Former New York Times food critic Sam Sifton is credited with formulating the Pizza Cognition Theory: The first pizza we experience, once we’re able to conceive of food as anything more than an instinctual need, becomes the standard by which we judge all future pies. In other words, the first pizza we have once we’re of an age to understand what it is becomes our idea of pizza, the template to which we compare every subsequent example. It is notable that this theory was first posited in New York City, which, though rightfully credited with being the initial landing spot for the Neapolitan invention, still believes that theirs is the only real pizza in America.
This is not to say that the Pizza Cognition Theory (PCT) is without merit. Americans have a unique relationship with pizza; I believe that it holds a special place in their hearts that even the quintessential hot dog and hamburger cannot occupy. It has woven itself into the very fabric of the American experience. So it would stand to reason that our first experience with pizza might imprint in the deepest reaches of our collective psyches, the part that contains the very essence of our being. If Freud were still alive when pizza established itself in our culture, he would have undoubtedly made something naughty out of the phallic pepperoni and the mother’s milk cheese.
Be that as it may.
Perhaps it is because we love pizza so much that it has been reinterpreted and reinvented so many different ways. There isn’t one single definition of pizza that applies in today’s world. It’s always round, unless it’s square (Sicilian-style) or oblong (New Haven-style). The crust is thin, unless it’s thick, and made with white wheat flour, unless it’s made with a variety of other things. It’s covered with a layer of tomato sauce, unless it’s a “white” pie. It has mozzarella cheese on it, unless it doesn’t. And let’s not even start with the toppings; it is easier to list the things that don’t belong on a pizza than the things that do (under the right circumstances). There are absolutely no circumstances under which pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping.
The inherent versatility of pizza is certainly a factor in the PCT. It is among the most customizable of American foods, amenable to virtually unlimited personalization, adaptable to the transitory whims of our never-ending culinary fads. I’m sure that somewhere, someone is still making a kale and Sriracha pie on a quinoa crust. Even the most glutenophobic and veganiacal dietary hairshirts have managed to find a way to enjoy pizza without compromising their cloying self-righteousness. Pizza is still pizza even when made with a gluten-free rice flour crust and topped with almond-milk cheese and organic fennel. Just barely, but still. Meanwhile, put ketchup on a hot dog and you might as well throw the damned thing away.
My own PCT benchmark is as complex as the subject itself. It’s not as simple as a mother-duck imprint of the first pie I ever had, but rather, a foundation laid upon a compendium of youthful experiences. It has been augmented over the years by my extensive encounters with pizza all across this great land, as well as my own admittedly amateur attempts to make my ideal pie at home with little more than my trusty KitchenAid mixer and a dream. But it all began in a humble little kitchen in Clifton Forge, Virginia, in the early seventies, at the hands of a coal miner’s daughter and self-taught cook who learned to make pizza at home because she grew up in a place where pie was not just a phone call away.
The first pizza I ever had was my mother’s homemade pie. Mom made her crust from flour, water, and yeast, with no rise and no kneading. It came out predictably dense, not quite as crackery as Midwestern thin-crust nor as foldable as a New York-style. She topped it with canned pizza sauce, thick slices of Hormel pepperoni cut from a stick, shredded mozzarella, diced onions, green peppers, and canned mushrooms. And it was heaven. It was a gift of love for her family, prepared as a treat on Saturday nights even after a week of putting excellent home-cooked meals on the table each night.
The first store-bought pie I ever had was from a place called Capri Pizza in Beckley, West Virginia, which stood in for Mom’s homemade when we visited relatives on the weekends. It’s probably been 40 years, but I still remember the bathmat-thick gut bomb on a grease-soaked crust heaped with pepperoni, canned mushrooms, thin slices of onion and green pepper, hamburger, and a combination of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. It was different from Mom’s, but it contained more or less all the same basic elements. And it was a familiar reflection of the Appalachian culinary philosophy that “if some is good, more is better” that was also a fundamental tenet of Mom’s cooking. But it was the fact that Capri was the Saturday night treat shared among loved ones that has established it fondly in my memory all these decades later, even after Capri and most of my relatives are long gone.
The first chain pie I ever had was Pizza Hut, which opened in nearby Covington (VA) in the mid-seventies. Their original pie was a cracker-thin crust topped with their spice-forward sauce, a scant layer of cheese and strictly measured amounts of toppings. It wasn’t the paragon of glorious excess I was used to, but it was okay. Just okay, in and of itself. What was more important was that it was eaten together, as a family. After a long day of cooking at our own recently acquired restaurant (which did not serve pizza), it was a welcome break to go out to dinner. Even now, under the right circumstances, a slice of their original thin crust Supreme can transport me back to that moment when my parents were young and healthy, my sister was entering puberty and given to tsunami-strength hormonal surges and unpredictable lightning-quick mood swings, and my brother and I were constantly being exiled to the the car until we learned how to stop laughing like hyenas and act like we had some damned sense. Those were the days.
In 1978, a Sicilian immigrant named Vittorio “Victor” Cucci opened up a pizza shop in a glorified shanty in Covington. Even for a 10 year-old budding gourmand like myself, it was revelatory. It showed me what pizza could be in the hands of a real pro, the magnificent possibilities contained in this seemingly rudimentary amalgam of commonplace elements. Victor, the son of a baker, built his masterpiece from the crust up. It was substantial, not too dense, with a good chew and more than able to bear up beneath a copious load of toppings. The sauce was complementary but unobtrusive, there were generous handfuls of real mozzarella, and the toppings were applied with a practiced hand and not portioned out according to a some corporate issued picture of a model pie mounted above the work area.
When I eat Cucci’s pizza today, and judge it dispassionately as a seasoned epicure who has enjoyed some of the prime exemplars this nation has to offer, it still holds its own against the recognized masters of the craft. But food is and should be such a personal encounter, it is nearly impossible to separate the objective from the subjective. Every bite of Victor’s extraordinary crust calls back family dinners and first love, innumerable dates and friendly gatherings. The long, stretchy strings of mozzarella seem to resonate on some mystical wavelength that conjures the welcome ghosts of absent friends and loved ones, and calls forth a visage of a place in time when the world was a simpler, safer, seemingly permanent place.
The common ingredient in all of the best pies I’ve had is always the same—heart. That is my primary PCT criteria, almost more so than the pie itself. Mom’s homemade was an expression of maternal affection, made by a woman raised in a culture where food equals love. Cucci’s pizza was the product of a man with an obvious love for his craft, and for the people who were the beneficiaries of his work. More than 35 years after he first came to Covington, there he remains; still a fixture behind the counter in the “new” building that replaced the original shanty sometime in the late eighties, still enamored of his craft, still ensuring that the quality of every pizza is the equal of the very first pies that built his reputation. The intangible infusion of heart is what sets a pizza apart and, all other things being equal, is what can make a relatively pedestrian slice vastly superior to even the most expertly crafted—but soulless—boutique pies.
There is no substitute for emotional engagement when it comes to pizza. A perfectly acceptable hamburger can be made by an otherwise disengaged fry cook. The burgers I’ve had in many a little family-run joint, with three generations of heart going into every wax-paper lined basket, were not discernibly any better than the burger at the nearest Five Guys. But truly great pizza can’t come from anywhere but the love of it. I don’t care if the pizzaiolo is AVPN-certified, or if the 00 Caputo flour comes from a mill in operation since the 13th century or flown in weekly from Naples; if there is no emotional investment, it’s just another pie.
I’ve since sought out pizza at every opportunity, always in the interest of expanding my horizons and not merely seeking shelter in the familiar. I’ve boldly sampled pie from school cafeterias, drive-in movies, bowling alleys, Chuck E. Cheese, and a Korean-run joint in Lebanon, Tennessee, where they apparently learned how to make pizza by purchasing one and then reverse-engineering it without actually tasting one. I’ve ventured after dark in search of a storied pizzeria into places in Newark, New Jersey, where the locals wouldn’t go near in broad daylight. I’ve driven hours out of my way to sample a pie based on a single friend’s recommendation. I’ve tolerated many a smart-assed Yankee busting my chops because of my molasses-thick Virginia drawl, just to sample a slice of their wares.
I’ve had a vast array of regional specialties, from New Haven-style white clam “apizza” to Trenton, New Jersey’s, to famed tomato pie. I’ve run the gamut of Chicago’s famed deep-dish at Pizzeria Uno, Gino’s East, Burt’s, and Lou Malnati’s. I’ve eaten barbecued chicken pie from California Pizza Kitchen, and the unique St. Louis style on an unleavened crust and topped with the uniquely local Provel cheese. I’ve conducted an in-depth study of the whole range of New York pie from such venerable institutions as Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s, L&B Spumoni Garden, and about half of the roughly 50 joints in the five boroughs that have some variation of Ray’s in the name.
I’ve had merely decent pie in plenty of old school, well-known joints. I’ve had many an unsatisfactory slice in white tablecloth ristorantes where they think having the pizzaiolo and brick oven in full view of the dining area is worth an extra $10 per pie. I’ve discovered exceptional pizza in skeevy-looking beer joints, converted convenience stores, inconspicuous storefronts, nearly hidden holes-in-the-wall known only to the local cognoscenti, and once, even in a mall food court (and no, it wasn’t Sbarro, you heathen). The great pies were all wonderfully different, the average pies were all disappointingly the same; the difference, in every case, was the infusion of a Dean Martin-sized helping of amore.
This is not to say that the quality of the pizza itself doesn’t matter. Mom would have been the first to admit that her homemade was no Cucci’s. But she did the best she could with the knowledge and ingredients available to her at the time. In the seventies, the local supermarket in Clifton Forge didn’t carry buffalo mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, 00 Caputo flour or garden-fresh herbs. It probably still doesn’t carry half those fixings. You couldn’t just jump on the Internet and watch a YouTube video demonstrating the proper method for making authentic pizza crust, even if it seems like no two people can quite come to agreement as to what that might be. But you can bet that if she were here now, she’d be using every resource at her disposal to make the best pie she could. She cared too much to serve anything that she felt represented less than her best efforts.
When Mom wasn’t cooking for others to earn her dollar, she loved to expand her culinary horizons. She never encountered a recipe or a technique she wouldn’t have a go at, and she was never satisfied with knowing just one way to do anything. One of her favorite things to do was to try something new in a restaurant and then go home and see if she could replicate it using only what she had at hand. It didn’t matter if it was beef stroganoff or lamb vindaloo. She was an instinctive, improvisational, fearless cook, and she passed those traits on to me. Were she alive today, she would be very disappointed if I were still only making pizza exactly the same way she made it forty years ago.
As I have continued her culinary legacy, and grown in the love of cooking she bestowed upon me, it is pizza that serves as a milestone of my progress. Every year, on my birthday, I treat myself to a sixer of good beer and make a pizza that represents all the knowledge and experience I have acquired over the past twelve months. The crust has gone through at least three or four different iterations since last year, and I’ve undoubtedly become enamored of a new sauce recipe or different combination of toppings. The only constant is my standing Too Much Damned Cheese policy, which states that any dish that I prepare requiring cheese must contain enough cheese to make a normal human being exclaim, “That’s too much damned cheese!”
Ultimately, though, all the effort and experimentation is futile if the end result of it is that no one enjoys it but me. No matter how much of my heart I put into it, or what fond memories it invokes, it’s all for naught if I don’t share the finished product with those I care about. Your heart can be spilling over with love, but it’s useless if you never give any of it away.
I’m not so arrogant as to believe that the pizza at the end of my culinary rainbow, should I ever actually achieve it, would be anyone else’s ideal pie. But I remain convinced that the nearly 30 years of trial and error, informed by my personal experiences and the special place pizza holds in my heart, will supply the emotional content necessary to elevate my creation to an integral component of someone else’s special memories. I continue to hope for the day when my creation becomes my yet-unborn children’s Pizza Cognition Theory yardstick. A father’s love, with too much damned cheese.