From Old Forge pies, to Rhode Island’s pizza strips, the scope of styles and methods paints a fascinating portrait of America.
The endless stream of memes; the crossover into high couture; the ability to order delivery with emojis; the dedicated slice harvesters who document every minute detail on their blogs—all the advancements, scholarship, and tributes paint a pretty clear picture that America is, and will always be, obsessed with pizza.
Along with thousands of Italian immigrants, pizza arrived in America in the late 1800s, but our favorite food went virtually unnoticed until the 1950s. Many believe it was soldiers returning from World War II with a craving for Italian food that spurred the initial craze, while others point to improvements in oven technology and user-friendly grocery-store pizza kits. Some even insist it was the promotion of Italian food by popular celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and Dean Martin (remember “That’s Amore”?) that encouraged Average Joes to jump on the bandwagon.
However it took off, the stats indicate that pizza is here for the long haul. There are approximately 75,000 pizzerias in the United States, with nearly $40 billion spent on the humble combination of flour, water, salt and yeast. Out of that simple formula, however, grew a spectrum of pizza styles, with each region of the country leaving its own unique imprint through differing methods, ingredients, and resources available. In that sense, pizza is a valuable indicator of a person’s roots. Whether it’s the style they lean toward (thick versus thin) or the toppings they pile on (light versus heavy; traditional versus gourmet), you can often determine what part of the country people hail from—and sometimes even their age.
So what does it mean, then, if someone craves Old Forge pies? What region are you from if you grew up eating dough spiked with a heavy dose of brewer’s malt? Is D.C. really home to the largest slices? To make sense of it all, we present to you a taxonomy of pizza styles here in America.
New York Style
The quintessential New York pie features big, wide slices that encourage folding and often result in grease-stained clothing for the uninitiated. Ordered by the slice or whole, these hand-tossed beauties are most often light on the sauce and heavy on the cheese. Baked in coal or deck ovens, the New York version boasts a crunchy, yet pliable crust.
Over the past decade, Neapolitan-style pizza (authentic Italian and Americanized versions of it) has spread quickly across the country. Doughs that are allowed to ferment anywhere from a few hours to several days result in soft, digestible crusts with beautiful airy pockets that add a delightful crunch when they exit wood-burning ovens. Handled carefully and topped sparingly with fresh tomatoes, herbs and imported cheeses, this style has inspired many trips to Italy.
Neo-Neapolitan is a fairly new term that was introduced by master baker and author Peter Reinhart a few years ago. He suggests that using American unbleached bread flour instead of Italian flour in a Neapolitan pizza recipe will create the Neo-Neapolitan pizza. Furthermore, adding a bit of honey, sugar or agave nectar into the mix will produce a pie reminiscent of those you’ll find at historic pizzerias such as Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s, Totonno’s, and Lombardi’s.
On tomato pies, the sauce is the star of the show. Depending on the region, there are different types of pizza referred to as tomato pie. There’s the “reverse” pizza, which is your basic pizza (round or square), but with the placement of sauce and cheese reversed; a Philly tomato pie, which is a thick, square, room-temperature pizza topped with a thick sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan or Romano cheese; and the hand-tossed Neo-Neapolitan style topped with tomato sauce, oregano, olive oil and just a dusting of cheese.
Assisted by oil or coal-fueled ovens reaching temperatures topping 600 degrees, New Haven-style apizza (pronounced ah-beets by locals) delivers a charred crust reminiscent of a backyard grill. The typically misshapen pies are lightly topped with ingredients such as tomatoes, cheese, and sometimes clams, delivered on wax-covered sheet pans that offer a rewarding crunchy and chewy texture.
Sicilian pizza is best recognized by its rectangular shape, one-to-two-inch crust, pillowy interior, and thick, crunchy base. Sicilian toppings are minimal, with tomato sauce placed above the cheese to hold it all together and ensure a well-cooked crust. Very similar to the Sicilian (but not as common to find), is the elusive Grandma, which presents itself as a thinner, crunchier version of the Sicilian.
Diving into a deep dish pizza is not an easy undertaking. These one-to-two-inch thick giants of the pizza world are not available by the slice and often require a fork and knife to handle. It’s important to accept a few key facts when facing down a deep-dish pizza: 1) In most cases, you won’t be able to eat a whole one by yourself. 2) It’s best to order some veggies and meat to break up all the cheese. 3) Order ahead so you won’t have to wait 45 minutes for your pie (and it is a pie). Once you have the hang of it, you’ll appreciate the nuances of the flaky, buttery crust, hearty toppings and historic significance of this Chicago mainstay.
Not to be confused with deep-dish pizza, stuffed pizza sports a thin crowning layer of pizza dough used to seal all of the delectable ingredients in (think pot pie) and ensure extra structural support of the pizza. The final pie is then topped with a layer of rich tomato sauce and a light dusting of Parmesan.
What do you get when you take a Sicilian-style pizza recipe and bake it in blue steel pans originally designed for the auto industry? Detroit-Style pizza, that’s what. The square pans act like a cast iron skillet to create a super crisp crunch on the crust, and bakers deliberately push the blend of mozzarella and Brick cheese up the deep interior sides of the pans to form an awesome caramelization. The result is a pan pizza on steroids. Traditionalists bake the pizza twice and put the sauce on last to ensure a perfectly crisp crust.
The St. Louis-style pizza is cracker thin all the way around, cut into squares (referred to as a party cut), with toppings that stretch all the way to the edge, a sweet sauce, and a regional cheese called Provel (a combination of cheddar, Swiss, provolone and liquid smoke). It’s easy eating—almost like a big plate of cheese and crackers.
Toppings are the big tip off with California-style pizzas. The crust is typically hand-tossed, but the toppings can range from barbecue chicken to Thai to lobster—the more “gourmet” the pizza appears, the more you can classify it as Californian.
In the Ohio Valley region (which includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky), toppings are added to square pies after the dough exits the oven, the theory being that the heat from the crust will cook the toppings. You won’t find Ohio Valley-style pizza in every pizzeria in all of these states, but you’ll have the most luck tracking one down if you’re in this region.
Traditionally found in early taverns and bars since they’re easy to hold with your beer and don’t fill you up too fast, bar and tavern pies are super-thin, round pies that are cut into square pieces. This style is found all over the Midwest in cities such as St. Louis, Columbus, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
Introduced in 1980 by Johanne Killeen and George German, the chef owners of Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island, serve pizza dough brushed with oil before taking a turn or two on the grill over hot coals. Cheese and toppings are added after the last flip and allowed to melt, finishing off the pizza.
Mostly found in the southeast United States and at chain pizzerias such as Pizza Hut, this pizza is proofed and cooked in a pan with oil or butter imparting a thick, buttery crust.
The Montanara started popping up in Neapolitan pizzerias around 2007 and features a deep-fried Neapolitan-style dough that’s topped with sauce and fresh mozzarella (a.k.a. the best pizza donut ever). The Montanara appears to have started in New York with chefs such as Roberto Caporuscio and Giulio Adriani. However, it has spread across the states as far as Wisconsin, Florida and Colorado. (Photo courtesy Adam Kuban)
This is the Neapolitan version of a stuffed pizza. The Vesuvio puts two crusts on top of each other, filling the interior with ingredients such as mozzarella, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Some pizzerias deliver the pizza to the table and allow the steam from the joined doughs to escape in front of you, mimicking a volcanic eruption.
According to residents, Old Forge, Pennsylvania, is “The Pizza Capital of the World,” baking Sicilian-style pizzas in trays. Vernacular requires full pies be called “trays,” and slices “cuts.” The sauce is heavy with onions, and the cheese of choice ranges from mozzarella and cheddar to mozzarella and Parmesan.
A specialty of Rhode Island, pizza strips are bakery bread that’s topped with tomato sauce and cut into strips.
Not to be confused with the common “Greek Pizza” term, which is basically Greek salad ingredients on top of a regular pizza, a true Greek-style pizza can be found in the New England states at places called “Pizza House” or “House of Pizza” and in Greek restaurants nationwide. Greek-style pizza features a round, oiled dough that puffs up in the pan. The sauce is normally heavy on the oregano, and the cheese (a mix of mozzarella and cheddar) is laid on thick. Greek pizza isn’t for everyone due to the heavy spices and often-dense dough, but there are some good ones out there if you look around.
Popular in the Quad Cities (Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline in Illinois, and Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa), this pizza dough gets a heavy dose of brewer’s malt, giving it a nutty, sweet taste and a darker appearance. The sauce is thin and spicy; the signature lean pork sausage is heavy on fennel and spices; and the pizza is cut into strips using giant, razor-sharp scissors.
Colorado Mountain Pie
So far I only know of one pizzeria chain in Colorado serving the Colorado Mountain Pie, but it’s been wooing locals since 1973 with pizzas listed by weight (one, two, three, or five lbs.), topped with mountains of ingredients and featuring a hand-rolled crust handle that is traditionally dipped in honey for dessert.
Since 1997, several pizzerias in the Washington, D.C. area have been battling it out over who has the largest slices of pizza. Popular with the late-night crowds, slices are cut from pies larger than 30 inches, usually require two plates to transport, and tip the caloric charts at more than 1,000 calories a piece.
This style began in 1974 as a fundraising project for St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Youngstown, Ohio. The round pies are cooked in pans and covered with a thick sauce before being topped with bell peppers and Romano cheese (a hot variety and another topped with eggs is also available).