Hi, kids. Before I get into this week’s topic, I just want to express my sympathy for all the victims of the earthquake in Haiti, and for all those here and around the world who lost loved ones. In thinking about what to write about this week, I remembered how lucky I am right now that I have the luxury of talking about food and that I don’t have to scrounge around a devastated countryside looking for food and water. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I try to remind myself of these things. If you’d like to help with the relief effort in Haiti, visit the Red Cross.
Okay, let’s get into it.
Recently, I had a friend visit me from out of town. She wanted to visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. That area of Manhattan is steeped in immigrant history and the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street brings visitors back to a time of really brutal living, before housing laws and the provision by landlords of basic human needs. They offer several different tours in actual tenement apartments. Poking around the restored turn-of-the-20th-century apartments, with its tiny, airless, windowless, dark rooms, makes you appreciate modern living conditions (assuming you’re lucky enough to have a place with several decent-sized rooms, light, heat, and indoor plumbing).
Anyway, as long as we were in that area of town, I decided to plan a day around it. We visited Babycakes, a bakery that specializes in organic, natural baked goodies that are gluten-free and vegan, and often soy-free. (See the Babycakes page under “Foodie Places to Check Out” on the right.) (By the way, the founder of Babycakes made a book trailer for a cookbook by the same name. It’s pretty cute and worth taking a look HERE.)
We also picked up several knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery on East Houston Street, which has been there since 1910 (more on that in a future post). We browsed the shelves of Bluestockings, a radical bookstore and activist center on Allen Street. We ended our day with a pizza dinner at Lombardi’s on Spring Street. Why is that so special? Because Lombardi’s is credited as being the very first pizzaria, not only in New York but in the U.S.
Established in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian immigrant, Lombardi’s is a sit-down pizzaria—in other words, unlike most pizzarias, there are restaurant-style tables, and it’s so popular with tourists and natives alike that you have to check in with the maitre d’ at the front, and it’s quite possible that you’ll need to wait a bit for a table. The menu is quite basic. They offer a small and large pizza (no individual slices) of either their “Original” pizza (marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella), or a “White” pizza (mozzarella, ricotta, romano cheese, no sauce), and optional toppings. You can also order a calzone or one of four appetizers and salads: house salad, Caesar salad, tomato and mozzarella plate, or bread sticks and sauce. And that’s it. But that’s all they need to sell, because they do a brisk business. It’s good to be a legend. (For more on Lombardi’s history, click HERE.)
Their prices are what you’d might expect from a place that caters to tourists. As of this writing, a large (18-inch) original pizza, which yields 8 slices, is $19.50; a small (14-inch) pizza, yielding 6 slices, is $15.50. A large white pizza is $21.50; a small is $17.50. The toppings are a little painful, at $3.00 for one and up to $8.00 for 5. Probably the most excrutiating price on the menu is the tomato and mozzarella plate, which comes in at $10.95. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but not exhorbitant and perfectly acceptable for an occasional visit with out-of-town guests, a special occasion, or just for the fun of it.
Is it all worth it? Well, the day my friend and I went in, I found the sauce in need of a little salt, but it might be absolutely perfect on other days. I liked the fact that they used fresh mozzarella instead of the packaged supermarket stuff. Really, the best thing about Lombardi’s pizza is the crust. The pizza is baked in a brick oven, giving the crust a smoky flavor, a crisp crunch, and beautiful charred appearance. If you’re ever in New York, it’s really worth a stop in for lunch or dinner. And it’s just paces away from the history-rich Little Italy, Chinatown, and Lower East Side.
They’re open 7 days a week, with reservations available Monday through Thursday. Be aware if you do go, however, that they accept cash only.
And to indulge in your love of pizza even further, you can go on a pizza tour. Yes, a pizza tour. Scott’s Pizza Tours will take you on either a bus or walking tour of some of the most legendary pizzarias in New York, starting from Little Italy and going into Greenwich Village on the walking tour, and Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx on the bus tour. They can be reached at 212-209-3370 or 1-800-979-3370.
According to the title of this blog post, I promised you some pizza history, so here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the pizza section of my book, What, No Meat? Traditional Italian Cooking the Vegetarian Way, which I’m hoping will be reissued shortly. It’s late. Way late.
Virtually every culture in the world has one form of pizza or another. In the last couple of decades it has even found its way to the most culturally isolated countries. You probably knew that pizza is an Italian creation, but did you know that it goes back to the ancient Romans? The Romans made what they called moretum, a plain baked piece of dough that they ate with onions. Near the beginning of the 2nd second century A.D., the word picea entered the language to describe a piece of round dough dressed with various toppings, perhaps influenced by the Greek word pièzo, “to flatten.” It finally became pizza soon after. (Sauce didn’t enter the picture until the 18th century.)
The pizza that we know today was created in Naples in 1535 in honor of the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sizismondo I, King of Poland. Despite its grand origin, it became a food for common folk. Pizzerias started out as little holes-in-the-wall, selling pizza to the local peasants. As pizza’s popularity grew, pizzaiuoli (pizza-makers) began adding tables and chairs to entice people to enter. Little by little, they began to decorate and beautify their establishments by putting in colorful tiles or fancy brickwork.
Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzeria in the U.S. in New York in 1905. Over time, it became very popular and more pizzerias opened all across the country, becoming a favorite gathering place for people of all classes. Today, pizza is just as American as it is Italian. According to one urban legend, U.S. pizza is so popular that in the 1980s, college students in England ordered pizza to be shipped overseas. Papa John’s pizzeria filled the largest pizza order in history by delivering 13,500 pizzas in June of 2006. This surpasses the Guinness World Records champion, Little Caesar’s, who delivered 13,386 pizzas on August 19, 1998 to employees of the VF Corp. of Greensboro, N.C. at 180 locations in the U.S.
Americans have turned pizza making into an art form, reinventing it over and over, and have honored it by dubbing the second week of January National Pizza Week and September National Pizza Festival Month. And, reflective of people’s strong feelings about anchovies, November 12 is National Pizza With the Works Except Anchovies Day. But pizza is a worldwide commodity. In fact, the largest pizza ever made—122 feet, 8 inches in diameter—was in Norwood, South Africa in 1990.
Neapolitans are very protective of their creation, so much so that there is an organization called Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletano (Association of True Neapolitan Pizza). This group, as you may have guessed, determines what is and what isn’t authentic Neapolitan pizza by defining the proper ingredients, the proper way of making the dough, and the proper cooking methods. Truth is, you can make pizza any way you wish. Follow your whim, put any toppings you feel like putting—just don’t let the Associazione catch you.
Hope you enjoyed that little romp through culinary history and that it deepened your appreciation of pizza—if that’s at all possible. Have a great week, all.