A Lifetime of Famous Pizza
Americans love pizza – when it’s made with a thick crust, with a thin crust, with no toppings except cheese, even with toppings that probably shouldn’t be on a pizza (yes, pineapple, we’re talking about you). A national pizza chain’s survey found that the lifetime pizza consumption of the average American is about 6,000 slices. If that’s true, Tracy Morin, the senior copy editor for PMQ Pizza Magazine, is definitely above average.
“I always think at some point I’ll get tired of it, or I’m not going to want pizza [again],” Morin laughs. “But I’ll eat six pizzas a day and then two days later I’ll see a really great picture of a pizza, and say, ‘Ah, I feel like eating pizza!’ It just never stops.”
Morin doesn’t just eat a lot of pizza; she eats some of the most famous pizza in the country. That’s because she’s spent the last several years profiling America’s oldest pizzerias for the Pizza Hall of Fame.
The Pizza Hall of Fame began as “Time Capsule” in 2005, when Lombardi’s, which holds the unofficial but uncontested title of “America’s first pizzeria,” became the inaugural inductee as a celebration of its 100th anniversary.
“It was started by Liz Barrett,” Morin explains about the origins of the project. Barrett is the magazine’s former editor-in-chief and current editor-at-large, as well as the author of Pizza: A Slice of American History. “[Liz] had just started as editor-in-chief when I came on, and it was her idea. She wanted to profile these pizzerias that were over 50 years old and honor them in a column that we called ‘Time Capsule.’ I was immediately the one to take the column and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
In October 2014, the Pizza Hall of Fame received its new name and its own slice of the internet, but retained the one-page column feature in each issue of the magazine. Lombardi’s was inducted into the Pizza Hall of Fame before the project was fully baked, and the process has since been refined.
“Our magazine publishes 10 times a year, and every issue we do a new pizzeria for [the] Hall of Fame,” says Morin. “Then they get put on the website. They receive a certificate that they can display in their pizzeria, too, just to show people that they’ve been inducted, which is a great bit of marketing for them that they can show off their history that way.”
Candidates for the Hall of Fame are sometimes nominated by someone from the community or a person directly involved with the operation, but often are discovered by Morin during her travel and research.
“Sometimes fans will nominate their favorite childhood pizzerias. Recently, we had a man from a tourism board contact us on behalf of a historic pizzeria in his town. The nominations do come from a lot of places but a lot of times it will just be me noticing that, ‘Okay, this pizzeria is old, I’ll reach out to them and see if they can share their story,'” Morin says. “If some pizzerias want to reach out to us on their own behalf, that’s fine, too, and they certainly can do that to let us know. If you’ve been in business 50 years, you really deserve kudos, especially in such a competitive landscape. We’re happy to honor them.”
Because the publishing format for the Hall of Fame requires an interview as well as the inclusion of historic photos, it can sometimes be difficult to compile the information required to induct a pizzeria.
“They might not have the time to do all this stuff, to get the photos together, to scan them and send them and do an interview,” Morin says. “People will even contact me and want to be in the running for the column and I say, ‘Great! Send me photos!’ and they might not get them to me. Sometimes they can’t find them, sometimes they don’t have time. There are historic pizzerias that aren’t in the Hall of Fame yet that 100 percent are iconic, and hopefully they’ll all be in at some point.”
A Slice of Humble Pizza Pie
PMQ‘s 2017 Pizza Power Report values the U.S. pizza industry at $44 billion and estimates that there are more than 76,000 pizza restaurants in the country. Pizza isn’t a novel concept anymore, but that wasn’t the story for hopeful pizzeria operators in the early 20th century.
“A lot of the pizzerias that are older, particularly if they pre-date [World War II], they [were started by] Italian immigrants,” Morin says. She notes that pizzerias during this time were also started by Greek and Sicilian immigrants, and that the end of the war helped boost pizza’s popularity. “There are historic pizzerias everywhere. There’s some in the south, there’s some certainly out in California and the west in general. I’m not a historian or anything like that, but I do know that a lot of it is because of the GIs coming back home from the war and having that exposure to Italian food.”
Each of the Hall of Fame’s regional categories (Midwestern, Northeast, Southern, and West Coast) has at least a handful of entries, although the northeastern region of the United States, including New York and New Jersey, boasts the largest number of inducted pizzerias.
“Of course [the northeast] was the entry point [for immigrants],” Morin says. “I’m personally from New Jersey and there are so many historic pizzerias in that state alone, and it’s not a big state, obviously. I think there’s just less of them [outside of the northeast]; I think it’s just the population density of Italians.”
In the last 50 years, different styles of American pizza have developed in cities or regions across the country. Morin says the adaptability of pizza, which she describes as “a blank canvas,” has as much to do with its popularity as the shared experience of eating it.
“I think for people it’s communal, and that’s really important,” Morin says. “Of course, there are personal pizzas, but they’re not the norm. It’s something that you share; it’s like a social experience. And now with everyone wanting every single thing customized just to them, it really has so many variations that you can do anything with it. There’s everything now from dessert pizzas to pizzas made out of cauliflower crust. I just think that something about those two things, people will always love pizza no matter what form it takes. But I don’t think it’s going anywhere anyway.”
Despite the pressure to keep up with trends, some famous pizzerias have stayed true to their roots and continue serve the same pizza as they did several decades ago. That may be because nearly each of the pizzerias in the Pizza Hall of Fame began as family operations, and many of them are still owned and operated by the children or grandchildren of the founding pizzaioli.
“It’s not just about success,” Morin explains. “A lot of these pizzerias were started because they just wanted to feed their families. They wanted to be able to maybe even pass something on to their children, and have their children supported by being involved in the business and then supporting their children. It’s really a beautiful, multi-generational support for these families that have literally been brought up in the pizzeria, you know, sleeping on the flour bags. When they’re 10 years old, they get to sweep the floors and wash the dishes and do the menial jobs, and when they grow up, they become the owners when their parents want to retire or if they pass away.”
The families behind these famous pizzerias are also often involved with the community, positively impacting both employees and customers.
“The employees that work there, a lot of time they’re teenagers,” Morin says. “They learn good work ethic; they’re able to succeed in their own lives. It’s not just about, ‘Hey, we have a business and it’s still here.’ It’s really about sustaining communities [and] sustaining families, and it creates memories for everybody who goes there, [like] the customers who had their first date at the pizzeria and now bring their children and grandchildren. It’s so inspiring and so beautiful. To be a little bit a part of their journey is just amazing.”
No longer being owned and operated by the founding family doesn’t disqualify a pizzeria from being inducted into the Pizza Hall of Fame, though. Several well-known chains, including Pizza Hut and Sbarro, are among the honorees.
“Everybody started small,” Morin says. “I honestly can’t think of one that didn’t start in a really humble way, whether it was a little grocery store or a tiny sandwich shop that later added pizza. Our readers are pizzeria operators – some of them have no interest in expanding; some of them would love to expand and take over the world. No matter where you start, you can do any of those things. I think it’s really cool that some of them have become household names and some of them are household names in a region. Maybe they have 15 locations in Ohio and people just know them. So, there are varying levels of expansion, but certainly the option is there for anybody because they all have such common, humble beginnings and worked really, really hard. Whatever they’ve become in the years since, it’s deserved.”
Images courtesy of Tracy Morin.