When Gennaro Lombardi ventured into the gritty streets of Little Italy in 1905 to establish his eponymous pizzeria, he likely never imagined the culinary legacy he would bequeath to New York City and the nation at large. At that time, Little Italy was a hotbed of criminal activity, teeming with thieves, murderers, and a burgeoning community of Italian immigrants. Among these immigrants were the pizza makers who would soon help define America’s gastronomic landscape.
In the early 20th century, approximately two million Italians poured into the United States, with thousands crowding into the nearby Five Points neighborhood. The streets bustled with vendors hawking fruits and vegetables, notably in the neighborhood’s notorious “Mulberry Bend.”
Fast forward 118 years, and Little Italy has undergone a remarkable transformation. It’s now a haven for both trendy and traditional Italian restaurants, with tourists and locals alike flocking to Lombardi’s, a beacon of culinary history and the first pizzeria recognized by the Pizza Hall of Fame.
However, Lombardi’s journey has not been without its challenges. A decade-long hiatus followed a financial downturn in 1984, temporarily shuttering its doors. Yet, the legacy remained intact. Today, Lombardi’s proudly wears the mantle of the first pizzeria in America, a title it fiercely defends despite competing claims.
Pizza historian Peter Regas has cast doubt on Lombardi’s origin story, suggesting that Filippo Milone played a significant role in the evolution of New York-style pizza. According to Regas, Milone established grocery stores that eventually transformed into pizzerias, and Lombardi’s was merely one of these adaptations. However, no concrete evidence substantiates these claims, and Lombardi’s steadfastly maintains its version of events.
Throughout the years, the Lombardi family has been unwavering in preserving their pizza-making traditions. Gennaro Lombardi III, the grandson of the founder, alongside his childhood friend John Brescio, rekindled the flavors of their youth in 1994 when they reestablished Lombardi’s at a new location. Their bond with the pizza is deeply personal, with Brescio reminiscing about throwing dough with Gennaro Lombardi himself as a child.
The move to their current location was necessitated by the vibrations of the subway running beneath their previous site. In an act of homage, Brescio salvaged the doors from the original pizza oven and installed them in their new establishment.
Lombardi’s timeless appeal lies in its commitment to tradition. The famous Margherita pizza recipe, a favorite since 1905, still reigns supreme. San Marzano tomatoes from the Stanislaus company form the heart of their sauce, while fresh mozzarella lends creamy richness to every slice. The dough, light yet chewy, boasts the perfect hint of browning from the scorching embrace of the pizza oven. Basil, the secret ingredient, ties all the elements together with its sweet and aromatic punch.
“We use the best mozzarella, everything the best. That’s part of being successful. It’s worth spending the extra money,” Brescio emphasized, a testament to their unwavering dedication to quality.
Beyond the locals, Lombardi’s has also left an indelible mark on the palates of the rich and famous. The legendary Jack Nicholson, of “The Shining” fame, is known to have a penchant for Lombardi’s pies, often ordering them while watching New York sports games. According to Brescio, when Nicholson returned after an absence, he famously quipped, “I’m back!”
As the pizzeria looks forward to expanding its reach with a new location in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, set to open in June, there is an air of excitement. Brescio, now retired, is confident that the pizzeria will be bustling with patrons.
Nonetheless, Lombardi’s, like many other businesses, has grappled with the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Having weathered the Great Depression and the Spanish Flu, the restaurant found itself in uncharted territory with the sudden loss of customers and the expenses associated with socially distanced dining. However, as New York City returns to 100 percent indoor dining capacity, Lombardi’s stands resolute, proudly retaining its title as America’s oldest pizzeria.
In the heart of Little Italy, the story of Lombardi’s continues to be written, one slice at a time, preserving a taste of history that transcends generations.