When last we left our discussion of pizza, it had been thoroughly established that pizza is America’s favorite food and that the primary criteria that separates good pie from bad is love (established in Fitzgerald v. Boyardi, in which the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of half pepperoni and half mushroom, with a side of Buffalo wings). There are those who insist that pizza is like sex—even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. I would go even further and submit that, in almost any circumstance, pizza is superior to sex in that it generally costs less and almost always smells better. And tipping the server is not considered an insult to one’s honor.
But like sex, pizza is transformed from a mere instrument of necessity for the satisfaction of a natural need to a transitory and supremely pleasurable act by the added dimension of emotional engagement. In the first part of this article, I elaborated on former New York Times food critic Sam Sifton’s Pizza Cognition Theory (PCT); the idea that the first pizza one experiences becomes the standard by which they measure all subsequent pies. I put forth the idea that it is an intangible ingredient—love—that truly defines the parameters of our PCT benchmark pie.
Most of America’s most treasured culinary traditions found their way into the Great Melting Pot via the vast array of immigrants who came to this country in search of a better life and the Constitutionally guaranteed right to complain that things were better in the Old Country. The Scots gave us fried chicken (with an assist to West Africans, who introduced their native spices to the mix, giving the dish a property theretofore unknown in Scottish cookery called flavor), the Germans gave us the fundamentals of both hot dogs and hamburgers, the British gave us apple pie, and those slackers from Luxembourg didn’t give us a damned thing so to hell with ‘em.
The first pizzeria was Lombardi’s in New York City, which dates back to 1905. Using a traditional coal-fired oven, it produced the thin, crisp but chewy Neapolitan pies Southern Italians knew and loved. Pizza remained primarily confined to Italian neighborhoods until returning servicemen from World War II brought back a taste for the cuisine that they had acquired while fighting their way through Italy. And pizza—tasty, portable and quick (about ninety seconds in a 900° coal-fired brick oven)—was perfect for the quickened pace of prosperity in post-war America. By the 1950s, pizza was spreading across the nation quicker than viral videos of whatever outrageous thing Miley Cyrus did last.
Once Lady Liberty had been taken pizza to her bosom, Uncle Sam’s great homogenizer went to work making it less “ethnic.” It was reduced to its fundamental elements, adapted to readily available ingredients, and standardized so that it could be a part of the franchise boom that occurred as a result of the post-war prosperity of the 1950s. Pizza Hut began in 1959, in the savage wilderness of Wichita, Kansas; Domino’s followed shortly behind in 1960, upping the game by offering delivery. Soon, insipid and indistinguishable pies were available from sea to shining sea.
As with anything with mass market appeal, pizza continued to discover ways to work its way into our homes and hearts. From frozen pies to make-at-home kits from Chef Boyardi, popular culture continued to define down the idea of pizza until it bore little resemblance to the original Neapolitan treat.
Say what you will about mediocre chains, rudimentary home kits, and bland cryopies, they all played their role in establishing pizza as an American food, not just a regional delicacy or ethnic novelty. Independent pizzerias spread from their urban strongholds, giving more people a chance to sample better quality pie and raising expectations. The chains may have offered a good, basic, consistent product. But merely good can’t weather the inevitable tides of competition; it is a fundamental truism that good is not as good as better.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and that is especially true with pizza. As more exceptional little joints infiltrated the far-flung corners of America’s vast flyover country, the Information Age did for the masses what Cucci’s did for me 35 years ago. It became harder for the purveyors of nearly identical Warholian repetitions of pop-culture pies to compete. If there is one single supreme benefit to capitalism, it is the ingrained adapt-or-die ethos that punishes complacency, stagnation and just plain half-assery.
As a result, chain pies have gotten better in recent years. Just a few years ago, Domino’s took the unprecedented step of publicly admitting that their product sucked and went back to the drawing board. Pizza Hut has consistently improved their quality over the years, never content to rest on their laurels as the leader of the middle of the pack. Even Little Caesar’s, more famous for their $5 grab-and-go pizzas than for their quality, is making a markedly better product now than they were back in the day when their slogan “Pizza! Pizza!, “ promised two mediocre pies at a family-friendly price (“Here you go, kids, proof that we love you just enough not to consciously allow you to die a slow, agonizing death from starvation!”).
Even frozen pizzas have taken a quantum leap forward. The introduction of a rising crust pie, which eliminated the unpleasant “ketchup on a cracker” experience of previous cryopies, hit the grocery shelves like a bombshell. Though still not as good as even a fair-to-middling chain pie, at least you no longer have to feel ashamed to serve it to your friends and family, as though you sat them down at the dinner table and offered up ramen noodles, a can of Vienna sausages and a bag of Cheetos. And eating frozen pizza alone is no longer considered a tacit acceptance of defeat and loneliness, no matter how accusingly your eight cats stare at you as you dine.
A new breed of home cook is now awake to the possibilities that once seemed beyond the grasp of even the most dedicated amateur. Pizza stones are now de rigueur in the well-appointed home oven, and online forums exist for the domestic pizzaiolo to debate the relative merits of active dry versus instant yeast. People who once didn’t know the difference between parmesan and Romano, and thought that they both came pre-grated in handy little shakers, are now turning up their noses at anything that doesn’t carry the D.O.C. designation.
The bleeding edge of Generation X, of which I consider myself among the bloodiest, grew up with an inherent distrust of the Me Generation’s love of homogeneity and began actively seeking out a world of alternatives. The subsequent Millennials came of age in an era where the Internet brought that world to them and placed it at their fingertips. In my youth, our Baby Boomer coaches still thought taking us to Pizza Hut after a Little League baseball game was a hip thing to do. The biggest debate was usually whether to just get all pepperoni, or whether to get a couple with pepperoni and mushrooms and one cheese pizza for the kid whose Scottish mother considered eating anything spicier than a bell pepper some sort of outrageous daredevil stunt.
Today, the junior soccer team would engage in an animated debate among themselves resulting in a vote of three in favor of the place on the far side of town with an AVPN certified pizzaiolo and the highest rating on Yelp and Urbanspoon (in spite of their concerns over the carbon footprint of the wood-fired brick oven), three votes for the eclectic pizza shop/art gallery/performance space downtown whose gluten-free vegan pie is just to die for, three votes for the joint in the converted firehouse that uses yeast in their dough from the attached microbrewery, one vote for Q.T. Pie because they’d just received award from OUT! And About monthly as the most LGBQT-friendly non-traditional family fast casual eatery in town, and one vote for Papa John’s because you get free garlic sauce and those hot pepper thingies.
The quality of nearly all pizza available across this great land has never been better. Even in my corner of the Commonwealth, dotted with remote mountain towns and tiny rural communities that are fortunate to have any restaurant at all, no one is more than an hour away from a pie that is more than worth the drive. Those of you in urban areas may consider a drive of that length a road trip, but even today in my old hometown, the fifty mile trek to Roanoke is still considered just “going to town.” And even though we were fortunate enough to have had Cucci’s all these years, not everyone was so blessed.
These days, almost every town big enough for a Wal-Mart has at least one decent quality pizza shop in addition to at least one chain. My current address in the big city of Roanoke places me within ten minutes of no fewer than half a dozen excellent pizza shops, at least a dozen very good ones, and more chains than I care to count. There is good brick-oven pie and a small handful of gourmet pizzerias available in a city that, not too long ago, still considered “fancy” pizza one that had a little plastic table in the middle to keep the top of the box from smushing it.
Most of the better pies in Dixie are still based on the standard New York model, a thin but pliable crust topped with the standard regiment of fixings. Why the Chicago deep-dish has not yet caught on here in the South is beyond me. Those edible manhole covers would seem to be tailor-made for a people built to run on heavy fuel. Anyone who thinks that Chicago is the only city of big shoulders has never seen the tailgate crowd at a Virginia Tech game, where half the women could probably start on the Bears’ D-line (even if they aren’t necessarily big enough, they’re damned sure tough enough).
Little by little, though, the Southern expectations of good pizza are no longer based on the primary criteria of “quick and cheap.” We’re increasingly less likely to choose our pie from whichever chain has the best coupon deals that week. Places that once made a living selling glorified snack bar pies are either stepping up their game or falling by the wayside, replaced by little joints run by folks with little more than a good dough recipe and a dream. Reheated cryopies have been duly relegated to convenience store countertops next to the hot dog roller and the nacho cheese dispenser.
Throughout the South, the story is no doubt the same. People now have enough quality choices to start factionalizing, like my former in-laws in New Jersey, where one’s choice of pizza shop was as important as which church they attend. Of course, in northern New Jersey, I didn’t see a single pizza chain location. I don’t know whether that has more to do with the exceptionally high standards of the resident aficionados of the craft, or the ever-present threat of violent Mob retaliation against any ugats-for-brains who puts pineapple on a pizza. Madon’!
If there is a downside to the current proliferation of higher quality pizza, it is perhaps the current craze of “authenticity” and the resultant overabundance of fussy, showy, overthought pies that are one step above cloyingly precious tweezer food and modernist science experiments passing for $35 entrees. The brick oven has become to the pizza parlor of the ’10s what the salad bar was to the 1970s. Eager hordes of culinary school grads intent on demonstrating their dearly-bought skills are churning out soulless gourmet discs that, ultimately, are no different from the mediocre chain pies they purport to better. They are true to the letter of genuine pizza but bereft of the spirit.
Pizza didn’t become America’s favorite food because it rests at the pinnacle of our culinary achievement. It earned our affection because, at its best, it comes from the heart. It represents generations of family dinners, first dates, friendly get-togethers, cultural heritage and creative outlet. In its simplest form, it is elementally perfect; but is a blank canvas for culinary exploration that almost requires deliberate malice of forethought (or pineapple) to screw up. We love pizza because it represents the best of us as a nation, the American Experiment made manifest. It is the Great Melting Pie, topped with the dreams and aspirations of a vast and disparate populace, under the little plastic table of the Constitution that keeps us from being smushed by top-down government. And, like almost everything that Americans hold dearest to our hearts, it goes damned good with beer.