Which came first – the cheese or the tomato? The answer isn’t nearly as mysterious as the much publicized chicken and egg debate. The first pizzas in Naples were known as tomato pies and were really food for the poor people. Cheese didn’t become a popular pizza topping until later.

When Genaro Lombardi (perhaps Gino to his friends?) opened his grocery store in Little Italy in 1905, it was the tomato pies that he sold to local workers. The pies cost five cents but if somebody was not able to scrounge up the nickel, they were allowed to pay what they could afford and Gino would cut them a piece worth that amount. Hence, the birth of the slice.

Lombardi’s was the first pizzeria in New York (and most likely the first in America).  And it’s a fact that two of Gino’s employees went on to open other famous pizza institutions in New York that still serve Neapolitan pizzas today. Antonio “Totonno Pero” was the first pizzaiolo and probably the culinary genius behind Lombardi’s famous pizza. In 1924, he packed his bags and opened his own shop, Totonno’s, in Coney Island. John Sasso was also an employee of Gino’s who left with his own entrepreneurial ambitions. John’s of Bleecker Street still has huge lines down the street in the West Village.

Rumor has it that Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri also worked at Lombardi’s prior to trekking uptown to Harlem (before the express trains existed) and opening his own pizzeria called Patsy’s. Patsy had a nephew named Patsy Grimaldi who trained with him and eventually opened his own place under the Brooklyn Bridge called Grimaldi’s. As you can tell, these guys were not terribly creative when it came to naming their stores.

These five self-centered Italians are still the heroes of pizza. They paved the way for everybody else who has entered the pizza race in New York.And it’s because of them we have such delicious pizza today.

There’s no question that New York pizza is the best, freshest in the country. Could it be the vast population of Italian immigrants in New York at the turn of last century?Could it be the skill of New York’s chefs over the rest of the country?Most likely it has to do with the city’s water and its rich mineral content.New York has some of the best tap water in the country. Surprise, surprise. Whatever the reason is, the pizza in New York is tops and I’m off to find the best pie in town. Pizza, I’m ready to… Eat This!

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