Beyoncé and Katy Perry turned it into high couture; Chuck E. Cheese’s erected a fun-zone empire based off its accessibility; and the Internet meme-ified it endlessly. Pizza, in all its celebratory, pop-culture glory, is an inescapable fact about life here in America.
Which is to say—we eat that sh*t up; all 41 million of us on any given day. That we now have a formidable pizza lobby just goes to show the great lengths to which our country has adopted this humble southern Italian dish and turned it into a global force to be reckoned with.
But it wasn’t until after WWII that the “Americanization” of pizza came into effect, says author and pizza scholar Scott Wiener. Delivery and convenience culture created a need to deliver boxed pies to suburbanites who didn’t have access to slice joints that dotted the cities; cheap and mobile gas-fueled ovens gradually replaced wood-fired brick ovens. At the 1964 World’s Fair, Maestro Pavilion Pizza finally had a stage to introduce NY-style pizza to the world. “The reaction was amazing, unlike anything they had seen,” says Wiener.
This was eventually followed by several epochs: the rapid growth of franchises, the gourmet backlash of the ’80s—starring buffalo chicken and smoked-salmon toppings—to today’s ‘za movement, which Wiener describes as a recoil phase. “It’s not about throwing more toppings on it. It’s about spending more time and money on fewer ingredients.”
All the while, pizza has inspired intense scholarship, encouraging hobbyists to document its form endlessly, from influential online communities like Slice, to lone bloggers like Slice Harvester. That pursuit is a noble one, but rather than take a completist approach, here we wanted to track down the places that produced shockwaves across the pizza landscape; the pizzerias and folks manning the ovens that changed the way we think and eat pizza today. To help steer the conversation, we reached out to to a handful of people who’ve made it their life-long mission to champion pizza culture.
- Scott Wiener, founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, author of VIVA LA PIZZA! THE ART OF THE PIZZA BOX (@scottspizzatour)
- Adam Kuban, proprietor of Margot’s Pizza pop-up. You may also know him as the founder of the now-defunct pizza blog Slice, or as one of FWF’s 20 Greatest Food Bloggers of All Time (@adamkuban)
- Liz Barrett, editor at large at PMQ Pizza Magazine and author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.
- Colin M. Caplan, owner and tour guide of Taste of New Haven
- Sean Taylor, celebrates National Pizza Month (October) by eating pizza every day since 2002 and blogging about it at 31daysofpizza.com (@seantaylor)
- Martin Frappolli, founder of Pizza Quixote (@pizzaquixote)
- Frank Pinello, owner of Best Pizza
- Jonathan Porter, runs Chicago Pizza Tours
- Brooks Jones, a.k.a., Pizza Commander, founder of the pizza blog ME, MYSELF & PIE; Jones is currently in the production stage of a feature-length documentary about pizza
Una Pizza Napoletana
Address and phone: 210 11th St, San Francisco, CA (415-861-3444)
Kuban says: “Anthony Mangieri wasn’t the first pizzamaker in the U.S. to open a Neapolitan pizzeria, but he could rightly be credited with waking the nation to the wonders of these traditional wood-fired pizzas. Mangieri’s outsize personality and the quality of his pies set the genre’s reputation ablaze with the national food media in late 2004, when he moved his pizzeria to NYC’s East Village from Red Bank, New Jersey. Here was a dynamic, tattooed, punk-rock pizzaiolo who unequivocally declared Neapolitan the one true pizza and all other crusty, saucy, cheesy products false idols. All the stuff you’d read in the following decade about ovens and ingredients and techniques imported from Italy—that all pretty much started with Mangieri and UPN. If you’ve eaten at a wood-fired pizzeria that venerates tradition; if it has a tightly edited menu reflecting only those pizzas you’d find in the most old guard of Naples pizzerias; if there’s only one very uncompromising owner-operator making the pies—you’ve felt the influence of Mangieri.“
Address and phone: International
Wiener says: “Say what you will about their products, but Domino’s has had a bigger impact on the pizza industry than any other company. They made free pizza delivery an industry standard and left Americans expecting their pizza in 30 minutes or less (even after discontinuing the official campaign in the mid-1990s). With a business that’s entirely comprised of delivery and take-out, Domino’s has always focused on the task of transporting their products. We can thank Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan for pressuring his box supplier to develop a corrugated container that would stack neatly and insulate the pizza better than paperboard versions. That’s right—Domino’s essentially created the modern pizza box.
As horrifying as it may be, the idea behind the Domino’s franchise model is to serve identical products in every location. Achieving that goal inspired several back-of-house inventions that are now standard in pizzerias. The dough docker is a roller with spikes that de-gas a stretched dough skin so it won’t bubble up during the bake. The Domino’s [production] line has been adopted by other similar pizza companies, including Papa John’s. Although they have done nothing to advance the quality of pizza, Domino’s has shaped the palates of more pizza businesses and pizza consumers than any other company on the planet.”
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
Address and phone: 1955 Central Park Ave, Yonkers, NY (914-961-8284)
Caplan says: “Started 90 years ago in 1925 by Francesco Pepe from Maiori, Italy, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven is the fourth oldest continuously run pizzeria in America. Pepe started by delivering pizza primarily to factories and farmers’ markets whilst pedaling pizza on the streets. In 1936, after becoming widely popular, Pepe opened a pizzeria next door, the largest of its kind in the country, with two dining rooms, a bar, and two giant coal-burning brick ovens. This pizzeria made eating pizza a truly American experience by welcoming all ethnic groups, not just Italians. During this time, Pepe’s was also the first recorded pizzeria in the world to use pizza boxes, made at a local box factory with customized art on the top. Its signature pizza, the white-clam pie, began being marketed in the 1960s after a popular appetizer, littleneck clams on the half shell, were tossed on the pizza with olive oil, grated cheese, garlic, and oregano. Pepe’s grandchildren still run the pizzeria and have expanded their business, having seven other coal-burning locations in two states, as well as maintaining The Spot next door—Pepe’s original location.”
Shakey’s Pizza Parlor
Address and phone: International
Barrett says: “Shakey’s Pizza Parlor opened in 1954 and by 1957 became one of the first food-service companies—first pizzeria that I know of—to start franchising its restaurants. It’s likely that the pizza chains that followed in the next few years—such as Pizza Hut (1958), Little Caesars (1959), and Domino’s (1960)—monitored and learned from Shakey’s successful franchise system, going on to open very lucrative franchises of their own.
To understand the impact of one pizzeria starting a franchise and setting off a chain reaction of more franchises, consider how long some towns in America may have had to wait for an independent pizzeria to open if it weren’t for hundreds of Shakey’s, Little Caesars, Domino’s, and Pizza Huts collectively opening across the country by 1970. When these chains opened, it inspired many independent pizzeria operators to open their own shops, thus helping to grow the industry to what it is today—more than 70,000 pizzerias, with a nearly equal mix of chains and independents. And while many might view chains as the enemy of the independent pizzeria, their systems continue to positively impact the overall growth of the industry by introducing ideas and innovations in marketing, ordering, and delivery—which ultimately benefit the independent pizzeria operator who takes advantage of them.” (Photo: Pinterest)
Address and phone: 623 E Adams St, Phoenix, AZ (602-258-8300)
Frappolli says: “Much like the first wave of visionary craft brewers elevated the beer-drinker’s experience, Pizzeria Bianco gave birth to the pizza renaissance in America and destroyed some myths along the way. Beginning with your grandparents’ generation, great American pizza was limited to the classic thin-crisp style found only in eastern cities with large Italian immigrant populations. Few destination pizzas were found outside of New York, New Haven, and nearby towns. When Chris Bianco opened Pizzeria Bianco in the corner of a Phoenix grocery store in 1988, he changed all that and unwittingly launched the artisanal-pizza movement. His ‘new’ kind of pizza was actual the original Neapolitan style, rarely found outside of Naples, Italy. He helped us retire silly myths such as ‘New York pizza reigns because of the water.’ The pies at Pizzeria Bianco were good enough to justify the three-hour wait, and the acclaim he garnered (including a James Beard award) inspired other would-be pizza makers. Fast-forward to today, and you can find an authentic Neapolitan pizza in dozens of American towns, from Boston to Austin.” (Photo courtesy Pizza Bianco)
Address and phone: 29 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL (312-321-1000)
Porter says: “In December of 1943, a new pizza style was created that would define an entire city. Located on the Near North Side of Chicago at the corner of Ohio and Wabash, Pizzeria Uno opened their doors in the basement of an old mansion with the intention of serving drinks to the locals, along with the deep-dish pizza. It was a rough go at first. They would offer free slices to patrons at the bar and hope for word-of-mouth advertising, practically begging strangers to give their new creation a try. It wasn’t until a reporter who had served in Italy during World War II tried it and wrote a piece declaring that it was better than any pizza he’d ever had in Italy that the idea gained leverage, and the rest was history. Soon they had to name their original location Uno because just one block away they opened up their second location, Due, and eventually went on to franchise hundreds of locations, introducing the concept of Chicago deep-dish pizza to the world.
Like many great ideas, Pizzeria Uno wasn’t exactly planned out. Ike Sewell always felt that Chicago didn’t have any good Mexican food, specifically Tex-Mex. When he and Richard Novaretti partnered together, Sewell hired a chef to prepare Novaretti a fine Tex-Mex meal. The next morning Novaretti woke up sick as a dog, and told Ike ‘forget this stuff, we’re doing pizza.’ Little did they know that it would change the way the world viewed pizza in Chicago forever.”
Address and phone: 176 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA (310-385-0880)
Jones says: “While Alice Waters may be the first person to ultimately conceive of ‘California Pizza’ by topping pies with unconventional ingredients like stinging nettles, it was the largely unknown and under-appreciated Ed LaDou that turned it up a notch and elevated the style to what we know it as today. LaDou got his big start in 1982 when he was discovered and hired by Wolfgang Puck, having just indulged in a pizza LaDou had topped with ricotta, red peppers, pâté, and mustard. As the pizza chef at Puck’s wildly successful restaurant Spago, LaDou had access to a plethora of top-shelf ingredients that allowed his culinary imagination run wild. Ed’s pizzas quickly became the focal point of the restaurant, with his toppings ranging from smoked lamb and goat’s cheese, to duck breast and hoisin sauce—ideas never heard of before in relation to pizza. While Puck took the spotlight, LaDou was hired away in 1985 to create an inventive menu for a small business called the California Pizza Kitchen, now a national chain. Ed eventually opened his own restaurant, Caioti Pizza Cafe, before passing away in 2008, but not before creating literally hundreds of eccentric pies that challenged the pizza status quo.”
Address and phone: 32 Spring St, New York, NY (212-941-7994)
Taylor says: “Lombardi’s is the most influential pizzeria in the United States for single-handedly inventing the pizza industry itself, distinguishing American pizza from its Neapolitan roots, and securing the future of pizza for generations to come. Around the turn of the 20th century, several bakery and grocery store owners were converting their day-old bread into pizza, but only one, Gennaro Lombardi, decided to make it his business. In 1905, Lombardi’s became the first licensed “pizzeria” in America. In the past 110 years, that number has increased from one to more than 61,000. Characterized by extra-large pies cooked in coal-fired ovens, Lombardi’s pizza differed from traditional Neapolitan pizza, thereby creating a ‘New York’-style of his own. Former Lombardi’s associates John Sasso, Anthony “Totonno” Pero, and Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri went on to open their still-operating pizzerias, which have become legends in their own right. Even major chains founded outside the city such as Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Domino’s have tried to ride this wave, claiming to serve New York-style pizza. While that might be stretching the truth, this country owes a big thank you to Genarro Lombardi regardless.”
Address and phone: International
Pinello says: “I was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1982, in a Sicilian neighborhood where the commitment to food, and especially pizza, was unparalleled. I had my spots I would run to whenever I needed a bite, but there was one joint a block away from me that always stuck out—it was a salumeria called Sbarro. The windows were stocked, floor to ceiling, with cured meats and cheese. As I got older and traveled outside of the neighborhood more, I finally put two-and-two together—that the salumeria a stone’s throw away from where I grew up was none other than the original, flagship store for one of the biggest pizza chains in American history.
Somewhere along the way, Genarro Sbarro and his family realized that pizza was indeed the ticket. The family had already been serving up high-quality Italian food and provisions in a quick-service setting, and believed that by incorporating pizza and pasta into their repertoire, they could increase sales with good margins. In 1977, the family incorporated the business. By 1980, they hooked up with people that were developing big malls, and before you knew it, Sbarro Pizzerias were a fixture in shopping malls, service stops, airports, and even college campuses around America. By 1990, what was once a little family-run salumeria in Bensonhurst was internationally recognized, propagating the idea of a NY-style chain pizzeria that would be mimicked endlessly.
Sbarro now holds 800 locations in 33 countries and was without question ahead of its time. They offered Italian regional varietals before globalization kicked in; they operated stores in many countries before the Internet was accessible to a small business owner; and they served quality product at a fast-food pace. Today, many may say that Sbarro pizza is a poor representation of the product, but I disagree. I think Sbarro is the embodiment of the American Dream—they took something that their family loved, performed very well, and through hard work and dedication, were able to let the world experience it. We’ve all got a soft spot for pizza, and I like to think my old buddies from around the block at Sbarro had something to do with that.” (Photo courtesy PMQ)