Lombardi’s Pizzeria Origin Story: A Media Timeline

My research is based mostly on primary source documents that sometime tell a very different tale than the existing Lombardi origin story. But I thought it would be interesting to record what secondary sources (mainly in the media) have written about Lombardi’s pizzeria for the years 1938-2005.

1938

At 53 Spring Street…there’s a small plate glass window handsomely lettered ‘Grande Pizzeria e Ristorante Napoletano… They serve the usual Italian menu, no dish costing more than a quarter, but the wise ones concentrate on the Lombardis’ famous pizza. Pizzas are pies. They’re tailored to fit the size of your tummy and made up on the spot. The chef slaps up the unsweetened dough, brushes it with olive oil, grated cheese, seasoning, adds the filling and then pops the whole job into the oven on a shovel. In a trice the pie emerges, piping hot and beautiful. There are three kinds of pizza– cheese and tomatoes, sardines, and a combination of both. According to size they cost between a quarter to five dollars… The Lombardi’s sleep in relays and their Pizzeria and Garden Restaurant is open all night.

“How’s your Appetite?” by Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer. p.52. March, 1938. Stage Magazine.

1944

Q: On August 11th, in the early morning of August 11, 1938, did your father have a restaurant at 53 Spring Street?
A: That is right.
Q: And you worked for your father?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: How long had your father run the restaurant there?
A: About 38 years.

John Lombardi testimony. Supreme Court Appellate Division– Second Department. “Beatrice Philips and Abraham Philips v. Wendel Foundation”. Case on Appeal. 1944.

1953

Pizza crossed the Atlantic with Italian immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century. Probably the first pizzeria in America was established at 53 1/2 Spring Street, New York City, about 1895. A few years later, Gennaro Lombardi, then a thirteen-year-old boy, became an apprentice there. He developed a hand for making pizza and in 1905, for $200 bought the pizzeria. Now known as Lombardi’s, it is still run by Gennaro, assisted by his sons, John and George.

“For the Love of Pizza”, by Herbert Mitgang, p.67, Colliers Magazine.

1956

One of the first pizza sold in the United States was baked some fifty years ago by a 13-year-old pizzaiuolo named Gennaro Lombardi at 53 1/2 Spring Street in the Little Italy section of New York… Gennaro Lombardi seemed to be the man to turn to. Nobody has disputed his claim to having the oldest pizzeria in the United States… The door to the kitchen swung open and, with a proprietary bravado, in marched Signor Gennaro Lombardi himself, now a 64 year-old pizza patrich.

“Pizza a la Mode” by Herbert Mitgang, p.64 February, 1956 New York Times

1981

…In 1895, the first American pizzeria opened its doors at 53 1/2 Spring Street in New York City to serve this immigrant population. Others followed, but the 500 or so pizzerias that existed in this country by the 1930’s still clustered in Italian neighborhoods and served mostly an Italian clientele.

“Pizza: the Art of the Pizzaiolo” by John Thorne, Jackdaw Press, Boston, MA.

1984

By the turn of the century, Italians had started up their bakeries and began selling groceries as well as pizza. The first of these establishments was opened by Gennaro Lombardi, at 53 1/2 Spring Street in New York City, in 1905. This was the first pizzeria in America and the model for subsequent pizzerias throughout the northeast. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that Lombardi added tables, chairs, and silverware to hi pizzeria, and he also began serving spaghetti.

“The Pizza Book: Everything There Is to Know About the World’s Greatest Pie”, by Evelyne Slomon. p. 10

1996

Gennaro Lombardi emigrated from Naples to the United States at the turn of the century when he was just 14 years old. A baker by trade…

…At first he worked just nights as a baker in Brooklyn and days in the grocery store below his flat in return for room and board from the store owner…

…Observing how difficult it was to make any money in the grocery trade, Lombardi thought he might help raise revenues at the store by baking some pizzas and extra loaves of bread at night at the bakery, then selling them the next day at the grocery store… The first pizzas that Lombardi pre-baked at the bakery in Brooklyn were of the thin Neapolitan variety. He would carefully wrap them in paper and cardboard, then stack them up before tying them in a neat bundle. The next morning they were displayed in a wooden showcase on the grocery store counter. There was no oven to reheat them, but an old pot-bellied stove served as an adequate warming device…

…Lombardi’s little venture proved successful. With the local factory workers buying pieces for lunch and neighborhood families lined up out the door on meatless Fridays, pizza indeed boosted sales at the grocery store. When the aging owner suggested the possibility to Lombardi that he might take over the business and buy the building (over time — a very long time), it was an offer that the young Italian immigrant couldn’t refuse. So at the ripe age of 17, Lombardi became a landowner and entrepreneur. He struggled with the grocery business for a few more years. Meanwhile, he noticed that the bread and bakery market had become very tight, with much competition from existing and incoming bakeries, as well as from mobile bread carts hawking loaves thought the streets. For Lombardi the choice was simple…

…in 1905 Lombardi obtained a business license to operate the first pizzeria in New York City at 53 Spring Street.

“Lombardi’s… A Piece of Pizza History: the Legend Endures”, by Evelyne Slomon. p. 28. March, 1996. Pizza Today.

2005

Gennaro Lombardi actually started selling pizza out of his grocery store at 53 1/2 Spring St. in 1897. But in 1905 he got his restaurant license, making his the country’s first official pizzeria. It wasn’t today’s typical corner slice. Pizza was sold out of an Italian grocery store with no seating or oven for reheating. Other than tomatoes, the only topping was anchovies – cheese came after World War II.

“A Pizza Party – Little Italy’s Lombardi’s Turns 100” by Cynthia Kilian. New York Post. October 19, 2005.

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