American Pie

A serving plate from the early 1960s.

But it wasn’t just the taste that Americans liked. The social aspect of the pie appealed to a nation riding the postwar boom economy. It seemed uniquely suited to the fun that defined the 1950s, easy for “the gang” to share and informal enough to figure in slumber parties and sock hops. While the early New York pizzerias had been forced to sell by the slice to draw lunchtime business, most pies outside the five boroughs were sold whole, making it nearly impossible to eat pizza alone (although Jackie Gleason attributed his girth to having accomplished the feat many times, sometimes within the span of a single meal).

“I call it happy food,” Slomon said. “It’s a communal thing. You can have two people enjoying a pizza or you can have a group.” Sophia Loren in 1959 told the Los Angeles Times that having been raised in Italy to consider pizza the food of poverty, she pitied Americans when she saw how many pizza joints they had. “So I think America not so rich after all. Then I find eating pizza here is like eating hot dog—for fun.”

Eliminating cutlery made pizza eating seem raffish to more staid diners. Although Dear Abby urged her readers to respect the pizza as a pie and reach for a fork, the etiquette authority Amy Vanderbilt condoned eating slices “out of hand,” adding that “pizza tastes best as a finger food.” Look magazine in 1954 published an illustrated step-by-step guide, instructing readers to hold pizza from “the arc edge,” rather than the measly tip, and “roll it in a log.” Bob Hope still had reservations when his buddy Jerry Colonna prepared a pie. “It’s a tough baby to cut,” Hope complained. “I never cut it,” Colonna responded. “It’s hand food. Chew it down and have fun.”

Pizzeria owners accelerated the fun by hiring dough-tossing showmen to divert patrons by spinning pies skyward, sometimes sending the dough 12 feet into the air (and creating an overly dry pizza in the process). Tossers such as Aldo Formica, who demonstrated his talent on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s television show, became second-rung celebrities. “Then it started coming out that maybe the guy with the hairy arms in the dough wasn’t turning people on, and maybe he was turning people off,” the pizza consultant John Correll said of the tosser’s ultimate disappearance from the scene. “But pizza has stayed locked in to the image of fun and frolic.”

The image was polished in 1953 when Dean Martin swung his way through “That’s Amore!,” an Italian-flavored love song that famously compared the moon to “a big pizza pie” (a phrase that irritated exacting food writers, who insisted it was redundant).

By the mid-1950s pizza was everywhere. Although it would be another decade before baseball stadiums and zoos offered the snack, political parties, fundraising groups, and synagogue sisterhoods were plying their members with pizza. Fun and flavor aside, the price was right: Zangrilli sold two slices at his Pennsylvania State College parlor for a quarter. “Pizza fit students’ needs perfectly,” Zangrilli said. Sometimes too perfectly, as a 1950s Atlanta restaurateur discovered when he added pizza to his menu and immediately attracted hordes of Georgia Tech students who would congregate around a single pie and linger for hours. He dropped the pies.

An anonymous pizza baker in 1957 blamed James Dean for inducting teens into the pizza fraternity. “Jimmy loved pizza,” he complained to The Saturday Evening Post . “His fans knew that, so they loved it too.” Pizza was pitched as the ideal snack for hard-to-please high schoolers by companies such as General Mills, whose Betty Crocker character appeared in a 1960 comic strip to solve the “Problem of the Puzzled Parent,” who is perplexed by what to serve her daughters’ friends after a roller-skating outing. What do “most teenagers” like? she wonders. Refrigerated pizza dough, Betty Crocker assures her. Betty is proved right, as always. “Gee, Mrs. Steward, you sure know what’s good,” one handsome teen raves (although he disconcertingly appears to be eyeing her twin daughters rather than her pie). By 1963 pizza was a staple of the school lunch menu. The American School Foodservice Association that year announced it was bested only by hamburgers and hot dogs in the cafeteria popularity contest.

Adults weren’t ready to cede pizza to children, though. People of every age and income bracket went for it, as Lucille Ball, who met her second husband, Gary Morton, on a blind date in a pizza parlor, could attest. George Liberace was so enamored with pizza that in 1959 he contemplated abandoning the brothers Liberace to open a parlor, reconsidering only when brother Lee, the pianist of the duo, teased him ruthlessly.