Pizza was then a local dish little known outside Naples, according to Stephen Cerulli, a lecturer in Italian American history at Hostos Community College. (Cheese did not appear on Neapolitan pizza until about 200 years ago.) Naturally, many of America’s first pizzaiolos were from the region. That included Frank Pepe, a baker who got his start selling tomato pies from a pushcart to immigrant factory workers before opening New Haven’s first pizzeria in 1925.
Likewise, Eugeno Burlino, a 20-something Neapolitan immigrant and pastry chef, would walk the streets of Utica during festivals for saints wielding a big pan of tomato pie made by his wife, Michellina Maria, and sell square plain or garlic and anchovy-topped slices for a nickel. In 1914, the couple opened O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, one of the oldest continuously run family-owned pizzerias in the United States.
Neapolitans emigrating at the turn of the 20th century had an outsize influence on American food culture, despite not being the largest group of Italian émigrés. “They controlled much of the imported food from Italy,” said Simone Cinotto, a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in northern Italy. That included products like canned tomatoes from Naples that Italians from other regions may never have seen in their hometowns, but turned into livelihoods after moving to the United States. Pizza, said Mr. Cinotto, was more widespread in America than it was in Italy come the mid-20th century.
Those regional nuances were lost on Americans new to the food. “Italians call it pizza, but we call this an All-American tomato pie,” reads the introduction to a tomato pie recipe in a Feb. 5, 1956, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Around the 1950s and 1960s, as more Americans became familiar with the dish, English descriptors became unnecessary, and tomato pie became known as “pizza pie” or just “pizza.”
As the dish evolved and plentiful toppings became popular, flatbread covered in just tomato sauce or minimally topped with grated cheese or anchovies and garlic disappeared altogether from some places. But in a few locales, tomato pie survived as an entity now distinct from cheese-covered pizza.