New findings uncover an untold history of early New York City pizzerias. Lombardi’s and John’s on Bleecker Street likely share a previously unknown founder.
A forgotten generation of late 19th century Italian pizza makers in America has been discovered, changing our understanding of how pizza arrived in the United States. After 10 years of searching through archival records for an upcoming book, Peter Regas is going public with his findings by launching pizzahistorybook.com and announcing a presentation at the U.S. Pizza Museum in Chicago on February 23.
Of this forgotten older generation, one baker stands out. Filippo Milone came to New York in the late 19th century and likely established two of the most famous New York pizzerias that still exist today, Lombardi’s on Spring Street and John’s of Bleecker Street.
Regas explains, “Filippo Milone likely established pizzerias in at least six locations throughout New York City. Of these locations, three later became famous under different names: ‘Pop’s,’ ‘John’s,’ and ‘Lombardi’s.’ Pop’s in Brooklyn closed decades ago, but the other two in Manhattan still exist. Milone, a pioneer in what has become a $45 billion industry, later died in 1924, without children to preserve his story buried in an unmarked grave in Queens.”
The documents Regas discovered reveal a pattern of Milone establishing pizzerias—sometimes classified as delicatessens, groceries, or bakeries—and then handing them off to others while he moved on to other locations. Regas says, “Intentionally or not he planted seeds all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some of these pizzerias quickly died off. But three of his pizzerias became iconic lasting for decades. No one else can say that.”
Until now, Lombardi’s origin story has commonly been understood to be that Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi, opened a grocery store at 53 1/2 Spring Street around 1897 that eventually became America’s first licensed pizzeria in 1905. While proof of that license has never materialized, Regas has tracked down Gennaro Lombardi’s birth record, naturalization papers, and other supporting documents that tell a different story. Gennaro Lombardi first came to America in November of 1904 at age 17, classified as a “laborer”. If he became involved with the pizzeria at 53 1/2 Spring Street in 1905, it was as an employee not as an owner. By that time, it had already been established as a pizzeria probably by Milone in 1898 but certainly by another proprietor named Giovanni Santillo who followed Milone in 1901.
Likewise, John’s on Bleecker Street has long been understood to have been established in 1929 but documents show 1915 to be the actual year. In 1915 Milone took over a bakery at 175 Sullivan St. The 1916 city directory notes him selling “Pies” there which given Milone’s career is almost certainly a term for pizza. By the time John Sasso (a relative of Milone’s by marriage) takes over the pizzeria with a partner, the 1925 city directory lists “Pizzeria Port’Alba” at 175 Sullivan St. which, given his history, was likely Milone’s name for it in 1915. The pizzeria eventually moved to Bleecker Street and is known today as “John’s.” A neon sign in the window still shows the name “Pizzeria Port’Alba”—an echo of the true history of the pizzeria.
Regas, an independent researcher, was originally researching Chicago pizzerias when he discovered holes in New York’s origin story. His findings include the earliest known documents that mention pizza and pizzerias in America. While historians have speculated that businesses where the dough was made primarily for pizza, may have existed in America during this period, no record of these establishments, or their owners, has been brought to light until now.
Regas’ book on the history of pizza in the U.S. will be released later in 2019. He has started sharing information that supports his claims including archival records, newspaper advertisements with translations, photographs, and family stories at pizzahistorybook.com.
How this earlier generation of bakers started in Italy and how they came to America and struggled to set up tiny pizzerias, only to be forgotten and then rediscovered, will be the subject of Regas’ upcoming lecture at the U.S. Pizza Museum in Chicago on Saturday, February 23 at 7:30pm.
“Filippo Milone & the Forgotten Pizza Makers of NYC”
Presented by Peter Regas
- U.S. Pizza Museum at the Roosevelt Collection
- 1146 S Delano Ct W, Chicago, IL 60605
- Saturday, February 23, 2019
- 7pm Doors, 7:30pm Event
- Free Admission w/online RSVP, All ages
- Garage Parking (1st 2 hours free w/validation)