Who Established the Famous Pizzeria at 53 Spring Street?

Summary:

Perhaps the most famous early 20th century U.S. pizzeria was at 53 Spring St. in New York City. Now called “Lombardi’s Pizza” (relocated at 32 Spring St.), it’s often claimed Gennaro Lombardi established the first U.S. pizzeria there in 1905. However recently discovered evidence shows this claim to be false in two respects: it wasn’t the first pizzeria, and it wasn’t established by Lombardi. City directories show Giovanni Albano’s pizzeria at 59 1/2 Mulberry St. (NYC) was already operating in 1894. Additionally, Filippo Milone, perhaps the U.S.’s most significant early pizza maker, very likely established the 53 Spring St. store as a combination pizzeria/grocery in the summer of 1898. By August 1904, Italian-American newspaper advertisements show a subsequent owner, Giovanni Santillo, operating “Antica Pizzeria Napoletana” at 53 Spring St. months before Lombardi even arrived in the U.S. in November 1904. Gennaro Lombardi may have worked for Santillo in 1905 as a newly arrived 17-year-old immigrant, but he didn’t own it in 1905. After a series of owners, Lombardi—who owned the pizzeria briefly in 1908—repurchased it from Francesco D’Errico around 1918 and ran it until he died in 1958. Once called “Antica Pizzeria Napoletana,” then “Grande Pizzeria e Ristorante Napoletano,” and then—after the family bought the building in 1939—”Lombardi’s Restaurant”, this post details the forgotten early history of the men who owned this legendary pizzeria.

New York City Directory evidence:

City and business directories are the easiest and most direct way to find out who owned what in Manhattan at the turn of the last century. Searching directories for “53 Spring St.” or “53 1/2 Spring St.” (both addresses were used for the pizzeria at different times), one finds these owners and their occupations shown on the chart below:

If we had no other evidence, directories alone would be enough to falsify the claim Lombardi established the pizzeria in 1905. We have to wait until 1920 for Gennaro Lombardi to appear in a Manhattan city directory (shown in red). Directories are not perfect and its important to understand their limits. But to claim directories misidentified a business owner for more than 15 years is untenable.

While city and business directories are a great source to find a proprietor’s name and address, they are sometimes ambiguous in the description of the business. Note, for example, how various directories described Filippo Milone’s occupation in 1899. At times he’s listed as a grocer, other times he owns a delicatessen, and still other times he’s a baker. All of these different directories describe the same store at roughly the same time. And note not until 1922 do the directories describe the store at 53 Spring St. as a pizzeria. To determine when this store started selling pizza, we need more detailed information. For this, we turn to NYC Italian-American newspapers.

Italian-American Newspaper Evidence:

Tommasi Braibanti owned the restaurant at 53 Spring St, probably from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898. Did he establish the pizzeria? Probably not. After finding this August 1897 advertisement in the newspaper L’Araldo Italiano, we can probably rule out Braibanti as he looks to be operating a pastry shop and not selling pizza in the ad below.

But what about if we go back to the baker who took over from Braibanti in the summer of 1898, one Filippo Milone. What was Milone “baking” in his grocery/delicatessen/bakery? Unfortunately, a Milone ad while he owned 53 Spring Street from 1898-1900 has not been discovered yet. But shortly after he left Spring St. he opens up a pizzeria at 130 W. 26th St. in 1901 and then a pizzeria at 192 Grand St in 1903. Both pizzerias were documented with ads:

Reviewing Filippo Milone’s entire career, we only have a evidence he baked pizza as opposed to a bread or a pastry. So when he’s identified as a “baker” at 53 Spring St., the strong likelihood is he’s running a pizzeria there between 1898-1900 and thus was probably the man who established the pizzeria at 53 Spring Street.

If we look at the 1902 Trow’s Business Directory, we see Giovanni Santillo is listed not under “Bakers” but under “Bakers, Pie.” Given the context of his career as a pizza maker, this strongly suggests the “pie” they are referring to is pizza, and 53 Spring St was very probably already a pizzeria by 1902. The next advertisement I found was Giovanni Santillo’s. Rarely are we this fortunate to get this much detailed information. We can definitively say that by August 1904, 53 Spring St. was a pizzeria owned by Giovanni Santillo. Note the vertical description of “pizza imbottite” (“stuffed pizza”) and the claim that Santillo, “was in one of Naples main pizzerias for a long time.”

More Italian-American Advertisements:

In 1907 the following ad was published in “Piedigrotta alla Villa Vittorio Emanuele III” a pamphlet edited by Luigi Pane.

The backstory here is that Santillo took a trip back to Naples with his wife Rosa during the period 1906-1907. Giuseppe Amabile, Rosa’s nephew, along with Agostino Perera ran the pizzeria in their absence. When the Santillo’s came back in October, 1907 Giovanni Santillo took over again. Apparently this caused a conflict with Perera as he thought he owned a share of the business. After a bitter falling out, in 1908 Perera left and briefly opened “Nuova Pizzeria Port’Alba” across the street at 50 Spring Street.

Photographic Evidence:

What evidence supports Lombardi’s claims? The earliest and only known evidence showing Lombardi owned the business before 1918 is the famous photograph of Antonio Pero and Gennaro Lombardi in front of the pizzeria. Previously, the photo was thought to have been taken in 1905. However, a detailed analysis shows the photo was almost certainly taken in the fall of 1908 shortly after the 21-year-old Lombardi bought the pizzeria from Giovanni Santillo who then returned to Italy.

1908 Photograph of Antonio Pero (left) and Gennaro Lombardi (right)

However, in 1908 Lombardi doesn’t remain owner for long. When the 1909 Trow’s Manhattan Business Directory is released in the spring of 1909 a baker named Francesco D’Errico (a relative of Lombardi’s through marriage) is now listed as the restaurant’s sole owner. D’Errico was previously a baker at 234 N. 5th St. in Williamsburg (Brooklyn). It appears likely that D’Errico and Lombardi exchanged businesses as Lombardi eventually appears for the first time in a directory in the 1912 Trow’s Brooklyn Business Directory as the owner of the bakery at 234 N. 5th Street.

World War I REgistration Card Evidence:

When did Lombardi buy back the Spring St. pizzeria from D’Errico? We’re fortunate WWI Registration Cards document when the buy back occurred. They show an ownership change after June 5, 1917 but before September 12, 1918. Since the 1918 City Directory still listed D’Errico as the owner the ownership change probably occurred sometime in mid-1918.

And from then until the day he died in 1958, Gennaro Lombardi was the owner of the pizzeria at 53 Spring Street. Initially called ….

Conclusion:

Putting together all the primary source evidence we get the following chart as to who owned the Spring Street pizzeria.

Endnotes:

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