Eddie Pensier writes:
The best pizza in the world, as everybody knows, no longer exists. It is the pizza of your childhood*. That first magical bite sets the flavor, which you spend the rest of your life attempting to recapture.
Pizza, as much or more than barbecue, is the subject of passionate foodie debates. People are fiercely loyal to their favorites and will defend them against all others. Are people arguing from taste or merely, as Ruth Reichl suggests above, trying to recreate a little bit of their youth?
The biggest and most unconquerable divide may be between partisans of New York pizza and Chicago pizza. Now, this isn’t as straightforward as it may appear, because there’s different sorts of New York ‘za and different Chicago ‘za. New Yorkers love their coal-fired artisan pies with black-bubbled crusts, Italian tomato sauces, and fresh mozzarella, but they (and I) have a soft spot for corner slices, a super-thin crust topped with a modest amount of sauce and aged shredded mozzarella in even continuous layers. The outer layer of the crust should have a bread-like resistance, but still be pliable enough to fold lengthwise. One can even pile two slices atop each other and fold, in the manner of John Travolta in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever.
Chicago, too, has thin-crust pizza, cut into little squares instead of triangular slices, as well as a stuffed-crust variant. But my purpose here was to try “authentic” deep-dish pizza, the sort that is (if the kvetching Windy City expats on Chowhound and Serious Eats are to be believed) supposedly available nowhere else. Deep-dish was absolutely, positively invented by Ike Sewell at his Pizzeria Uno in 1943. It was also definitively and without doubt invented by Rudy Malnati, Sr, while he was employed by Sewell at Uno. Like many things pizza-related, the claims are debatable and the familly loyalties (and rivalries) are fierce. (The original Uno still stands, and should not be confused with the vastly inferior franchised restaurants that bear that name.)
One thing’s certain about deep-dish: it would be unrecognizable to an Italian as pizza. It is an American dish, created to satisfy American appetites and love of excess. I visited two iconic Chicago pizzerias: Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s, owned by Rudy Malnati, Jr. The menus at both places emphasize that a “small” is enough to feed two people, and that the pizzas will take a minimum of 30 minutes to prepare and cook. The reason becomes abundantly clear as soon as it arrives on your table: this is a helluva lot of food.
The crust is buttery and flaky in the manner of pastry, not only deep but thick enough to support the ABSOLUTE FREAKING MOUNTAIN of gooey, melted mozzarella which it contains. Unlike most pizzas, the toppings and tomato are added on top of the cheese, not below. A knife and fork are necessary for at least the first few bites, to avoid being buried under an avalanche of liquefied cheese. At both restaurants, the tomato is a chunky-ish semi-sauce with noticeable bits rather than a smooth puree as is more common. It makes for a better texture contrast with the gooey cheese and crunchy crust. Did I mention that this pizza has a whole lotta cheese on it?
You’d better believe that this devoted NYC pizza partisan was pleased as punch with both these pies. Regional prejudices aside, this is still bread, tomatoes, meat and melted cheese, and you’d have to be a saint (which I’m not, rumors to the contrary) not to smack your lips with every indulgent bite. However, it’s a treat that even an ardent pizzaphiliac such as myself could only indulge in occasionally.
This is in contrast with NYC pizzas, which can be eaten frequently and even taken for granted sometimes. The “slice” style of pizza was shown to excellent advantage at Rosco’s in Crown Heights, Brooklyn: a red-checked-tablecloth joint which, despite being taken over by hipster dudes in untrimmed beards and trilby hats, makes a wicked ‘za that comes close to epitomizing the slice style. Travolta would have no problem accomplishing the “double” with these slices.
For years, the coal-oven artisanal style was represented by the perpetually crowded Grimaldi’s underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. This article tells the story of how Pasty and Carol Grimaldi sold their landmark restaurant, then developed seller’s remorse and re-opened under the name Juliana’s, across the street from the current Grimaldi’s (Incidentally, Grimaldi’s had a line outside when we went, while Juliana’s was half-empty at lunchtime.) Words fail me when it comes to describing the Platonic perfection of a Juliana’s pie. I mean, just look at it.
Yet another style of New York pizza, the “grandma” style is sort of a hybrid between deep-dish and Sicilian. The crust is crispy and nearly fried in texture, the cheese is sparing except on the edges where it turns golden and caramelized, and the tomato is chunky. It’s not as filling as deep-dish but is noticeably more substantial than the customary NYC pie. It’s generally found in Long Island and Queens, although this picture was taken at the redoubtable Dean’s on 85th Street, recently and tragically closed.
New Haven pizza, also known as “apizza”, has a thicker and chewier crust than NYC ‘za. It’s charmingly and eccentrically free-form rather than perfectly round or square, and is served on paper-lined metal trays. For purists, mozzarella is optional, but I require cheese on my pies. This picture was taken at Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, and is (astonishingly) merely the “medium” size.