Legend has it that the world's first pizzeria is the “Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba”, which opened in Naples, Italy, in 1830 and is still in business today. The trend was allegedly exported to the United States in the 1890s by Gennaro Lombardi who sold pizzas in his grocery store in Little Italy, New York before opening his popular pizzeria “Lombardi's” in 1905. It was however only 50 years later, in 1955, that Switzerland's first pizzeria, l'Age d'Or, saw the day. It was initially located in the Cornavin district of Geneva before moving to its present nearby location some two years later, owing to its growing success.
This pizzeria is like no other, and in complete contradiction with Genevan architect Marc Joseph Saugey's (who also designed Geneva's Plaza cinema) then revolutionary glass building in which it is located. When you step into l'Age d'Or you are transported into another era. The interior is neo-baroque and quite theatrical: walls covered with lush red silk patterned fabric, torch-like light fixtures giving a soft glow, ornate gilded decorations, almost life-size impressive late 18th century statues, and a staircase with an intricate wrought iron railing leading up to a dramatic balcony resembling a theater's first mezzanine.
Two good friends = two good ideas
In the early 1950s, inspired by a year-long road trip across the United States, two Genevans, Antoine Niklès, a watchmaker, and his friend Henry Perey, an interior designer and antique dealer, who had previously designed the facade of the Richemond Hotel and Brachard stationary store, in Geneva, decided to open the first Swiss 'disco', the “Bar à Whiskey” (one of Geneva's most popular night spots until 1990) and the first pizzeria “l'Age d'Or”. Both were an immediate hit with the local population.
L'Age d'Or's novel concept was to serve a single, quick, cheap dish in a luxurious setting. In addition, for the first time in Geneva, clients could eat at any time of day and as late as 1am – a concept the owners also imported from the United States. Henry Perey was inspired by Napoleon III objects, which he collected and sold in his antique store, and the French film director, poet, novelist, painter, playwright, set designer, and actor, Jean Cocteau, which explains the extravagant decor of the pizzeria.
The quirkiest aspect of this small pizzeria is that it is divided into two completely distinct sections. Across a small corridor from its initial neo-baroque setting, you come to what was previously the bar. The menu is the same but the decor is totally different. Here clients get to eat in an authentic traditional Swiss train wagon which Henry Perey had dismanteled and rebuilt on site.
The homemade pizzas themselves are unique as well. They are baked in individual iron pans in a traditional wood oven. When l'Age d'Or first opened, customers flocked to the pizzeria to taste what they referred to as “the tomato cake”, which at the time cost a mere CHF2.00. The recipe has not changed in 65 years and is a guarded secret only passed down from pizzaolo to pizzaolo. They are surprisingly small and do not look or taste like any other pizza on the market, and this is their claim to fame, as promoted in their 50th anniversary advertising campaign: “The smallest pizza and proud of it!”. Although the pizzeria was taken over by new owners over 20 years ago, the concept and the menu remain very similar to that of 1955, with minor changes including the addition of a slightly larger (but still small) pizza for big eaters and pasta dishes.
Today pizzerias have become very common worldwide and although they obviously each have their specificities, they mostly have a quite familiar setting, atmosphere and menu. However, when you take out of towners to l'Age d'Or they are always taken by surprise As Mathew, a Londoner, put it: “the first time I went to this pizzeria several years ago, I especially loved the experience of eating on the private balcony overlooking the whole restaurant. It was all very grand, quirky and different. Since then, every time I'm in Geneva, I make a point of going back there. As for the pizzas, they are so different from any others I have tasted, but I actually quite like them and they somehow fit in with the setting!”
A Geneva Landmark
As in many cities worldwide, most of Geneva's traditional old cafés and restaurants have long disappeared. Patrimoine Suisse Genève, the Swiss Heritage Association, has selected six of those which they feel are an integral part of the Canton's heritage and must be preserved from demolition or transformation. It comes as no surprise that one of the restaurants selected is l'Age d'Or.
L'Age d'Or has an eclectic clientele across all generations. Some customers remember the pizzeria at its beginnings and still feel quite nostalgic and protective about it, as do their children who remember the excitement of being treated to a pizza when they were kids. Some even remember the eccentric Maître d'Hôtel who formally greeted customers as they stepped into the pizzeria and some of the waitresses who worked there for over 40 years. Others, including many expats, who discovered the pizzeria more recently, are struck by the singularity of the decor and the pizzas as compared to most other pizzerias they know. The general consensus is that whether you like or dislike l'Age d'Or's pizzas or its setting you cannot be indifferent to it and everyone agrees that it would be a real shame to see such a unique landmark disappear from the urban landscape.