- Historic Sites
How a Neapolitan street food became the most successful immigrant of all
April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
Despite such advantages, Ike Sewell still wasn’t thinking pies when he partnered with Ric Riccardo to open a Chicago restaurant. Sewell, a native of Texas, planned on offering a menu of Mexican specialties. Riccardo willingly agreed, having never tried Mexican food. His first meal changed his mind so completely that, he liked to say later, he fled to Italy to recover from it. While there, he sampled classic Neapolitan pizza and found it much better than Sewell’s Mexican offerings. Sewell eventually agreed to forgo enchiladas for pizza, but not until he’d inflated the thin-crusted Neapolitan recipe to make it more palatable to Americans. “Ike tasted it and said nobody would eat it, it’s not enough,” Evelyne Slomon, author of The Pizza Book , said. “So he put gobs and gobs of stuff on it.”
Sewell’s lightly seasoned deep-dish pie, introduced in 1943, the signature item at Pizzeria Uno, was the first true American pizza. The pie was a uniquely Chicago institution, like a perennially losing major-league baseball team, that other cities showed no interest in adopting. Until Uno’s opened its first location outside Chicago in 1979, people had to go to East Ohio Street to sample anything like Sewell’s idea of a pie. But its success liberated pizzeria owners nationwide to tinker with their product, ultimately paving the way for the megafranchises.
Sewell was followed in the next two decades by scores of independent operators who deleted the traditional herbs and went easy on the garlic in hopes of gaining a bigger clientele. Pizza was no longer the province of firstand second-generation Italians. Americans of every ancestry wanted a slice of this pie. “I make any kinda pizza you want,” the New York pizzeria owner Patsy D’Amore told The Saturday Evening Post in 1957. “One day a man order a lox pizza with cream cheese. It turn my stomach, but I make it for him.” Professional pizza chefs like the unnamed Japanese-American woman who stumped the panel of the TV show “What’s My Line?” in 1956, and the Mexican-Americans who helped make pizza the second-best seller at the 1952 Texas State Fair (edged out only by the irresistible corn dog), and fledgling franchises like Pizza Hut, gradually shed all Italian imagery from their advertising campaigns.
But despite the best entrepreneurial efforts, most Americans remained unfamiliar with pizza well into the 1940s. “We had to give it away at first,” Eugenia DiCarlo told a McNeese State University interviewer of her husband’s attempt to establish a pizzeria in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1947. “They had never, never heard of it down here. And, boy, every time they’d take a piece of it, they liked it. And more and more liked it, told other people, and then got to the place where that was the biggest part of our business.”
The urge to tell other people about pizza was apparently a universal impulse that seized knowing literati like Ora Dodd —who in 1949 penned a two-page paean for the Atlantic Monthly : “It is piping hot; the brown crust holds a bubbling cheese-and-tomato filling. There is a wonderful savor of fresh bread, melted cheese and herbs. This is a pizza ”—and World War II servicemen returning from Italy. Veterans ranging from the lowliest private to Dwight D. Eisenhower talked up pizza.
Led by the servicemen’s newfound cravings, Americans timidly sampled their first pies. Most weren’t crisp, bathed in olive oil, or sprinkled with mozzarella; if cooks followed the advice offered by Good Housekeeping in 1951, their pizzas were biscuit rounds or English muffins topped with processed Cheddar cheese, chili sauce, salt, pepper, and salad oil. Cooks could also opt to add deviled ham, stuffed olives, or canned tuna to the “cheese treatment.”
Americans who ate at any one of the country’s rapidly proliferating pizzerias (the number of parlors in the United States skyrocketed from 500 in 1934 to 20,000 in 1956) enjoyed a pie that cut a neat compromise between the traditional Italian pizza and Good Housekeeping ’s “Yankee” variety. Pizzas at the Pennsylvania parlor where Andy Zangrilli got his first job were massive rectangles speckled with slithery pepperoni disks. “It was a hit,” said Zangrilli, who today owns a chain of pizzerias. “If you didn’t like the pepperoni, you’d take it off. It was the Model T of food.”
Unlike other ethnically derived foods that enjoyed faddish popularity in modern America, pizza never masqueraded as exotic. Its consumers didn’t aspire to be cosmopolitan or courageous. They were simply drawn in by the bewitching interplay of tomatoes, bread, and cheese—drawn in so strongly that by 1958 the novelty singer Lou Monte could issue an album called Songs for Pizza Lovers .