In our podcast — which I’m still working on getting out there, I promise! — Max asked me how much pizza I’ve eaten since I arrived in New York. The answer is shamefully few slices, but I’ve been living with vegans, so that might have skewed my numbers.
Ever since she asked me that question, though, I’ve been thinking about pizza. And because I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve started noticing that people are very passionate (and vocal) about what “real” pizza is.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but pizza is a very touchy subject in America. Much like the eternal debate of what constitutes real BBQ/barbeque/barbecue/Bar-B-Que, the word pizza triggers different mental images (with some pretty major differences) in factions of American pizza enthusiasts, and some of those enthusiasts will defend their chosen style to the death.
For some, pizza is their hill to die on, which… I mean, no judgement. To each their own. But I guess I wrote an essay about pizza in response.
My mother grew up just outside of Chicago, and, when I was planning to visit on my road trip, her first recommendation was to hit Uno or Due while I was there. (Honestly, that might have been her only recommendation…) My mother doesn’t even like pizza that much (other than my dad’s), but pizza is just that important to Chicagoans. It’s a point of pride.
My father, on the other hand, grew up in Italy (Naples to be specific) for most of his childhood, and he makes some of the best pizza I’ve had in my life. But he also tells an interesting pizza tale.
Back in the 50s and 60s — at least in Naples — Italian pizza was a thick slice of foccacia, brushed with a smattering of either fresh tomato sauce or olive oil with tomato slices. It might be topped with some garlic or basil or other herbs before being baked. Cheese was optional.
In other words, pizza was exactly what most Americans picture today when we think of foccacia, which is traditionally just a type of bread with no toppings at all other than some salt. Anyway, that’s what my dad thought of as pizza until he came back to the States in his late teens and encountered American pizza.
In researching this post, I discovered that Naples actually invented pizza (maybe). So Neopolitan pizza’s probably got it on lock, right?
In the States, things are different. (So many things, but right now we’re only talking about pizza.) Here we argue about real pizza — all in good fun — and its various nuances: crust thickness, cheese choice, sauce sweetness-level, appropriate toppings, etc.
Let’s dive in to the Great Pizza Debate.
New York: thin (not crispy) crust, extra-large slice, foldable*
New York style pizza fits in perfectly with that always-on-the-go lifestyle we associate with NYC. Classic slices are usually served from a window on the sidewalk (or counter if, heaven forbid, you have to take the time to go inside a shop) on a plate so that you can scarf it down as you dodge around pedestrians.
Manhattan is known for the dollar slice, but you can get nicer slices from fancier shops. These two were $4.50 each from the very best of the best (in my humble opinion).
I have yet to meet anyone in NYC who wanted to go to a sit-down restaurant for pizza. Here, pizza is associated with to go orders.
Sicilian: very thick crust in deep-dish pan, rectangular slices, heavy toppings
This style is not to be confused with Grandma pizza, which I don’t fully understand yet. Again, in New York, this is usually ordered to go, or served on a plate to eat as you walk.
But it’s getting closer to bridging that gap between New York and Chicago.
Chicago: thin(ner) crust in deep-dish pan, heavy layered toppings with sauce on top
Chicago pizza makes you think “Oh, so that’s why they call it a pie. Got it.” This style is designed to sit down and savor in a big booth of a pizza parlor. I don’t even recommend getting it to go because it won’t be piping hot when you finally eat it. You cannot scarf this pizza down, and if you tried, you’d probably regret it.
Personally, I find any pizza you have to eat with a fork and knife a little odd. But that doesn’t lessen how delicious Chicago style is.
(Also, I grew up in California where restaurants forgo sauce sometimes, so I’m clearly not an expert here.)
California: thin crust, personal size, light or no sauce and (sometimes odd) toppings
California gets a bit creative with what is considered an appropriate pizza topping. Barbecue chicken pizza is a big hit on the West Coast (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, guys) and usually incorporates cheeses beyond mozzarella. Avocado inexplicably lands on pizza quite often. Like any true California Girl I love avocado, but this is too far even for me.
And, since Mexican food is so ingrained in California culture, we tend to put beans on or in everything — black beans in specific — so in a nod to Tex-Mex we throw together some black beans and corn and slap that on pizza, too. But don’t confuse this with Mexican pizza, which is very different and covered below.
Californians are also obsessed with being “healthy” — and that definition changes every few days — so you can always find a cheeseless or sauceless pizza on the menu, too. I’m not sure either of these options makes eating what is essentially a chunk of bread healthy per se, but the options exist.
Sauceless pizza rubs olive oil (usually infused with garlic and basil and all sorts of delicious things) on the crust before the toppings are added. Often, slices of fresh tomato are under the cheese, and then it’s really just a deconstructed tomato sauce. So “sauceless” isn’t really accurate.
Cheeseless…well, I just can’t relate to cheeseless pizza. So we’ll leave it at that.
Neopolitan: thick(er) crust, small and round, light toppings
The (modernized maybe?) Neopolitan style is a little different from what my dad grew up eating.
But it’s not too far off, is it?
Detroit: My Favorite
Have you had Detroit style pizza? Because it’s pretty magical.
The cheese and sauce are kind of mixed together rather than layered, and the toppings are the classic toppings you usually think of for pizza (sausage or pepperoni, peppers, etc.).
It’s the crust that really does it for me, though. I don’t know how to describe it to you. It’s a thick crust, baked so that the bottom is super crispy, but the inside is still pillowy soft. It’s deep-dish but holds together well enough you can eat it sans fork and knife.
It simultaneously hits all those pizza crust notes everyone is battling over. In my opinion, it’s the Great Pizza Unifier, but so far few have agreed with me.
The Serious Eats article lists some other criteria that I’ve never experienced with Detroit style. But I’ve also never been to Detroit. So. There’s that.
The Stranger Offerings
We also have some stranger offerings in the States that absolutely no one is fighting over, but a lot of people are eating: the breakfast pizza, Mexican pizza, bagel pizza, St. Louis style, and about a thousand others that I ran across and had never heard of before today.
I haven’t had St. Louis style — I don’t even fully understand what this is other than a yeast-less crust and processed cheese (what?) — but I’ll eventually give it a shot, I’m guessing. I’m usually willing to try anything twice just to make sure the first reaction wasn’t a fluke. But it might take me a while to get to this one. (Processed cheese?)
Breakfast pizza is everywhere in California. I haven’t seen any place with it in New York yet, but I’ll keep an eye out. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Breakfast pizza actually stems from the French style of cracking an egg in the middle of a pizza. I’m not kidding. And it’s delicious.
Mexican pizza is tragically associated with Taco Bell and might also be a California thing? I’m not sure, to be honest. In California, it pretty consistently includes refried beans spread across a crust of your choosing; some people use tortillas, some use pita, some go with a classic thin pizza crust. Mozzarella is swapped out in favor of cheddar or oaxacan, and pico de gallo appears as the tomato offering. Chiles and chorizo are prety common, as well, and the whole thing is topped in hot sauce or sour cream, depending on what kind of person you are. (If you think any of these combinations sounds delicious, we would probably be friends.)
As a poor college student, many bagel pizzas were devoured, and weirdly enough they continued to be one of my comfort foods most of my adult life. I feel like making a pizza out of a New York bagel would be seen as sacrilege, though, so my bagel pizza career might be over now.
And I don’t think Italians would approve of any of the above. Except maybe the breakfast pizza. I think they have that in Italy?
*Some people in NYC get very salty if you fold your pizza. Just a heads up on that.