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kottke.org posts about Peter Regas

The Forgotten Father of Pizza in the USA

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2019

A recent series of discoveries have upended the widely accepted story of the history of pizza in America and have the NYC food world in a tizzy. The typical origin story of American pizza is this:

In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi applied to the New York City government for the first license to make and sell pizza in this country, at his grocery store on Spring Street in what was then a thriving Italian-American neighborhood.

But research by Peter Regas (who looked in Italian-language newspapers from the late 19th century) has revealed a previously unknown pizza kingpin behind some of the NYC’s first pizzerias and moves the probable introduction date of the pizza back into the 1800s.

Of this forgotten older generation, one baker stands out. Filippo Milone came to New York in the late 19th century and likely established two of the most famous New York pizzerias that still exist today, Lombardi’s on Spring Street and John’s of Bleecker Street.

Regas explains, “Filippo Milone likely established pizzerias in at least six locations throughout New York City. Of these locations, three later became famous under different names: ‘Pop’s,’ ‘John’s,’ and ‘Lombardi’s.’ Pop’s in Brooklyn closed decades ago, but the other two in Manhattan still exist. Milone, a pioneer in what has become a $45 billion industry, later died in 1924, without children to preserve his story buried in an unmarked grave in Queens.”

Wow! This 1903 advertisement is for a pizzeria of Milone’s on Grand St.:

Pizza Milone

As for Lombardi’s founding in 1905, Regas has the receipts for that too:

While proof of that license has never materialized, Regas has tracked down Gennaro Lombardi’s birth record, naturalization papers, and other supporting documents that tell a different story. Gennaro Lombardi first came to America in November of 1904 at age 17, classified as a “laborer”. If he became involved with the pizzeria at 53 1/2 Spring Street in 1905, it was as an employee not as an owner. By that time, it had already been established as a pizzeria probably by Milone in 1898 but certainly by another proprietor named Giovanni Santillo who followed Milone in 1901.

As Pete Wells writes:

This is as if some other dude we’ve never heard of wrote both the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers and then handed them over to Adams Franklin Jefferson Madison Hamilton etc.

Regas is documenting his research here on an eventual book about all of this, due out sometime later this year. Boy oh boy, they’re gonna have to reprint a lot of NYC pizzeria menus with incorrect origin stories in them… (via @adamkuban)