I Visited America's First Pizza Museum, Ask Me Anything
The first thing to know is that it's in Chicago.
At the very beginning of your brief but satisfying journey through the United States Pizza Museum, which is located in Chicago, there is an introductory exhibit panel featuring an inspirational quote, something about cooking with love, from a pizza guy named Frank, no last name, at a slice joint in New York's Financial District. Hanging below, there are pizza boxes.
There is one from Zuppardi's, over in West Haven, Connecticut, home of one of the best white clam pies you probably have not yet tried, made with shucked-to-order littlenecks. There is Modern Apizza, the go-to New Haven pizzeria for those times when you cannot be bothered with the obstacle course at Sally's, or if you do not wish to deal with the road trippers at the original Frank Pepe's. (There is a Pepe's box on the wall as well, because there must be.)
Next, and proudly representing Trenton, New Jersey's perennially underrated tomato pie tradition, there is DeLorenzo's, which—thank the pizza gods—survived a fairly recent move from the old neighborhood. And then there is something about John's, coal-powered John's on Bleecker, in New York City, home to one of the true New York-style pizzas, in a city full of slapdash imposters and frauds.
This pizza museum, established some time ago but now temporarily settled into a more spacious home, may well be in Chicago. Anyone paying attention, however, will quickly grasp that curator Kendall Bruns is not here to coddle the local crowd—this is a museum about American pizza, and any exhibit addressing the topic has to start on the Eastern Seaboard, where the fun really began, back in 1905, far, far away from where you are standing, inside this glittering mixed-use development, near the Container Store, down on the southern fringe of Chicago's central core.
Pizza has a big story to tell, and a 3,000 square-foot storefront is not nearly enough room in which to tell that story, but it is a very good beginning. Bruns, a start-up/tech guy, has made a considerable effort to speak for one of America's greatest loves, that fine Italian tradition that we gleefully adopted, adapted, scaled up, repackaged, and then sold to the rest of the world, all in one century.
At this pizza museum, you will learn about Gennaro Lombardi, the Italian immigrant who opened what would become the first real pizzeria in the country, back in 1905, on Spring Street in New York City. You will learn about origins of pizza in Italy, sold as street food to those who could not afford anything more, back in 16th century Naples, and how the Margherita pie came to be named, and all sorts of other fun facts that even the most pizza obsessed may have never spent all that much time contemplating, because they were too busy thinking about eating pizza.
Being that we are in Chicago, there ends up being a considerable amount of space dedicated to the discussion of Chicago pizza, and there is a fascinating look into the diverse set of players behind the rise of deep dish, and how it went from a one-off at what we now know as Pizzeria Uno, back in the 1940's, to become a regional obsession, as well as a thing that people like to argue about obsessively on late night chat shows and various social media platforms.
Lots of people will breeze right by this, but if you are interested, Bruns has rounded up a list of the oldest surviving pizzerias in the Chicago area, and what is not stated explicitly, is that most of these places are known for their thin-crust pies, a style that is every bit as Chicago, perhaps more so, than its spotlight-hogging, relatively ample cousin. (Notably, you have Jim & Pete's in Elmwood Park, going back to 1941, along with Vito and Nick's, way out on the Southwest Side near Midway—both are fine establishments anyone interested in Chicago pizza history should be visiting.)
Then there are all of the other regional styles, which we must not forget, each in their way exceptionally important to American pizza tradition, from Wolfgang Puck's wild experimentations in Los Angeles, to those ingenious square pies served up in Detroit for generations, now being shared with the world, to grilled pies in Providence. There are nods to the glories of the Grandma slice, still so popular in suburban New York City, the delicious hijinks people get up to in the Quad Cities region of the Midwest, and even the Provel cheese-topped pies of St. Louis.
After your brief lesson, the rest of the exhibit is mostly pure nostalgia, on loan from the curator's collection of oddities, knick-knacks and pizza boxes from his travels around the United States. There are old Shakey's Pizza ads, various Noid-related memorabilia, an ancient Pizza Hut menu, a Pizza Not Patriarchy poster, and a giant stack of cans of Pastorelli's pizza sauce, the first fully prepared pizza sauce to be put on the market, back in 1952. The come-on, from an original ad: "Now…make real pizza like an Italian chef!" (Yes. Exactly.)
The whole thing is good fun, and the only complaint is that is over too soon. With time and money and more space, this would clearly be something worth expanding into a permanent home, or at the very least, something worth turning into a permanent exhibit at some other museum, with staff and space to expand on the teaching aspect, and to really dig deeper into the whole genre, which this abbreviated experience will remind you is something quite fascinating.
This could end up happening elsewhere; there is a pizza museum, another temporary experience, slated for Brooklyn this fall, for example. Bruns' home at the Roosevelt Collection is not forever, either. For now, it is here, and if you are in Chicago, you should try to go. Either reserve a slot online or take your chances walking in; depending on when you arrive, there is a distinct possibility that Bruns himself will be there waiting to check you off the list, and give you the lay of the land. Admission is free for the time being, but there is a nicely curated gift shop up front, with pizza socks and pizza floaties and pizza luggage tags, as well as serious books about pizza, along with little take-home souvenirs for a few bucks that won't break the bank, but will help the museum stay open.
There's no pizza being served on premises, at least not for now, but that's okay, because you're in Chicago, there's pizza all around you. Throw a stone, pretty much, and you'll hit three or four options. To truly go local, make like a White Sox fan and head down to nearby 26th Street for the full experience at Ricobene's, a rather museum-like institution favored for their breaded steak sandwich, but also for a broad selection of Chicago-style pizzas. Experience complete.