PIZZA AGONISTES by John Mariani
ELV note: This article is from the current edition of John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet and originally appeared on Esquire.com. We re-publish it here on the slim chance that a few of our loyal readers do not already subscribe to Mariani’s essential Web publication. Read away in either format and prepare to get hungry.
It’s been a bad month for bad pizza. First, Sbarro announced the closing of 155 of its 400 U.S. stores, then declared bankruptcy. Again. Then, in one of the few conservative judicial decisions I actually applaud, Justice Antonin Scalia, born in Trenton, NJ, declared that Chicago-style deep-dish pizza “shouldn’t be called pizza. It’s very tasty, but it’s not pizza.”
Curiously enough, these two seemingly unrelated incidents actually prove that inferior pizza is on the wane. (Well, not entirely, Pizza Hut, which makes the worst pizza on Earth, still has more than 6,000 U.S. locations, and more than 5,000 in 94 other countries.) The good news is that pizza is going through a renaissance of quality, having passed from its humble Neapolitan origins as poor people’s food to its first outpost still there–to becoming a favorite snack food across the U.S. by the 1960s, when the corruption really set in.
Sbarro, which started out in 1956 in Brooklyn and became a staple of mall food courts when it went public in 1985, is far from making truly bad pizza, even if its crust is too doughy and its toppings insipid. The demise of pizza in America really began when chains–most of them out of the Midwest–like Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Godfather–these last two blithely and despicably trading on Italian gangster stereotypes (below)–created a Middle American style pizza of daunting size, heaviness and distaste than bore no resemblance to the Neapolitan model. Then the very American impetus to pile on became competitive: Little Caesars’ Ultimate Supreme Pizza is topped with pepperoni, Italian sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, and onions on a thick crust with the consistency of a bread stick, while Pizza Hut’s Super Supreme Pizza (goes way beyond that, described as a “feast of pepperoni, ham, beef, pork sausage, Italian sausage, red onions, mushrooms, green peppers and black olives”–just the thing to give pizza a bad name as artery-clogging, gut-busting junk food.
A pullback came innocently enough, when California Earth Mother Alice Waters began serving authentic, marvelously crusted, charred and bubbly Neapolitan-style pizzas at her Café Fanny in Berkeley, about the same time Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in L.A., where he made pizzas whose crust was just as rigorously authentic but with out-of-the-ordinary first-quality ingredients that included smoked salmon, caviar, dill and sour cream, which he dubbed “Jewish pizza” (below).
But it was not until Italian food in this country transcended the image of being greaseball fare that pizza came along for the ride to eminence as a legitimate dish that demanded respect for its traditions as poor people’s food in 19th century Naples.
The problem was, as always happens in the U.S., overeager young cooks decided to exalt pizza by deconstructing every element of the pie in an attempt to justify an entirely new array of excesses in the name of “gourmet pizza.” Wood-fired ovens were held to be requisite for a good crust; the flour had to be imported from Italy (even though the Italians import their flour from Minnesota); the chemical make-up of the water was considered crucial; and along the way the crust got fashionably thinner and thinner until it was more a flatbread than a pizza.
Pioneers like Chris Bianco (below) of Pizza Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona–who once prided himself on making every pizza, until the flour dust got to his lungs–became heroes, even icons. Entrepreneurs flew to Naples, ate at ten pizzerias, declared themselves experts, then ordered handcrafted pizza ovens to be shipped to the States, which always arrived at least six months late
Inevitably followed scores of articles in national and city magazines in high dudgeon over who made the best pizzas in America, and the whole thing became typically overblown, overthought, and really really boring.
But, as is also the case in America, these dithyrambs of exhaustive scrutiny got old and the copy got thin, as the next new thing demanded immediate attention. And this is why we are now in a pizza renaissance: after pizza wars in New York, L.A., Boston, San Francisco, and other major cities, the wonderful fall-out of those battles is that you can now get a good pizza just about anywhere in the U.S., as long as it’s not at a chain.
The mystery of making a good pizza has been solved, and it’s not all that difficult, assuming some publicity-freak cook doesn’t intend to top his pizzas with, oh, I don’t know, leaves and lichen. Contemporary ovens, which need not be made of brick or wood- or coal-fired, almost guarantee a good crust if the cook has a commitment to the crafting and stretching of the dough in order to create those charred bubbles, chewy-crunchy crust, and yeasty aroma that permeates the ingredients put on top of the pie. And, of course, high quality ingredients are easier to buy than ever before–excellent olive oil, fine salami and sausage, fresh basil, artisanal cheeses.
As a kid from the Bronx I no longer feel the need to declare all pizzas outside of New York second-rate–not that I don’t have my favorites here–although I totally agree with Justice Scalia about the abomination called Chicago deep-dish pizza. I have had first-rate pizzas all over the U.S., classic Margheritas, spicy pepperoni, with Gorgonzola and caramelized figs, arugula and goat’s cheese, and pastrami and fontina.
And while I rarely took the time to make pizza at home–which takes incessant practice to perfect the dough, then heating up a pizza stone for an hour till it’s maybe 500 degrees–I’ve actually found a little miracle device called the Newwave Pizza Maker that heats up to 600 degrees in five minutes and makes a perfect pizza in under five minutes–provided you buy good pizza dough, now readily available. The thing’s made in Taiwan and you can find it for $79-$100.
So, in its renaissance, pizza is returning to its humble roots, and with the dissipation of gourmet madness on the subject, we very easily go to a neighborhood pizzeria with a name like Vinny’s Original or La Dolce Vita Pizza, sit down and nurse a Peroni beer (which is really pretty good now), then swoon when the steaming hot pie is brought out and set on a metal stand, and the waiter says, “It’s really hot. Don’t burn your mouth.” But you can’t wait, and you do.