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The History of Rhode Island’s Pizza Strips

By on Wednesday, May 15th, 2024 at 9:38 pm | 1,129 views

Rhode Island pizza strips, also known asa red strips, are topped with thick tomato sauce


No state has a larger percentage of residents with Italian heritage than Rhode Island, so it’s no surprise the Ocean State has its own unique style of pizza. What is surprising is this classic pizza doesn’t have any cheese.

Rhode Island’s special pizza is better known locally as a pizza strip, but also goes by the name a red strip, party pizza, or bakery pie. That latter name indicates the origin of this unique regional pizza type – Italian bakeries.

During the great migration, Italians began settling in the Federal Hill section of Providence in the early 1900s, displacing the Irish. By 1920, Italians were the largest foreign-born ethnic group in the state, according to Carmela Santoro in The Italians of Rhode Island. These Italians established a Little Italy neighborhood that peaked in the pre-war years.

Nobody seems quite committed to naming the inventor of the pizza strip, but one of the oldest Italian bakeries that serves the pizza strips today is D. Palmieri Bakery. Domenico Palmieri opened the first location of the D. Palmieri Bakery on Ledge Street in the north side of Providence, but soon after opened another location in Federal Hill. The bakery has expanded and contracted over the years, but remained within Domenico’s family. His grandson Eric is now a baker there who has fostered a following by making pizza art, illustrating people and pop culture icons in pizza toppings.

A Rhode Island red strip wrapped up in wax paper

DePetrillo’s wraps red strips in wax paper making them surprisingly portable


Another early Providence bakery known for pizza strips was Crugnale’s, which opened in 1917. The family-owned bakery expanded to as many as six locations across the region, but the last shop, located in Rumford, closed in 2021. The store had shut in 2020 during the pandemic.

LeSalle Bakery has been around since 1930, but has changed owners twice since then. In 1935, Jake DeMaria bought the original bakery and grew its reputation. Forty years later, Michael Manni, who had started working in the bakery as a “pan boy” in 1965, bought it. There are now two locations in Providence.

There’s a very good chance the first pizza strip was sold at one of these bakeries, but there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on who it was. The recipe likely evolved from focaccia breads Italian immigrants brought with them. The red strips have a lot in common with Sicilian Sfincione, a similar bread topped with things like tomatoes, cheese and breadcrumbs. The pan-baked bread has produced perhaps even more variations than Neapolitan-style pizza, including Detroit’s squares, Long Island’s Grandma pies, and New York City’s Sicilian slices. In Rhode Island, the tray pizza doesn’t rise quite as much, and the thick layer of sauce becomes the focal point of flavor and texture.

The first pizza strips were made from leftover bread dough, baked in on a sheet. The consistency is also similar to focaccia bread. The first strips were even topped with cheese, like Neapolitan style pies from New York and New Haven. However, since the bakeries kept these quick-grab snacks on the counter at room temperature, the bread topped with dairy raised the ire of health officials. Rather than investing in refrigeration, the bakeries removed the cheese.

Red strips are kept at room temperature

Pizza strips are wrapped in wax paper and stacked for sale


The decision to keep the bread at room temperature not only means they have something of a unique pizza-style. But it also makes them portable and a good option for lunch time meals, especially for laborers who may not have access to refrigeration. Italian immigrants often worked in jobs like construction, factories, or other heavy industry where they may not have been able to keep lunch fresh.

The slices are known as red strips because they are topped with thick, red tomato sauce. They are sometimes referred to as party pizza because it was easy to buy whole tays. They were also sometimes known as bakery pies, since pastry shops and bread bakeries were the primary place to buy red strips. Coincidentally, it’s usually possible to buy them in the same place as Rhode Island’s other Italian American delicacy, San Giuseppe zeppole. But if you don’t come across a bakery, red stripes can also be found in local grocery stores.

Despite the historic reason for removing the cheese, some of the bakeries like DePetrillo’s and Colvitto’s also sell white strips. These are essentially red strips covered with cheese and other toppings typical of pizza.They are now kept in refrigerator cases.

Many of the small, family-owned bakeries have expanded from their original stores over the years. DePetrillo’s, operating for three decades, currently is one of the larger mini-chains operating in the area. The Warwick location, just off Interstate 95 behind Rhode Island’s airport, is an easy place to grab-and-go a few red strips while passing through (which is where we got ours). As with the other bakeries, they also sell sweets like lemon bars, as well as calzones.

Meanwhile, baker Don DePetrillo, sells what he calls pizza chips from his The Original Italian Bakery. Don DePetrillo has a long history of experimenting with different types of dough and variations on traditional recipes. He worked to perfect pizza dough that can be frozen without changing the quality, and focused on perfecting his bread baking throughout his career. The pizza chips are similar to red strips, but crispy and topped with a sprinkle of cheese. They are sold by the bag.

DePetrillo was also an innovator in the St. Joseph Day Zeppole, creating unique flavors of the fired desserts. He opened his first bakery in 1967 and grew a mini empire of DePetrillo’s locations before, according to Rhode Island Monthly, he relocated to Florida in the mid-1990s.

The Rhode Island pizza strips are very much a local dish. Federal Hill’s Italian American population has spread to the city’s surrounding suburbs, and so have the original bakeries. However, that’s largely the radius where pizza strips can be found. D. Palmieri and DePetrillo’s are only a few minutes from the center of Providence.

DePetrillo's sells calzones in addition to the red strips

Calzone on display at DePetrillo’s in Warwick


A few other bakeries outside the immediate suburbs also sell the red strips. In Barrington, Rhode Island, on the east side of the Providence River, they can be found at the Vienna Bakery. That bakery was founded in 1935 by Giuseppe Balasco who settled in Providence in 1923. He worked for a few years as a baker before moving across the river. Generation after generation worked as bakers at the Vienna Bakery, and the Balasco family still operates it today.

A more recent addition is Colvitto’s, founded by Ron and Jeanne Ramieri in 1992. The Narragansett bakery sells both red and white strips with cheese, plus sweet treats like lemon bars and Italian pastries. The Ramieri family bought an existing bakery, originally named Calvitto’s, according to Robert Isenberg at the SO Rhode Island. Ironically Ramieri’s mother’s maiden name Calvitto, but the family renamed it Colvitto when their daughter began mispronouncing the word.

As with other regional Italian American delicacies such as the Italian hot dog, some of the beloved bakeries are closing as owners retire. Such is the case with Jeanette’s Bakery in Providence, which closed last month. Michelle Bucci is the most recent owner of the shop operating since 1945. Three generations worked in the bakery.

Another historic bakery that recently closed was the Wayland Bakery. The Basilico family first opened it in 1928. The family bakery eventually led to Anthony “Buzz” Basilico selling the business in 1999 to Juliana Rodriguez who operates Zaccagnini’s Pastry Shoppe in Pawtucket.

Unlike other regional pizza varieties, red strips haven’t expanded much beyond the Ocean State. They are truly a regional Italian American food available only in Rhode Island.

DePetrillo's Pizza & Bakery in Warwick behind  T.F. Green International Airport

DePetrillo’s Pizza and Bakery in Warwick sells Rhode Island’s pizza strips


WHERE TO FIND PIZZA STRIPS

D. Palmieri’s Bakery

The first D. Palmieri’s opened in Providence in 1905, and is still run today by the same family.
624 Killingly St, Johnston
Website


LaSalle Bakery

First opened in 1930, the bakery has had two owners since then. Michael Manni bought the bakery in 1975 after beginning there as a “pan boy” ten years earlier, and it is now run by his son.
933 Smith Street, Providence
685 Admiral Street, Providence
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Website


DePetrillos

Multiple locations have and do operate around the Providence suburbs for the last three decades.
1729 Warwick Ave, Warwick
1755 Smith St, North Providence
797 Tiogue Ave, Coventry
105 Pleasant View Ave #2144, Smithfield
1153 Putnam Pike, Chepachet
Website


The Original Italian Bakery

Don DePetrillo, who has operated various bakeries around Rhode Island since 1967, founded the bakery in 2007. He is known for experimenting with different types of dough.
915 Atwood Ave, Johnston
Website


Borelli’s Bakery

805 Charles Street, Providence
Founded by three brothers Nick, Tommy and Carmine II in 1948.
Website


Colvitto’s

Operating since 1992, the bakery sells red and white strips, and San Giuseppe zeppole.
91 Point Judith Rd, Narragansett
Website


Vienna Bakery

110 Maple Ave, Barrington
Website


Zaccagnini’s Pastry Shoppe

546 Smithfield Ave, Pawtucket
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