Why Did it Take the New York Times 40 Years to Discover Pizza?

On September 20th, 1944, while thousands of American troops were stationed in Italy, The New York Times first introduced pizza to the United States. The whole article — available here — is a mouth-watering delight, but this paragraph does a particularly great job of capturing the frantic energy long native to pizzerias:


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The debut is notable for so many reasons — the cheese came before the sauce back then, and we’d yet to conceive of the word “topping” — but the most significant thing to consider here is just how long it took the paper of record to acknowledge pizza.

Pizza had been available in New York as early as 1895, when 14-year-old Gennaro Lombardi started serving up “tomato pies” from a grocery store on Mulberry Street. He’d open his own pizzeria ten years later, which would soon serve as a model for many similar lunch spots in New York’s Italian enclaves.

But while the Times was oblivious to the latent pie revolution of the early 1900s, other newspapers were taking notice. In December of 1906, the New York Tribune published an article on Italians and their love of hot food, which included this excerpt:

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Nearly half a century before pizza would become a cultural mainstay—thanks to returning GIs who’d developed an appetite for the slice while in Italy—Neapolitan populations in New York, New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were producing pizzas in backyard ovens and commercial bakeries. So why did it take four decades for the Times, generally a leading indicator of food trends, to learn of this emerging cuisine?

I got in touch with New York’s premiere pizza expert, Scott Wiener of Scott’s Pizza Tours, to help me get to the bottom of this greasy mystery.

“The New York Times actually did mention pizza before 1944, but it didn’t use the word pizza,” Scott tells me. “It used the word pizzeria to refer to the food incorrectly.”

A quick trip through the TimesMachine reveals this to be true. In 1939, the paper ran an article about Coney Island, which listed “pizzeria” as one of the many foodstuffs offered on Surf Avenue.

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But even this mention seems belated, which Scott attributes to the newspaper’s reach, in terms of both audience and geography.

“Pizza was solely popular in small Italian neighborhoods and the New York Times was this English-language newspaper—not a paper that Italian immigrants used to learn about anything,” he explains. “And by then they were headquartered in Times Square, so [the NYT] was just sort of out the loop.”

But while the Gray Lady turned a cold shoulder toward pizza for the first half of the century, it would spend the second half rectifying this mistake. In 1982, pizza would surpass hamburgers as the food most referenced in the Times. A cheesy slice of justice was eventually served, and that’s amore. 

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