Historians researching the history of pizza are challenging the conventional wisdom behind who was the first to introduce the dish to America.
It has long been thought that Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant, opened a grocery store on Spring Street in New York City that would become the first licensed pizzeria in the United States in 1905.
But newly unearthed documents indicate that Lombardi was most likely an employee at the store, which means that his boss, Filippo Milone, may have been the first to operate a pizzeria to America.
In fact, Milone is likely to have founded pizzerias in at least six different locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late 19th century, according to the United States Pizza Museum.
The above image is a historic photo of Lombardi’s Pizzeria on Spring Street in New York City
Gennaro Lombardi is the tall man standing behind his family members. This photo was taken around 1925. From left to right: Giovanni Lombardi, Filomena Lombardi, Genarro Lombardi (back row), and George Lombardi. Those on the left and right are unidentified
Genarro Lombardi has long been considered the owner of the first licensed pizzeria in the United States, but researchers now say this is not true. The image above shows an original Lombardi Oven at his restaurant on Spring Street
The new findings were the result of research conducted by Peter Regas, who is working on a book about the history of pizza in America.
For a decade, Regas has been combing through archives researching the history of pizza in Chicago.
The origin of pizza in the Windy City is fairly straightforward – it began with Pizzeria Uno, the deep dish pizza chain, which opened in 1943.
‘They have more of a corporate history, even how that started was divorced from the local Italian-American community that existed there before the turn of the century,’ Regas told Gothamist.
In New York, however, the culture of pizza grew out of the Italian-American immigrant community that brought it here from the mother country.
So Regas looked for Lombardi’s name in the New York City directories from 1903 until 1908. Nothing came up.
He then did a search of the 1910 business directory to see if Lombardi was listed as the proprietor of the Spring Street pizzeria. Once again, nothing turned up.
Newly unearthed documents indicate that Lombardi was most likely an employee at the store, which means that his boss, Filippo Milone (above), may have been the first to bring pizza to America. Milone is believed to have founded six different pizzerias in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Regas then searched for bakers thinking he may find Lombardi’s name next to the address of the Spring Street pizzeria.
Instead, the address was listed under the name of Francesco D’Errico.
‘And that changed the whole direction of my project, because I never knew that name,’ Regas said.
‘And I thought I knew the story well.’
While this doesn’t invalidate Lombardi’s role in being a pizza trailblazer, he was likely one of a number of founding fathers.
The image above shows an ad for a pizzeria at the same Spring Street address as Lombardi’s – except the proprietor is listed as Giovanni Santillo
Regas came across Milone, who is believed to have established at least six pizzerias in Manhattan and Brooklyn before Lombardi, by piecing together old advertisements and other records.
‘It seems likely that [Milone] was operating pizzerias in Naples before coming to America,’ Regas said.
He said Milone was likely one of several immigrants who came to America with previous pizza-making experience.
‘It’s not so much the heroic story of a young man who thought it was a good idea to start a pizzeria because they had them in Italy,’ Regas said.
‘They had experience in Naples and came with knowledge and experience and a little bit of confidence that this product would be successful.’
Regas’ research was corroborated by pizza historian Scott Wiener, who also operates tours of historic pizzerias in New York.
Wiener told Gothamist that new clues began to emerge which challenged the thesis according to which Lombardi was the one who introduced pizza to New York.
‘I started to find there wasn’t confirmation of the information that was out there, and since there wasn’t confirmation, I started following the trail of the buildings,’ Wiener said.
‘And when the ovens were put in, and who was living there at the time, and who was working there at the time.
‘And I started to figure out there was more beyond this one guy Gennaro Lombardi.’
Milone was likely one of several immigrants who came to America with previous pizza-making experience, which means that we may never know who was the first to establish a pizzeria in America. The image above shows a pizza cooked in a brick oven at Lombardi’s restaurant
Wiener read over census data and business directories which showed that Lombardi wasn’t the owner of the Spring Street pizzeria until 1908.
‘So what we know is that Gennaro Lombardi is a huge, important figure in the history of pizza, but he’s not the first owner,’ he said.
‘And the story about him getting the first mercantile license is now totally blown out of the water.’
Since there is no confirmation that Lombardi had the first licensed pizzeria, Wiener is no longer claiming this on his tours.
Both Wiener and Regas acknowledge that we may never know for sure who was the first to bring pizza to New York.
‘What about all the people who were there even before that time and didn’t survive, went back to Italy, died, or didn’t have a business that survived for longer than a couple of years, how about them?’ Regas asked.
‘I believe Filippo Milone was the first pizza man at 53 Spring Street,’ Regas said, though he added that it doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘53 Spring Street was the first pizzeria in America.’