Kosher Pizza?

This is the first post in a series about kosher pizza and related topics.

In 1985, a journalist by the name of Frank Rossi unknowingly walked into a kosher pizzeria. Rossi, described by a colleague as a “gentle-fingered writer who liked the street, not the office” wrote about his experience in his Philadelphia Inquirer column.  As Rossi’s experience is emblematic of many other newspaper articles relating the discovery of kosher pizza, I will quote much of what he wrote.

Rossi: “The sign read Petom Pizza. Interesting name; didn’t sound Italian. Must be Greek[i]. I was hungry, and I needed something quick. Inside, there were two other men besides myself, and both wore yarmulkes. That wasn’t surprising. The place is in the Northeast (section of Philadelphia), and the Northeast has a large Jewish population[ii].

I looked up at the menu: Pizza, regular and Sicilian; calzone, stromboli, antipasto, ziti, lasagna, falafel, Israeli salad, knishes, kasha and Coke – small, medium and large. If you’re a little confused, so was I. I mean, I’d never been in a pizza shop, even in a Jewish neighborhood, where they sold falafel, knishes and Israeli salad. I was starting to get a disoriented feeling, like I’d taken my Chrysler to a Ford dealer for repairs.

Then I saw that the guys who were making the pizzas were wearing yarmulkes, too, and they didn’t have names like Vinnie or Franco. They were Mayer and Mark – it said so on their shirts. One of the kids working the counter asked what I’d like. “Could you give me another minute?” I said.

Finally, I asked the kid what the story was. He smiled. “This is a kosher pizza shop,” he said. I’d never gone into a delicatessen and asked for a slice of pizza, but here I was in a pizza joint ordering a spinach knish.”

Frank Rossi was far from the first person, Jewish or not, to be bemused and surprised by the phenomenon of kosher pizza.  The first kosher restaurants serving pizza opened in 1959.  Both restaurants, Levy Brothers Kosher Pizza and Zion Kosher Pizza, opened in neighborhoods of Brooklyn with large Jewish populations, Brownsville and Borough Park.  Their clientele were Orthodox and other Jews who observed or were sensitive to the religious proscriptions of kashrut, colloquially known as ‘keeping kosher.’ The proprietors of these restaurants were both members of New York’s small Yemenite Jewish community and they also served falafel, a food of Middle Eastern origin which was quickly growing in popularity in Israel but not well known in the United States[iii].   

Kosher pizzerias quickly spread throughout New York’s Jewish neighborhoods.  By 1965, at least six kosher pizzerias could be found in three of New York’s boroughs, not only in residential neighborhoods with large Orthodox populations but on the Lower East Side and the increasingly Hasidic section of Williamsburg.  In addition to serving pizza, these restaurants supplemented their menu with dairy and pareve foods available at other kosher dairy food venues, especially knishes which had been sold by knisheries and street vendors in New York for half a century.

In the early seventies, a sociologist wrote that in New York “kosher pizza and falafel stores, usually run by Israelis, are the newest fashion in Jewish neighborhoods. They serve particularly as a meeting place for the young, similar to the old neighborhood candy store.[iv]” Caterers, synagogues and youth groups made their own kosher pizzas at special events in communities that lacked a pizzeria.  As kosher pizzerias became better known, especially in places where Jewish teens and college students socialized like Yeshiva University, the demand for kosher pizza and falafel increased, spreading outside New York and its suburbs to other Jewish communities like Toronto (1969), Chicago (1972), Jerusalem (1972), Tel Aviv (1972), San Francisco (1973), Detroit (1974), Philadelphia (1974), Melbourne (1975), Cleveland (1975), Pittsburgh (1976), Los Angeles (1977), Miami (1978), Paris (1981) and Baltimore (1984.)

Image in an Philadelphia Inquirer article, comparing Haifa’s street food to Philadelphia’s, 1984

The success of these new pizzerias and dairy restaurants varies. In Philadelphia, for example, Petom Pizza had been preceded by a short-lived venture called Italo-Israeli Kosher Pizza.  A nearby Israeli restaurant called Tel Aviva Pizzeria and Restaurant, which was not kosher, perhaps took away some of Petom Pizza’s potential business.   In addition, Petom Pizza was located in the Rhawnhurst neighborhood, whose Jewish population was declining, as younger families moved to outer suburbs. Petom Pizza attempted to attract vegetarians and offered gluten-free pizza, but disappears from newspaper records soon after Rossi’s visit in 1985. 

Frank Rossi noted the fluctuating demand for kosher pizza in his column.  In his words: “Petom Pizza is the only kosher pizza shop in the Delaware Valley…(some) Orthodox Jews are driving two hours for a pizza. Unless you’ve lived with such food restrictions- dietary, religious or otherwise- it might be hard for you to understand. Following kosher is more than a religious expression; it’s a way of life.”

Rossi concluded his column with the controversial declaration that Petom Pizza’s slice was one of the best he had ever tasted, almost as good as his Italian American grandmother’s[v].  This comment drew a backlash of disbelief from several readers who responded to the column with scornful letters, one group of writers declaring that they had thrown their half-eaten pizza slices from Petom’s Pizza in the trash. 

Susan Glickman, however, a patron of Petom Pizza responded that she  was happy with Rossi’s thoughtful perspective and added “there’s something for everyone at Petom, as witness the number of non-Jewish patrons enjoying lunch, dinner or “noshes.[vi]”  By the early 21st century, most kosher pizzerias would also serve sushi and some would offer items as varied as burritos, vegetarian ropa vieja and lecso, depending on their location and staff.  More than a half century after pizza became kosher, questions of it’s Jewish culinary and cultural identity, the appropriateness of interactions between patrons in kosher restaurants and debates over the quality of the food served would remain on the menu.

[i] Petom is Hebrew for ‘instant’ or ‘sudden.’

[ii] Frank Rossi “A Place To Get Kosher Pizza” Philadelphia Inquirer November 13, 1985

[iii] Felafel in New York was first served in a Jewish venue at Habibi, an Israeli café in Manhattan open from 1950 to 1953 and then at Café Sahbra, an Israeli nightclub that opened in 1957.  Falafel is documented as having been served at Lebanese restaurants in Brooklyn in the sixties but surely was eaten earlier. The opening of Mamoun’s Falafel in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1971 by a recent immigrant from Syria, brought felafel to a broader audience.

[iv] Kranzler, George The Face of Faith: An American Hassidic Community Baltimore Hebrew College Press, 1972.

[v] Rossi’s roots stemmed from an Italian working-class family who lived in Scranton.  Rossi defended the quality of Petom Pizza’s cheese slice (but not it’s knishes) in a rebuttal column titled “Pizza, knishes and sweat suits”, published on November 29, 1985 which included Susan Glickman’s letter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s