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How Pizza Conquered America

Frank Mastro helped turn an Italian dish into an American classic. So why have you never heard of him?

By Anna Starecheski
From the October/November 2018 Issue
Lexile: 900L-1000L, 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

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UP CLOSE: Compare and Contrast

What’s the same and  what’s different about how two foods became popular in the U.S.? Look for this as you read these articles.

 

How Pizza Conquered America

Frank Mastro helped turn an Italian dish into an American classic. So why have you never heard of him?

America was in crisis. Millions of people didn’t have jobs. It was the early 1930s, and the United States was in the midst of one of its darkest times: the Great Depression.

In New York City, Frank Mastro wanted to help. His community—mostly recent immigrants from Italy—had been hit hard. Many families were struggling to put food on the table. Mastro, who made his living selling restaurant supplies, wanted to do something for them.

But what?

And then it came to him.

Pizza!

America was in crisis. Millions of people had no jobs. It was the early 1930s, and the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression.

In New York City, Frank Mastro wanted to help. His community—mostly recent immigrants from Italy— had been hit hard. Many families were struggling to put food on the table. Mastro, who worked selling restaurant supplies, wanted to do something for them.

But what?

And then the answer came to him.

Pizza!

Bettmann/Getty Images

 

People line up to receive free food during the Great Depression. 

Pizza Problems

Today, America eats more pizza than any other country—a whopping 350 slices per second. But in the 1930s, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the U.S. who had even heard of it. Pizza was known only among Italian Americans and, for the most part, was available only in Italian bakeries and grocery stores.

Mastro, who had come to New York with his family when he was 10, remembered fondly the delicious pizzas he ate as a child in Italy. He knew that Americans were open to foods that hd come from other countries. The hamburger, a German favorite, had recently become a hit in America. Why not pizza?

If pizza caught on, Mastro thought, it could do more than delight American diners. Owning a pizzeria would be a way for families to make a good living. At the same time, because pizza was cheap, struggling families would have an inexpensive option for dinner.

There was one problem though.

Making pizza was a total pain.

Today, people in America eat more pizza than in any other country—350 slices per second. But in the 1930s, few people in the U.S. had even heard of it. Pizza was known only among Italian Americans. It was found mainly in Italian bakeries.

Mastro had come to New York with his family when he was 10. He remembered the delicious pizzas he ate as a child in Italy. He knew that Americans were open to foods from other countries, The hamburger, a German favorite, had recently become a hit in America. Why not pizza?

If pizza caught on, Mastro thought, it could do a lot of good. Owning a pizzeria would be a way for families to make a living. And because pizza was cheap, struggling families could have an inexpensive dinner.

There was one problem though.

Making pizza was a total pain.

Courtesy of the Mastro Family

Frank Mastro makes pizza with the oven he invented.

The Pizza King

In the 1930s, pizza was baked in an enormous oven the size of an elephant. These ovens were heated with coal and took hours to get hot. A skilled baker had to watch constantly to make sure the pizza didn’t burst into flames. To make his pizza dreams come true, Mastro knew he would need to get creative.

So he decided to invent a new oven.

After a few months of tinkering, Mastro had designed a pizza oven that was simple, sleek, and efficient. It was powered by inexpensive gas, baked multiple pizzas in minutes, and could be operated by anyone. Perfect!

Except nobody wanted to buy one. Pizza, Italian bakers said, wouldn’t taste the same if it wasn’t made the traditional way.

Mastro was frustrated, but he refused to give up. Instead, he opened Frank Mastro’s Model Pizzeria, where a chef made pizzas in front of a huge window for all to see. Mastro demonstrated how fast and easy it was to make delicious pizza in his new gas oven, and he invited curious passersby to come in and sample a slice. Sales for Mastro’s ovens soon skyrocketed.

With each oven he sold, Mastro provided instructions on how to bake the perfect pie. He also created a guide for how to open and run a successful pizza restaurant. He helped hundreds of families start their own pizzerias; sometimes he even loaned people money to help get their businesses up and running.

Over the next two decades, the number of pizzerias in America soared from 500 to 20,000, and Mastro was dubbed “The Pizza King.

In the 1930s, pizza was baked in an oven the size of an elephant. These ovens were heated with coal. They took hours to get hot. A skilled baker had to watch nonstop to make sure the pizza didn’t catch fire. To make his pizza dreams come true, Mastro knew he would need to get creative.

So he decided to invent a new oven.

Mastro designed a new pizza oven. It was simple, sleek, and efficient. It was powered by inexpensive gas. It baked several pizzas in minutes. And it could be operated by anyone. Perfect!

Except no one wanted to buy one. People said pizza wouldn’t taste the same if it was made in a new way.

Mastro was frustrated. But he didn’t give up. He opened Frank Mastro’s Model Pizzeria. There, a chef made pizzas in front of a big window for all to see. Mastro showed how fast and easy it was to make pizza in his new oven. He invited people to come in and try a slice. Soon his ovens were selling like crazy.

With each oven he sold, Mastro gave instructions on how to bake the perfect pie. He also created a guide for how to open and run a pizza restaurant. He helped hundreds of families start their own pizzerias. Sometimes he even lent them money to get started.

Over the next 20 years, the number of pizzerias in America grew from 500 to 20,000. Mastro became known as “The Pizza King.”

Shutterstock.com

An All-American Food

At the time of Mastro’s death in 1957, pizzerias were flourishing in New York and several other East Coast cities. Frank’s son, Vinnie, took over the family business and expanded it further, even introducing frozen pizza dough. But when Vinnie died suddenly in 1965, the Mastro business collapsed and the family name was lost to time.

Nevertheless, Mastro’s legacy lives on in the 30 million slices of pizza eaten in the United States every day.

Today, you can grab a thin-crust slice in New York for $2.50. In Chicago, you can dig into a deep-dish pie smothered in mozzarella and sausage. In Detroit, you can enjoy a rectangular pie with the tomato sauce on top of the cheese. Indeed, nearly anywhere you go in America today, you can find pizza, often with a unique regional twist.

“My father used to say that pizza would become as popular as the hot dog,” Mastro’s daughter Madeline said. “Nobody believed him. Now I say, ‘Do you see, Dad? You were right.’ ”

Mastro died in 1957. By then, pizzerias were flourishing in New York and other East Coast cities. Frank’s son, Vinnie, took over the business. He expanded it further. He even helped invent frozen pizza dough. But when Vinnie died in 1965, the Mastro business closed down. And people forgot about the Mastros.

Still, Frank’s legacy lives on in the 30 million slices of pizza eaten in the U.S. every day.

Today, you can grab a thincrust slice in New York for $2.50. In Chicago, you can get a deep-dish pie smothered in mozzarella and sausage. In Detroit, you can enjoy a rectangular pie with the sauce on top of the cheese. You can find pizza all across America, often with a special regional twist.

“My father used to say that pizza would become as popular as the hot dog,” Mastro’s daughter Madeline said. “Nobody believed him. Now I say, ‘Do you see, Dad? You were right.’ "

Sushi Takes Over

How a Japanese businessman conv inced Amer icans to eat raw fish

Shutterstock.com

I t was 1964, and Noritoshi Kanai [kuh-NYE] had recently arrived in Los Angeles from Japan. An ambitious businessman, Kanai was convinced he could be a success in America.

How? Convince Americans to fall in love with sushi—a beloved Japanese dish usually consisting of raw fish and sticky rice.

But there was a problem: Most Americans thought the idea of eating raw fish was, well, gross.

It was 1964, and Noritoshi Kanai [kuh-NYE] had recently moved to Los Angeles from Japan. Kanai was an ambitious [am-BISH-uhss] businessman. He believed he could be a success in America.

How? Get Americans to fall in love with sushi, a Japanese dish usually made of raw fish and sticky rice.

But there was a problem. Most Americans thought the idea of eating raw fish was, well, gross.

Growing Fascination

The 1960s were a time of change in America. Faster, cheaper air travel meant more Americans could visit faraway countries, like Japan—and they often returned home with a taste for “exotic” foods. New inventions made it possible to ship frozen fish and vegetables across great distances.

More Americans were earning good salaries and could afford to eat out.

There was also growing fascination with Japanese culture. For decades, prejudice against Japanese Americans had been strong in the U.S. It had worsened during World War II, when Japan and the U.S. were bitter enemies. But by the 1960s, the wounds were healing. Kanai thought the time was right to put Japanese food on American tables.

Kanai approached a Japanese restaurant owner in Los Angeles with his big idea: Add a sushi bar.

A sushi bar is a place where people can order sushi and watch the chef prepare it.  Kanai was persuasive, and the owner decided to take a chance.

The 1960s were a time of change in America. Faster, cheaper air travel meant more people could visit faraway countries like Japan and taste “exotic” foods. New inventions made it possible to ship frozen fish and vegetables across great distances. More Americans were earning enough money to eat out.

There was also a growing fascination with Japanese culture. For decades, prejudice against Japanese Americans had been strong in the U.S. It had grown worse during World War II, when Japan and the U.S. were enemies. But by the 1960s, the wounds were healing. Kanai thought the time was right to put Japanese food on American tables.

Kanai approached a Japanese restaurant owner in Los Angeles with his idea: Add a sushi bar.

At a sushi bar, people can order sushi and watch the chef prepare it. Kanai was convincing. The restaurant owner decided to take a chance.

Taste of Home

Word got out, and soon Japanese businessmen longing for a taste of home were flocking to the new sushi bar—and bringing their American friends with them. Other sushi restaurants began to pop up in L.A., New York, and Chicago. In Hollywood, eating sushi became a fad among celebrities. Today, Americans spend more than $2 billion a year on sushi. It’s praised by health experts for its protein and healthy fats.


Before Kanai died in 2017 at age 94, he walked with a sense of pride through the streets of Los Angeles, where there are now more than 3,300 sushi restaurants.


His dream had come true.

Soon Japanese businessmen were flocking to the new sushi bar. They wanted a taste of home. And they brought American friends with them. Other sushi restaurants began to pop up in New York and Chicago. In Hollywood, eating sushi became a fad among celebrities. Today, Americans spend more than $2 billion a year on sushi. Health experts praise its protein and healthy fats.

Kanai died in 2017 at age 94. But he lived to see the change he had caused in Los Angeles. The city now has more than 3,300 sushi restaurants.

His dream had come true.

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Answer Key (1)
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More About the Story

Skills

vocabulary, cause and effect, text evidence, inference, text features, synthesizing, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

The first article explores how pizza became popular in America. The second article explores how sushi became popular in America.

Structure

The articles include cause-and-effect and problem-and-solution structures. The first text features a timeline.

Language

Both articles include some challenging vocabulary (e.g. efficient, legacy, flocking), as well as figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

The texts refer to the Great Depression, the ancient Greeks, and World War II. Numerous geographical places are mentioned (e.g. Naples, Italy; Germany; and Japan).

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (20 minutes, activity sheet online)

  • Have students independently look over each article. Ask: What do you notice that is similar about these two articles? (They’re both about how a food from another country came to be loved by Americans.) Then call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 15.
  • Distribute the vocabulary activity to introduce challenging words in the text. Highlighted words: crisis, the Great Depression, efficient, flourishing, legacy, ambitious, exotic, flocking, fad

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)

Read the articles as a class. Then put students in groups to answer the close-reading questions.

Discuss the critical-thinking question as a class.

“How Pizza Conquered America”

Close-Reading Questions

  • According to the first section of the article, what was happening in America in the 1930s? How did this affect people? (cause and effect) In the 1930s, America was suffering through a difficult time called the Great Depression. Millions of people could not find jobs, and many did not have enough money to buy food for their families.
  • Based on “Pizza Problems,” why did Frank Mastro want to bring pizza to Americans? Give at least two reasons. (text evidence) The popularity of the hamburger, a German food, helped Mastro realize Americans were open to foods from other countries. He also thought opening a pizzeria would be a good business opportunity for struggling families. Plus, pizza would be a cheap dinner option.
  • Reread the section “The Pizza King.” How was Mastro’s new pizza oven different from the one bakers had been using? (compare and contrast) Bakers in the 1930s had been making pizza in bulky coal-powered ovens, which took a lot of time and skill to operate. Mastro’s new gas pizza oven was much faster, easier, and cheaper to use.
  • Based on this section, what can you infer about Mastro’s personality? Support your answer with examples from the article. (inference) You can infer that Mastro was extremely determined and hardworking. Although he couldn’t sell his pizza oven at first, “he refused to give up.” You can also infer that Mastro enjoyed helping people: He offered instructions and even loans to help families start their own pizzerias.
  • Reread “An All-American Food.” How are pizza and its place in America different today than before Mastro’s time? (compare and contrast) Today, Americans eat 30 million slices of pizza daily. It’s available almost everywhere across the country, often with a special twist. Before Mastro’s time, pizza was sold only in special Italian shops, so few Americans had even heard of it.
  • How does the information in the timeline “Pizza Through Time” add to your understanding of the article? (text features) The timeline provides additional details about the history of pizza, including when it was invented and how it became popular around the world.

"Sushi Takes Over"

Close-Reading Questions

  • Based on the first paragraph of “Sushi Takes Over,” what can you infer was the main reason Noritoshi Kanai wanted to make sushi popular in the U.S.? (inference) The article says Kanai was “an ambitious businessman” who wanted to “be a success in America.” You can infer that he thought selling sushi would be a moneymaking business.
  • The article explains that “Kanai thought the time was right to put Japanese food on American tables.” In your own words, explain why he thought this. (text evidence) In the 1960s, many Americans were earning enough money to eat out at restaurants. Air travel had become cheaper, so people were taking more trips and developing a taste for foods from other places. And in the years since World War II had ended, many had become interested in Japanese culture.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • What main challenge did Mastro and Kanai each face in trying to bring a new food to America? What was similar and different about how they responded to this challenge? (compare and contrast) Both Mastro and Kanai faced people who were suspicious of the new food. Both responded to this challenge by preparing their food in the open so people could see how it was made. But while Mastro personally helped people start pizzerias, Kanai relied mostly on word of mouth to spread the news of sushi.
  • Based on both articles, what can help make a food popular in a new place? (synthesizing) For a food to become popular, people must be open to eating dishes from new places. New technology, like Mastro’s gas oven, can help by making the food more available. A food can seem more appealing when certain groups, such as celebrities, begin eating it.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Compare and Contrast

Distribute our compare and contrast activity and have students complete it. Then have them use their answers to the activity to respond to the writing prompt on page 19.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Put students in two groups and guide each group to reread one of the articles, making a list of the steps it took for the featured food to become successful in America. Then come together to highlight steps that are similar in one color and steps that are different in another.

For Advanced Readers

Download our articles “Hamburger History” and “Tacos Take Over,” which also tell the stories of popular foods from other countries. Ask students to incorporate details about the histories of these foods into their responses to the second critical-thinking question.

For ELL Students

Many ELLs may have moved to the U.S. from other countries. Invite students to talk about foods that are popular where their families come from. Then hold a discussion about whether those foods are well-known yet in America—and if not, how they might become more popular.

For Research

Invite students to research other important moments in the history of pizza. Then have them write at least five new entries to add to the timeline “Pizza Through Time,” finding an image to go with each.