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The Untold Story of How My Grandfather Brought Pizza to America

The history of American pizza needs to be rewritten

by VICE Staff
Feb 19 2017, 5:00pm

MUNCHIES recently shot an episode of The Pizza Show where we explored the history of America's favorite food. We examined the relationship between Lombardi's—believed to be the first U.S. pizzeria to open, in 1905—and Totonno's, which was opened in 1924 by the man credited as Lombardi's first pizza chef. Antoinette Balzano, the granddaughter of Totonno, who now runs Totonno's along with her siblings, felt there was some information she wanted to add about her grandfather's legacy. Here is the story in her own words:

My grandfather, Anthony "Totonno" Pero was born in Naples and he was a baker, and since I was a little girl I learned that he brought pizza to America. I'm 65-years-old and I've known that since I could comprehend the English language. He left at somewhere between 18 and 20-something years old, and he came to America and he went to work for Lombardi's.

As I was told, my grandfather brought pizza to the Lombardi grocery store—Lombardi grocery store, not Lombardi pizzeria. It wasn't the Lombardi pizzeria until my grandfather started making pizza there. I have proof. I have my grandfather in a picture with Gennaro Lombardi in 1905.

You can see in the picture that in the window of Lombardi's you can see very clearly the groceries that were being sold—and my grandfather has the apron on, and you can see he has flour on his shoes, and so you know he's the one that was making the dough, because the pizza guy always has flour on his shoes.

Photo courtesy of Totonno's.

Anthony "Totonno" Pero with Gennaro Lombardi at the original Lombardi's. Photo courtesy of Totonno's.

As we know it, he told Lombardi, "Let's make pizza." My sister told me they used to make the pizzas on a potbelly stove and then he used to put them on his head, the pizza boxes, and he would go through the streets and sell them by the slice in the streets of Little Italy, and the people that bought them used to warm them up on their radiators.

In 1924 he left and he went to open up Totonno's pizzeria in Coney Island. We have been there 92 years, and I say that we are the oldest pizzeria continuously run by the same family, because (the original) Lombardi's closed; they sold it.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to New York Pizza

Without my grandfather, Lombardi's would still be a grocery store. So you hear all this credit being given to Lombardi's. Yes, they are the first pizzeria in America, but nobody ever gives credit that (my grandfather) Anthony is the pizzaiolo who brought pizza to America. And it kills me. It kills me—you could take a knife and rip my heart out that's how much that kills me—when you think of him coming over on that boat, in the steerage, probably people vomiting all over him down there, leaving his family behind, and 92 years later we're talking about Mozart and Socrates, and Totonno's gets no credit. That's a disgrace.

I love pizza, I'm Italian, I'm addicted to carbs, but I always say there's pizza and then there's Totonno's.

Lombardi's was the first pizzeria in the United States, absolutely. They're a wonderful family.

One day I, when I was in my 20s I think, I went to eat at our pizzeria, and I looked at the picture on the wall, and I said, "Uncle Jerry, who's this?" And he said, "This is a place called Lombardi's, and grandpa always used to say, 'Go to that restaurant. My picture's on the wall.'" So we left and we found Lombardi's, and I got the chills. I walked into the restaurant, and this man came up to me, and I pointed to the picture on the wall and I said, "Who's this man?" And he said, "That's my grandfather." And I said, "Well the man standing next to him is my grandfather," and I felt in that moment like I was in a time warp. His name was Gennaro Lombardi, the kid. His grandfather was also Gennaro, and my uncle was Gennaro. Maybe my grandfather named my uncle Gennaro after Gennaro Lombardi. I don't know.

WATCH: The Pizza Show

We had dinner there and we became such good friends with Gennaro Lombardi that when my uncle died he came to the wake and he gave me that picture.

I love pizza—I'm Italian. But I always say there's pizza and then there's Totonno's. It's like stepping back in the 1900s when you come in. (My sister) Cookie's kept it like that. I don't think we have the best pizza; I know it. What you consider pizza today, with what goes on it, like meatballs: Forget it. My grandfather would turn in his grave. As a matter of fact, he didn't even put pepperoni on his pizza.

Antoinette and her grandfather.

I'm passionate about the story of how pizza went to America, about how my grandfather's blood is in that restaurant, how my sister's blood goes into the restaurant. And when you have a fire (that closed the restaurant in 2009) and you come back, and you have a flood with no insurance (after Hurricane Sandy) and you come back, and you have a $150,000 government loan—that's why I'm passionate.

I didn't go out there and look at the history; this is the history that I know. And I didn't look in a book. I've lived it.

As told to Brad Cohen. Edited for length and clarity.