How Italian Food Became American” – An Excerpt from the Book – Chicago Review of Books


Millions of Italians arrived in the United States during the great wave of immigration from the 1880s until the Second World War. Dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, veal parmigiana, and oven-baked lasagna evolved during these years, yet Americans perceived these as the food of foreign ethnics with too much garlic. One dish would profoundly change that perception forever: pizza. A popular street food in nineteenth century Naples, pizza served the working class and poor. In New York City, the first commercial pizzerias baked pies in big bread ovens which resulted in the large round pies common in American pizzerias today. However, pizza did not achieve widespread popularity until after the war as American troops returned home. Everything was about to change.

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Pizzerias populated ethnic enclaves up and down the mid-Atlantic states in what would eventually become the Pizza Belt, a term first coined by Ed Levine(1) describing a region of the country with easily accessible, high-quality pizza. Generally, it extends from southern New Jersey through southern Rhode Island. Before the Second World War, the largest obstacle to widespread consumption was the ovens. Although wood and coal bakery ovens worked adequately, obtaining and maintaining the right amount of heat proved difficult and labor intensive. Bread ovens were costly to install and maintain since much of their heat comes from the heavy stone construction. Pizza makers could close up shop at night having extinguished the fire or with nothing but hot coals remaining, and return in the morning to find the oven still hot enough to bake bread. But if a pizza oven remained unused for a day or more, it would require added time and fuel to dry out and bring back up to temperature. All this work maintaining the ovens prevented the pizzeria from spreading beyond communities with built-in Italian consumers. 

Yet, in the postwar period, pizza entered into the American zeitgeist, and consumption skyrocketed. In a 1947 issue of Good Housekeeping, pizza is described as a pancake, the toppings are described a mixture of tomato and cheese, and the article offers an explanation on the pronunciation of the new food.(2) A Ladies Home Journal article from 1948 attempts to explain how to eat a pizza, comparing it to eating an apple pie,(3) an all-American food. Indeed, in the years directly after the war, Americans were literally learning how to eat it. Pizza arrived at just the right moment. Americans wanted convenience foods—whole meals that were fast and easy to make. It was the dawn of frozen TV dinners and restaurants designed for takeout meals. Pizza offered convenience, flavor, and an attractive price point, fitting all of these requirements. Pizza had always been a food eaten away from the point of production, even in Naples. Take-away food found a natural place in the American suburban culture created after the war where a family car quickly carried food from a restaurant to domestic table. 

What allowed for pizza’s success was the invention of a new kind of oven. The gas-fired pizza oven overcame the primary obstacle preventing pizza from becoming an accessible and widely available food. Ira Nevin, an oven repairman who had learned to love pizza while stationed in Naples during the war, invented a ceramic-lined gas-powered oven specifically for pizzas and founded a company called Baker’s Pride,(4) launched in the Bronx, New York. Nevin was a third-generation oven builder who constructed brick ovens as a child, and in engineering school, he wrote a thesis on oven construction.(5) In his professional career, he worked in aviation engineering before the war. 

Nevin neglected to patent the first gas-fired design, and a copycat competitor began selling knockoffs. His wife encouraged him to further develop the oven technology leading to a newer model. He would go onto patent numerous oven-related inventions, including a variation on the gas oven to mimic the intense heat of wood-burning pizza ovens.(6) But his 1945 oven would pave the way for corner pizzerias across America by providing a far simpler and lower-cost system of baking pizza than had previously been available. 

The 1950s saw the Americanization of this strange ethnic food that just a few years earlier nobody even knew how to pronounce. In 1955, Hunt’s, known for their canned tomato products, picked up on the pizza craze by advertising a ten-minute pizza prepared with Hunt’s tomato sauce, English muffins, and mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella was called the “pizza cheese,” but Swiss or any other good melting cheese can be substituted, the ad suggests.(7) Inspired by the ad, a Florida man invented a bagel pizza.(8) As would happen with lasagna, the frozen food aisle offered another avenue for pizza to enter into domestic kitchens. The Celentano brothers introduced frozen pizza in 1957, and Chef Boyardee sold box pizzas with canned sauces and cheese.(9) Neither of these proved especially tasty; never- theless, pizza’s popularity grew. The combination of convenience, pizza’s acceptability as a meal across generational and gender lines, the willingness to eat in more casual settings (like in front of the television(10) and new leisure patterns among the middle and upper classes all contributed to the success of pizza in America.(11) 

Concurrent with the plentitude of domestic options for eating pizza, the expansion of pizzerias with Nevin’s gas-fired oven ultimately allowed pizza to become commercialized on a large scale in the form of fast-food chains. While East Coast cities with large Italian American enclaves were dominated by New York–style, neighborhood pizzerias, the Midwest adapted the pizza into an American icon. Here in the nation’s bread basket, the big names in chain pizza were founded within a few years of each other. Pizza Hut was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958; Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan, in 1959(12); and Domino’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960.50 Papa John’s Pizza, an Indiana pizzeria, joined them in 1984.(13) Unlike the pizza sold in local shops and micro-chains in the mid-Atlantic Pizza Belt, the Midwestern pizzas shifted farther from Neapolitan-style pizzas. The crusts grew thicker and puffier, more like bread than pizza. Sauces became sweeter, a combination of preserving mass-marketed sauce and ap- pealing to Midwestern palates. These chain pizzerias expanded rapidly and soon became a symbol of American culinary imperialism. By 1990, Pizza Hut cut a deal to open two Moscow locations, the same year it opened a location in Beijing.(14) 

Other variations of pizza also evolved into regional styles. Chicago, the de facto capital of the Midwest, would invent a wholly American food: the deep-dish pizza. Many in Chicago today advocate the superiority of Chicago’s local pizza over the thinner pies from the Pizza Belt region on the East Coast. If New York’s pizzaiolo constructed a pizza tradition honoring the Neapolitan legacy, Chicago’s cooks invented one to honor the sensibilities of middle America. The story of Chicago-style pizza begins with Ike Sewell, a Texan, who came to Chicago looking to open a Mexican restaurant. He partnered with Italian-born Ric Riccardo, and in preparing to open the restaurant, they sampled a meal of the Mexican-inspired menu. The food left Riccardo ill, and he convinced Sewell to start a pizzeria instead. Their concept, opened in 1943, temporarily was named Pizzeria Riccardo; they finally settled on the name Pizzeria Uno in 1955.(15)

Success was slow. Pizzeria Uno’s tiny dining room was dark and cramped, and it went largely unnoticed by the local population.(16) The signature dish was a “pizza” built to satisfy the palate of middle America: a thick crust set in a deep, metal pan filled with cheese and meats, and covered in sauce. They invented a thicker, heavier meal, requiring a knife and fork, unlike the flimsier New York–style slices. And unlike thinner pizza, the heavy deep-dish pies took upward of forty minutes to cook. By comparison, Neapolitan pies in a wood-fired oven could cook in less than a minute, and even New York style pizza only required a few minutes’ cooking time in a gas oven for a whole pie. Slices of premade pies reheated within in a minute or two. The long cooking times and the dark, out-of-the-way location almost led Pizzeria Uno to fail, until a write-up by a local reporter caused a spike in business. Soon afterward, the pair of restaurateurs opened Pizzeria Due. Smartly, as the chain expanded, they did not continue to count upward in Italian, but expanded as Pizzeria Uno and then Uno Pizzeria Grill. 

Neither Sewell nor Riccardo had much experience cooking, so while they backed the restaurant, the invention of the Chicago-style pizza likely fell to someone else. The two contenders are either Adolph “Rudy” Malnati Sr. or Alice Mae Redmond. Malnati managed Pizzeria Riccardo in 1951 and had a handshake partnership with Riccardo and Sewell. As with most handshake deals, it never worked out quite as intended. Lou Malnati, Rudy’s son, opened Malnati’s, another standard-bearer of deep-dish-style pizza, but his father never saw a piece of the Pizzeria Uno empire. Alice Mae Redmond worked as the cook at Pizzeria Riccardo and is also a likely candidate for having invented the deep-dish recipe. She disliked the original deep-dish crust, thinking it too hard.(17) Redmond continued improving the recipe, working toward softening the crust, and took the new recipe with her when she left to work in the kitchen of competitor Gino’s East. Since then, Chicago’s deep-dish has caused an ongoing debate between the superiority of New York– or Chicago-style pizza. 

References

(1)  Max Read, “The Pizza Belt: The Most Important Pizza Theory You’ll Read,” Gawker, July 12, 2013, http://www.gawker.com/the-pizza-belt-the-most-important -pizza-theory-youll-r-743629037. 

(2) Carol Brock and Katherine Fisher, “It’s Tomato Time,” Good Housekeeping 125, no. 3 (September 1947): 122–23, 160, 162. 

(3) Malcom La Prade, “Meals by Men,” Ladies Home Journal 165, no. 4 (April 1948): 286–88. 

(4) Eric Martone, ed., Italian Americans: The History and Culture of a People (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), 167. 

(5) Peter Hogness, “Obituary of Ira Nevins,” New York Times, January 25, 1995, section C. 

(6)  Hogness, “Obituary of Ira Nevins,” section C.

(7) Hunt’s, “Ten Minute Pizza,” Redbook 104, no. 6 (April 1955): 64.

(8) Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 122. 46. Pollack and Ruby, Everybody Loves Pizza, 55.

(9) Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, 230.

See Also


(10) Carol Helstosky, Pizza: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 14. 

(11) Liz Barret, Pizza: A Slice of American History (Minneapolis: Quarto, 2014), 142. 

(12) Helstosky, Pizza, 88.

(13) Penny Pollack and Jeff Ruby, Everybody Loves Pizza (Cincinnati: Emmis Books, 2005), 50.

(14) Anthony Ramirez, “Soviet Pizza Huts Have Local Flavor,” New York Times, September 11, 1990, D5.

(15) “Who Invented Deep Dish?” Chicago Tribune, February 18, 2009, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2009-02-18-0902180055-story.html. 

(16) Pollack and Ruby, Everybody Loves Pizza, 30. 

(17) Patricia Tennison, “Revealed: Secret Behind Pizzas at Gino’s East,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1989, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1989-04-13 -8904030809-story.html. 

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Cover image of Red Sauce

Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American
By Ian MacAllen
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Published April 4, 2022



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