Antonio Totonno Pero, began making “tomato pies” pizza for the store to sell to workers in 1905, based on a classic Neapolitan recipe now Americanized a bit: fresh tomatoes, melted mozzarella, olive oil, a pinch of garlic, and perhaps a sprinkling of sausage. The pizzas cost 5 cents and were wrapped in paper and tied with a string. As New York skyscrapers began to rise in the city, workers of Italian descent would stop by Lombardi’s and pick up pizza pies to take with them to their work site. Most of these guys couldn’t afford the entire pie, so Lombardi sold it by the piece, but there were no set sizes or prices for slices. A worker would just ask for what, say, two cents would buy and they were given that much pizza. This is where the expression “two cents’ worth” comes from.

In 1924, realizing that the expanding New York subway system was going to make Coney Island a major gathering place, Antonio Totonno Pero left Lombardi’s and opened Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano at 1524 Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn, which has been in business ever since. (And since Lombardi’s was closed for a number of years, Totonno’s correctly claims that it is “the oldest continuously operating pizzeria in the U.S. run by the same family.”)

After the move in 1994, this is what lombardi's original entrance on spring street looked like. (Photo © Lombardi's Original Pizza of New York, Inc.)

Lombardi’s neighborhood also changed over the years. First it was called the Bowery, then the East Village, then Soho (which means, “South of Houston Street”), and now NoLita (“North of Little Italy”). But it continued to serve amazingly good pizza. In addition to Antonio Pero, other legendary, master pizzaiolos (pizza-makers) who trained at Lombardi’s during its long history include John Sasso who founded John’s of Bleecker Street and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy’s.

After Gennaro passed on, his son, John, took over Lombardi’s. By all accounts John Grennaro was an affable fellow who toiled long hours behind the coal oven but also enjoyed drinking, partying and generally having a good time. He traveled extensively by ocean liner between Italy and America, visiting friends and relatives. Tragically, he died when he was about 46 years of age.

A Slight Miscalculation

Lombardi’s then passed on to Gennaro Lombardi’s grandson, Jerry. Considered center of the U.S. pizza world by many pizza aficionados, Lombardi’s evolved from a pizzeria to a high-end Italian restaurant, but then a downturn in the economy forced it to close its doors in 1984. Moreover, vibrations from the subterranean Lexington Avenue subway line (the #6) cracked, crumbled and ruined the valuable coal-fired oven. Lombardi’s may have closed, but the family held onto the building at 53 Spring Street.

when lombardi's moved to its new location, the door from the previous oven was installed on the new one, and one can see “1905 lombardi” spelled out in mosaic tiles. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

At this point there came rescue in the form of John Brescio, a friend of the Lombardi family since childhood. Brescio’s mother had been raised in the vicinity and his father worked at Lombardi’s his whole life, often taking the pre-teen John to work with him. John would regularly get into some monkey business with the equally young Jerry Lombardi, and Jerry’s father John would keep both boys busy by giving them pizza dough to roll, which inevitably got thrown around accompanied by much laughter. While hanging out there, John Brescio became familiar with the signature Lombardi pizza taste that he could find nowhere else.

The Return of Lombardi’s

In 1994, ten years after Lombardi’s had closed, John Brescio and Jerry Lombardi decided to revive Lombardi’s. They were soon joined by Andrew Bellucci, a chef-turned-pizza fanatic who had worked and trained at making pizzas in two restaurants: Two Boots and Three of Cups. Lombardi agreed to teach Bellucci the nuances of pizza making, to entrust him with the secret Lombardi recipes and take on a general supervisory, ombudsman role once the revived Lombardi’s went into operation.

Although Lombardi still owned the original building at 53 Spring Street, the original site was deemed unsuitable for a comeback, as the oven was long gone. Finding a building with an existing coal-fired brick oven was important, because New York City environmental law does not permit new ovens to be installed, but it does allow existing ones to be “grandfathered in” and used if a new tenant or owner moves in.

everything edible at lombardi's ends up getting the heat treatment in the old coal-fired, brick-lined oven. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

As it turns out, the group found another location with a coal-fired brick oven right under their nose—it was a rental space just half way down the block and across the way at 32 Spring Street. It was an old Parisi bread bakery that had been closed for 21 years—and here, too, the oven had pretty much caved in and had been plastered over. But even though everybody said it couldn’t be fixed, the group found that it could in fact be repaired by a single company in Brooklyn that still knew how to do it, a craftsman from Italy and his two sons. Soon the oven was looking like new. They even fitted the oven with the 1905 door saved from the original Lombardi’s oven, with “1905 Lombardi” spelled out in black and while tiles on the front of the oven.

The two sons from Brooklyn still visit each year to do maintenance on the oven: In the upper parts of the oven, the fire can generate temperatures exceeding 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. This tremendous, almost continuous temperature burns away a little bit of the brick every day. By the end of the year, a whole new brick lining must be installed. (A Pennsylvania dealer supplies the coal.)

“stick men” work long hours, sliding pizzas in and out, and periodically adjusting their position to maintain the proper cooking temperature. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

Every night at 4 A.M. two workers clean out the oven’s grates (unlike wood, coal burns best when air rises up through the oven’s grated bottom surface) and then the oven is relit, a slow process that takes about two hours. (If done quickly, the coal “smothers.”) Since all the food in the restaurant ultimately gets cooked in the big oven, they begin the new cooking day by roasting clams, peppers and perform whatever other prep is necessary before the hectic day begins.

Some Personnel Changes

Much to everyone’s surprise, Andrew Bellucci, perhaps the most publicly visible, outspoken member of the Lombardi’s restaurant group, had a secret in his past. According to the article, “Too Hot Out of the Kitchen; Pie Man Told World About His Pizza, Not His Past,” by Eric Asimov in the May 22, 1996 edition of The New York Times, in 1995, Bellucci, age 32, pled guilty in to 54 counts of fraud, accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars embezzled from the New York law firm of Newman Schlau Fitch & Lane, where he was an administrator in the late 1980s, long before he entered the pizza business. He surrendered to Federal authorities in early May 1996 and entered the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, to begin a 13-month sentence.

pennsylvania bituminous coal produces the high temperatures needed to produce the amazingly thin, crispy yet chewy crust found in all lombardi's pizzas. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

After Bellucci left the Lombardi’s scene, John Brescio and Richardo Minchalo became even more involved in day-to-day operations. The pizza continued to be outstanding, much to the satisfaction of Lombardi’s somewhat more reclusive owners, Gennaro Lombardi and Joan Volpe.

Lombardi’s Growing Pains

In any case, the “new” Lombardi’s that opened in late 1994 was basically one narrow room. At the back was the oven, which was actually situated in a courtyard with the oven’s mouth opening into the kitchen, where the pizzas were slid in and out. There were only about 30 chairs. To improve the cash-flow situation, John Brescio realized he had to develop a big pizza delivery operation. He personally delivered menu pamphlets to businesses, condos and apartments across a wide area in Manhattan. Pizza deliveries were initially done by Brescio and the fellow who was the dishwasher. Brescio’s wife even joined in making the deliveries. Later, the pizza delivery operation ramped up to about eight or nine delivery people. After that maxed out, and more and more people wanted to sit down in a restaurant environment, Lombardi’s was able to rent the adjacent store. A year later, a small dining room was constructed over the oven. (Yes that’s right, you could eat pizza in a room somewhere above the oven.) Then a few years after that, the restaurant was able to expand into the corner store, so Lombardi’s now occupies the whole corner.

lombardi's not only doesn't sell slices, it doesn't accept credit or debit cards either. but don't worry, they have atm machines on the premises.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)

Sorry, No Mass Marketing of Lombardi’s

In an effort to focus on what they do best, Lombardi’s owners have turned down all sorts of potentially lucrative deals, such as offers to sell Lombardi pizza restaurant franchises around the country, publishing cookbooks, or selling pizza and/or pasta sauce products in supermarkets. Heck, Lombardi’s doesn’t even advertise.

And Now, for the Lombardi’s Pizza Experience

It’s a little intimidating walking into a pizza restaurant that Zagat Survey reviewers proclaim as “Best on the Planet.” Lombardi's has been featured on The History Channel and The Food Network.

as the reproduction of one masterpiece (the mona lisa) displays another masterpiece (a lombardi's pizza), Interesting america's pizza-ologist, caitlin doherty, prepares to enter the one and only lombardi's pizza restaurant. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

I am seated in the original, narrow room, surrounded by old photographs and history-laden atmosphere.

I order a small (14-inch, six slice) original “standard” pizza with fresh mozzarella, a tomato sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, and topped with romano cheese, fresh basil, sausage and pepperoni.

Ah yes, pepperoni. According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, It Must’ve Been Something I ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything (2003), the most popular topping is in fact pepperoni, which is placed on pizza in 36 percent of the orders, and is an American innovation of the 1950s. (The least popular topping: anchovies.)

Aside from the use of high-quality, super-fresh ingredients, the secret to Lombardi’s supremely delicious pizza is the coal-fired oven. Lombardi’s oven can easily attain 850 degrees Fahrenheit at a distance of a foot from the glowing coals, a bit less under the pizza (toward the oven’s top, temperatures can reach or exceed 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit).

at lombardi's, even a small pizza with pepperoni and sausage is an impressive example of pizza artistry. caitlin is seen here about to dine in the original narrow room. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

This high temperature is necessary to produce the classic Neapolitan-American crust, which is only about 3/16-inch thick. The bottom 1/32 inch crust is very crisp and generally dark and practically charred, with a hint of tartness. In contrast, the next 3/32 inch of the crust consists of dense, flavorful, chewy bread. Finally, the top 1/16-inch is slightly soggy or viscous because the surface is infused with oil and tomato sauce. The crust’s outer rim tends to be loaded with large crunch bubbles.

My pizza arrives. I lift a colorful slice and take a bite. It is a little wedge of joy. My taste buds are ecstatic. The light, thin, crisp yet elastic and chewy crust, the sauce, cheese and meats. Every ingredient is in perfect balance; it all combines beautifully. A harmonious composition. A work not of history, but of timeless art.

our pizza-ologist gives her taste buds a real treat, courtesy of lombardi's pizza. (Photo © richard grigonis.)

Truly, Lombardi’s is America’s “Patria della Pizza,” or “Home of the Pizza.” And I have come home to savor its delights.

Still, in the spirit of Pizza Week, I must soldier on, sampling more of what New York, the City of Pizza, has to offer. Look for other visits to interesting eateries in future articles here at InterestingAmerica.com end-of-article_dingbat

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Caitlin_Doherty

Caitlin Doherty is Interesting America's pizza-ologist and fun eatery afficionado. She also likes fun places to visit when she can find the time. A New Jersey native, she is a pharmacy technician for a hospital.

 

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