Arena on Pizza – Were The Good Ole Days Really That Good?

ELV note: John Arena’s pizza musings stimulate our brain and our appetite. Below, he wonders if the pizzas of yesteryear really were all that nostalgia has cracked them up to be.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about…Roger Bannister. No, Bannister is not the latest hot shot artisan pizza maker. For those of you too young to remember, Roger Bannister was a British Track & Field athlete who on May 6, 1954 became the first person to run a sub 4 minute mile. Roger, who was later knighted for his efforts, broke what was considered by the general public to be an unbreakable barrier. What is interesting is that to serious athletes of the day, shattering the 4 minute obstacle was considered not impossible but inevitable. The fact is they were correct, and the current US High School record stands at a full 6 Seconds faster than Sir Roger Bannister’s World Record achievement of just 57 years ago!

So what has this got to do with pizza? Well, last week I came across an article in a pizza trade publication about a certain well established pizza chain that proudly stated that their pizza has not changed in over 50 years. In truth many pizza makers make similar claims about “Old World Traditions” and “Time Honored Family Recipes”. The widely held belief is that the old ways, old ingredients and old methods are always superior to the new. Well folks, here is something to think about. In virtually every objectively measurable endeavor mankind improves over time. We run faster, jump higher, live longer more active lives, build more efficient engines and yes, we know more about baking than our ancestors did.

The debate is only made possible because taste and memory are subjective. It may not sound romantic… but this is the Golden Age of Pizza, and the future is even brighter. I’ve been a pizza maker for almost 44 years and I am positive that today’s amateur pizza makers know more about their hobby than most professionals did when I was getting started.

My Dad was a bread baker in New York in the 1930’s and he marvels at the variety and quality of the breads that are being produced by artisan bakers in Manhattan and around the country today. No slave to nostalgia, my father taught me to simply look at the facts. The variety of ingredients, equipment improvement, and the free exchange of ideas and knowledge has led to astonishing results in places such as Jim Leahy’s Sullivan St. Bakery and Co. his amazing Chelsea pizzeria.

So, let’s demystify the “good old days” once and for all. Do you really think that the celebrated “00” flour that you are buying resembles what Raffaelo Esposito was using when he allegedly invented the pizza Margherita? For starters, modern Italian flour is a combination of wheat from all over the world including North America and is milled with equipment and technology that simply didn’t exist until very recently. If you’re a New York style pizza fan and adherent of the New York Holy Water myth have you considered that New York City tap water in no way resembles what came out of the tenement faucets in 1905 when Lombardi’s opened its doors?

You say you love vine ripened tomatoes, so do I, and I know that today those tomatoes are picked, rushed to the plant and canned faster and under much better conditions than in days past. In fact even the cans are better today, coated so they do not impart a tinny aftertaste to the rich sweet flavor of the tomatoes.

What about the methods themselves? Sorry folks, with all due respect to Grandma, today’s long cool fermentation produces more complex flavors and better texture than covering dough with a blanket and putting it under the bed for 3 hours. And no, blessing the bread by carving a cross (or any other symbol) into the top of the dough will not insure that it will rise properly.

Regarding the chain pizzeria I mentioned earlier: Unchanged in 50 years? Even if that were possible is it desirable to do something for half of a century and not learn anything new? Those folks who started their company in suburban Texas in 1958 may not have changed but I can guarantee that their customers have. Today’s pizza consumers and pizza makers are more adventurous, more knowledgeable, and have deeper experience than any generation that came before. Our job as pizza makers is not to preserve the ashes of tradition but to break through the old barriers and push our craft to new heights.

4 thoughts on “Arena on Pizza – Were The Good Ole Days Really That Good?

  1. He’s right. If someone offered me a fresh slice of pizza or a 50 year old slice of pizza, I’d go for the fresh slice every time.

  2. Markus, do you remember exactly what pizza tasted like 50 years ago to be able to make a comparison between the pies of nowadays vs then? For that matter does John Arena? He would have been about 7 years old 50 years ago.

    Sorry Mr Arena, I’m not buying into your theory. And unless you can come up with a time machine so we can all have a fresh slice of pie from 50 years ago and compare it to today’s pies, it shall remain just that, a theory.

  3. Very well reasoned article. I’ve said it before, I’ll probably say it again. A John Arena book on pizza history, pizza in different locales, plus recipes for same would be something I’d wait in line to buy (if I had to, but more likely order from Amazon). If it were close to the level of the articles I’ve read via this forum, it’s something I’d heartily endorse. At the very least, keep writing.

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