originally published September 13, 2013
In the sprawling kitchen of international cuisine, your teeth will never know a greater pleasure than when they sink into the perfect pizza. The specifics of that perfection are purely subjective; pizza can be a health food or a grease-laden fat-trap. You may prefer a dripping slab of foldable New York pie or the hearty fork-bending stew of genuine Chicago deep-dish. An unleavened square-slice from St. Louis or a scissor-cut crispy rectangle, Lazio-style. It doesn’t matter – your perfect pizza is your perfect food.
I can’t say with any degree of certainty what my perfect pizza would be. I know I have to skip the opening credits when I watch an episode of Louie because that shot of New York pizza will set my taste buds into meltdown. But the first time I learned that real Chicago deep-dish was nothing like the dough-heavy flaccidity they call ‘deep-dish’ in this part of the world, it was an epiphany.
It’s like choosing between Beatles albums. Or children. Ultimately, there’s more than enough pizza-love to spread around.
First off, let’s get the pronunciation right. The Italian pronunciation is ‘pittsa’, though unless you’re talking to an actual Italian pronouncing it that way will seem a little douchey. No one knows pizza’s origin story, though it likely grew from the topping-adorned focaccia bread from Roman Empire times. In fact you could go back further to Ancient Greece, where they topped their ‘plakous’ (flatbread) with herbs, onion and garlic. Naples gets dibs on the title of modern pizza’s birthplace. It was a galette flatbread, and it was known as the foodstuff of the poor folk.
Tomatoes didn’t show up on the sunny-side of a pizza until the 16th century. Keep in mind, tomatoes are children of the western hemisphere – it wasn’t until Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortés snagged a batch of little yellow tomatoes from the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and brought home that they began to find their way into European cuisine. In fact, up until the late nineteenth century the food known as ‘pizza’ was actually sweet, not savory.
The classic pizza legend tells of the day in June, 1889 when the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, was baked a tasty pie by Naples pizza chef Raffaele Esposito. He topped it with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese, representing the three colors of the Italian flag. This became known as the ‘pizza Margherita’. Italian purists will tell you there are only two types of ‘real’ pizza: the Margherita and the marinara. A marinara pizza is topped with tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, and its name derives from the tradition of a seaman’s wife (known as la marinara) baking it for her husband after a long fishing trip.
If you want a real Neapolitan pizza, check out the True Neapolitan Pizza Association, who promote the ultra-specific guidelines for a genuine Neapolitan pie. The pizza should be no more than 35 centimeters in diameter, no thicker than 1/3 of a centimeter at the center, must be rolled and kneaded by hand, then baked in a wood-fired domed oven. Actual pizzerias in Naples take it a step further, insisting upon only using San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, and only drizzling the tomatoes and olive oil in a clockwise direction.
People get a little nuts about their pizza.
The first reference to pizza in the US appeared in a Boston Journal article in 1904. Italian immigrants brought the heavenly feast-food to North American shores and, as with any other tradition that takes its first step on the east coast and meanders throughout the corridors of America, it took on a new face in almost every town. You’ve got thin-crust, wide-slice New York pizza, which often requires a bit of napkin-dabbing to stop the grease from permanently splotching one’s shirt. Many New York establishments also offer Sicilian pizza, which is thicker and rectangular. Detroit-style pizza is the same thing as Sicilian, except the toppings are underneath the sauce.
New Yorkers are fanatical about their pizza, and for good reason. As some Easterners ventured out to southern California, they found even transplanted New Yorkers couldn’t make good New York pizza. It was the water, they decided – that precious filtered fluid from the Hudson or East River (wherever New York’s water is drawn from). Rumor has it there’s a place in San Diego (I’ve heard it could be Bronx Pizza) that actually trucks water across the country just so they can make as pure a New York pizza as is humanly possible under the west coast sun.
Chicago pizza – and I really wish some establishment in this city would clue into this – is thick on top, with the crust baked up the side of a deep pan, but the crust underneath should be crisp and crunchy. The correct order of ingredients from the bottom up are crust, cheese, toppings, then a tangy sauce. Sweet Jeebus, I need to stop Googling photos of pizza for this article. I’m too hungry for this.
Up until the 1940’s, pizza had yet to catch on in the States beyond the swarms of Italian immigrants dotting the American landscape. But soldiers stationed in Italy during WWII discovered this immaculate concoction and brought back with them an insatiable appetite for the stuff. Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo (probably not married to Lucy, but hey, who knows?) get credit for inventing the Chicago style in 1943, and Shakey’s Pizza in Sacramento gets credit for being one of the earliest pizza chains, opening up in 1954. The phenomenon of this truly perfect food is remarkably young.
Lazio style pizza, served in Rome, is cooked in long rectangular pans and has a thinner and crispier base than those of the pizza-obsessives over in Naples. Mexican pizza is simply normal pizza with Mexican-style toppings like jalapenos, avocados or shrimp. Australia throws bacon and eggs on their pizza. Brazilians make fairly standard Neapolitan and Lazio pizzas, but emphasize more tomato slices and less tomato sauce. According to a 2004 AC Nielsen survey, Norway actually consumes the most pizza per capita in the world. Go figure.
My daughter tells me true Italian pizza is the best in the world, and I’ll take her word for it since I know she didn’t eat much else when she was travelling there last year. I only know that the stuff that passes for pizza in most restaurants in this town is barely a cut above frozen grocery store crap.
Maybe it’s the water.