A Slice of Heaven: The Pizza Belt

You've heard of the corn belt and the rust belt. But what about the Pizza Belt, the part of America that gave birth to what Jeffrey Steingarten calls Neapolitan-American pizza. The Pizza Belt starts in Philadelphia and runs through Trenton and the rest of New Jersey. It extends throughout New York, Long Island, and New Haven and ends in Boston. Think of it as the Interstate 95 belt, with a few detours along the way.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on Slice
Lombardi's, in turn, spawned Totonno's in 1924 and John's in 1929 and, in an apparently unrelated move, Patsy's in East Harlem in 1933. Joe's Tomato Pies opened in Trenton in 1910, followed by Papa's Tomato Pies in 1912. New Haven was next, where a Neapolitan immigrant Italian bread baker named Frank Pepe opened his eponymous Pizzeria Napoletana in 1925, followed in short order by Paul's Apizza in 1932, State Street Apizza (now called Modern Apizza) in 1934 and finally Sally's in 1938 (founded by Frank Pepe's nephew, Salvatore Consiglio). In Philadelphia, Salvatore and Chiarina Marra opened Marra's in 1927. The Tacconelli family started baking bread in their Port Richmond neighborhood in the 1920s, though they didn't start making pizza until 1946. Similarly, in East Boston, Francisco Santarpio baked bread at his eponymous bakery until Prohibition ended in 1933, when he took over the adjoining storefront and began serving pizza. Seven years before that, Anthony Polcari opened Pizzeria Regina in Boston's North End.

Why did all these pizzerias start in the same 33-year period? What did they have in common? Did Frank Pepe work at Lombardi's before moving to New Haven? Here's what we do know. There was a tremendous wave of southern Italian immigration in the late nineteenth century. These immigrants all came in through Ellis Island, and then fanned out along the Eastern Seaboard looking for work among relatives, neighbors, and friends who had come from the same area in Italy. New York, of course, was where they landed, so it made sense for a certain number of them to look for and find work there. Trenton had hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and a burgeoning Itallan-American community called Chambersburg. New Haven had many factories (including Colt Industries), as well as a plethora of fishing and port-related jobs. Philadelphia (South Philly) and Boston (East Boston and the North End) both had fast-growing Italian-American communities with thriving commercial centers.

What can we conclude from all this? That the development of America's pizza culture closely followed southern Italian immigration patterns. If the southern Italians had come into this country through Duluth, Minnesota might have been known as the Land of a Thousand Pizzas.

Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the New York Times Dining section and is author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. He also maintains a blog: Ed Levine Eats. This entry is an excerpt from his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, published on Slice through special arrangement.