When Gennaro Lombardi founded his pizzeria Lombardi’s in 1905, Little Italy was an area full of thieves, murderers, and eventually, pizza makers. Of the two million Italians who arrived in the United States from 1900 to 1910, thousands packed themselves into tenement buildings in the nearby Five Points neighborhood. Vendors sold their fruits and vegetables on the streets of the neighborhood that residents called “Mulberry Bend.”
Today, 116 years after Gennaro Lombardi opened his restaurant at 53 Spring Street, Little Italy is full of trendy and traditional Italian restaurants. Tourists and New York residents alike travel to Lombardi’s, the first pizzeria in the country according to the Pizza Hall of Fame, for quality ingredients that promise quality food.
Despite a ten-year interlude following an economic downturn that forced Lombardi’s to close in 1984, Lombardi’s title remains true. However, Papa’s Tomato Pies, located in Trenton, New Jersey, is the oldest continually run pizzeria in the country. Giuseppe “Joe” Papa opened Papa’s Tomato Pies in 1912.
Although many have tried to disprove Lombardi’s place as the first pizzeria in America, its title has not officially changed. Pizza researcher Peter Regas claims that Filippo Milone established many grocery stores around the time Lombardi’s opened. These grocery stores would later morph into pizza shops. Gennaro Lombardi allegedly adopted one of these grocery stores-turned-pizza shops, making Milone, not Lombardi, the man who established New York-style pizza. None of this research is confirmed and Lombardi’s continues to tell the same origin story on its website.
Nevertheless, generations of Lombardi pizza makers have continued Lombardi’s 1905 legacy. Gennaro Lombardi III, Gennaro Lombardi’s grandson, and his childhood friend John Brescio revived the pizza they had eaten since they were children. In 1994, they found a location at the corner of Spring St. and Mott St. where they could reopen Lombardi’s once again.
“When I was about eight, nine, I used to throw dough at Gennaro, the grandfather that started this place. And he would make us pizza then and Coca Cola, then I’d fall asleep and my father would come and get me,” Brescio said.
Lombardi III and Brescio could not use the same location when they reopened Lombardi’s due to the heat and vibrations of the subway that ran under the building. When cement in the building deteriorated, they moved to their current location. Brescio even saved the doors from the old pizza oven and transferred them to the current pizza oven.
“I did every job there is. I fell in love with dishwashing years ago because nobody bothered me,” said Brescio, who is now retired. “But I did deliveries, I gave out pamphlets, I used to put a hat and glasses on and go give out the [pamphlets] because I found a kid throwing the things out, instead of delivering them. So I did it myself.”
Today, Lombardi’s uses the same margherita pizza recipe that they gained fame for in 1905. Chefs top the pizza with sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes from the Stanislaus company. Fresh mozzarella adds a creaminess to the pizza to balance the natural acidity of the tomato sauce. The base of the pizza, the dough, is light yet chewy, slightly browned by the heat of the pizza oven. Tying all the flavors together, the sweetness of basil gives a kick to the classic dough, cheese, tomato combination.
“We use the best mozzarella, everything the best. That’s part of being successful. It’s worth spending the extra money,” Brescio said.
Locals recognize this quality, sometimes building relationships with the Lombardi’s staff. Women who lived on the fourth and fifth floor of the building that Lombardi’s occupies would often order pizzas. Lombardi’s wife, brainstorming other ways to deliver the pizza to the women, said that a rope would solve all their problems. After that, the women pulled the pizza through their window with a rope.
Asides from the locals, many famous people have noted the quality of Lombardi’s. Jack Nicholson, known for his role in The Shining, often orders pies when he watches New York sports games. According to Brescio, after time away from Lombardi’s, Nicholson returned, raised his eyebrow, and said, “I’m back!”
This historic pizza joint will also open an additional location in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in June. “Everything is ready” in Bay Ridge according to Brescio, who expects the pizzeria to be “a busy place.”
As tourists return to New York, Lombardi’s is still struggling to overcome the financial toll of COVID-19. Although they survived the Great Depression and the Spanish Flu, the dearth of customers coupled with costs to ensure socially distanced dining sparked by COVID-19 presented intense challenges. Nevertheless, as indoor dining returns at 100 percent capacity, Lombardi’s pushes forward as the official oldest pizzeria in America.
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