Growing up in Boston during the early sixties, I learned about pizza in the Old North End. Boston’s Little Italy held tight to an age-old culinary tradition. The amazing aromas from 50 years of continuous baking hung in the tiny, twisting back streets. To the first generation immigrants living in the neighborhood pizza meant only one thing, pizza alla Napoletana, thin and crisp, yet chewy and robust. Slices you could fold in half and walk away with in one hand. Pizza baked in blazing hot deck ovens to an unmatchable texture and flavor. Those days are gone, but the memories of those wonderful, flavorful pies remain. And, in a few pizzerias—in New York, Boston, and New Jersey—the tradition is being continued to this day.
Elsewhere in the country it is a whole other pie game.
One hundred years after Genarro Lombardi opened the first American pizza restaurant at 53 Spring Street in New York City, every part of the country has its favorite style of pizza. Go the Midwest and you’re likely to hear that thin-crust pizza topped with provel, a cheddar/Swiss/provolone cheese mix, is the only way to go. Further west, Californians are partial to fresh and non-traditional toppings. The Greek pizza, with its chewy crust and olive-oil base, is popular in New England. However, each uniquely American take on pizza relies on some sort of variation of one of three basic crusts—thin crust, deep dish, or, New York–style.
In the late 1800s, thousands of southern Italians immigrated to America’s eastern cities. New York and Boston were two major destinations. To those two cities, the newly arrived Italians brought with them their culinary traditions, preferences, and recipes. Tomato pie—a simple vegetable dish made with bread dough, fresh tomatoes, and whatever herbs were available—was a staple food. In 1905, the New York City government issued the country’s first license to bake and sell pizza. The way the world eats has never been the same.
The very first style of pizza was cracker thin and crisp. In Naples, Italy, super hot, wood-fired hearth ovens were used to bake thin, crisp bread crusts topped with simple tomato, olive oil, and herbs. Today the crust is also known in the professional pizza industry as “cracker crust.” For almost 100 years, thin-crust was all the world knew. Then Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell got into business together.
Pan pizza, deep dish, Chicago Style—all are regional names for the style of pizza Riccardo and Sewell made popular in 1940s Chicago. A pie in the true sense of the word, the pizza is baked in a deep-sided pan. The result is a serious, sit down, knife and fork food that traces its roots back to 1943 when partners Riccardo and Sewell opened the first Pizzeria Uno on the corner of Chicago’s Wabash Street. The concept lives on today as Uno Chicago Grill, home of the original Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. The most involved of the three major pizza styles, deep-dish starts with a par-baked crust made of cornmeal and olive oil and a two-inch deep baking pan. Next layers of mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, vegetables, and various meats are placed atop the crust. More mozzarella and more crushed tomatoes form the uppermost layer. The pie is then baked at no less than 450?F for a minimum of 20 minutes. The result is something akin to a pizza casserole.
In much of the Northeast, the preferred way to eat pizza is the oversized, thin, and stretchy slices associated with the New York–style or Italian-style. Traditionally hand-tossed, New York–style pizzas are light on sauce and toppings.
“The essential element is a great classic tomato pizza sauce,” Chef D. Brodie Dunn, Pizza Hut’s Innovation Guy, explains. “It all starts with the best tomatoes. If the tomatoes are great, you can generally do what you want with the sauce. Having a tomato product that is consistent, reliable, and high quality goes a long way to ensure a classic tomato sauce. The rest of the ingredients are important but have less of a dramatic effect on the sauce itself.” Having helped create some of the most successful quick-service products ever, Dunn also has very clear feelings about the type of cheese that should be used. “Mozzarella is the perfect cheese for pizza. You can always play with other cheeses to change flavors and have fun, but keep mozzarella in the mix on every recipe to ensure the best product,” he says. “There is no better cheese for pizza.”
Sargento’s head chef Guy Beardsmore has a slightly different opinion. “The very best cheese for a quick-serve pizza is a blend of 90 percent full fat mozzarella combined with 10 percent aged Asiago. The combination gives a perfect melt, a great ‘string’ and a nice sharp, flavor bite,” he says.
As to the best style of crust, it seems even the world’s top pizza experts are unwilling to take a position. “All styles are awesome,” Dunn says. “From deep dish to traditional to thin, to me, the more simple the ingredients are in the dough, the better the dough tastes. All you need is flour, salt, sugar, yeast, water, and olive oil. Ensure your ingredients are top quality. You will make great dough all the time. There is no best style. Every style is awesome; great in its own way.”