The self-described pizza nerds Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener are back with me on this week’s Special Sauce to continue our deep dive into our favorite food.
Scott took great umbrage at the widely disseminated origin story of the Margherita pizza, in which a pizzaiolo created a pizza with the colors of the Italian flag–red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil)–to impress Queen Margherita of Italy. “Well, number one, tomato and cheese were both on pizza at least 45 years before that Margherita pizza is said to have happened…So, [it’s a] complete myth that the pizza Margherita was the first time that the cheese pizza was invented. I’m responsible, in part, for spreading [it],” Scott conceded. “Every year on the date that’s thought of as the anniversary, I always, starting probably nine or ten years ago, would put up a blog post…If you track them, the post changes and every year I got more skeptical about that story.”
We also explored why the myth of the superiority of pizza in Naples continues to this day. Scott pointed out that it probably has to do with the fact that Naples is seen as the origin point of all pizza. But he also made the interesting observation about how Neapolitan pizza is distinct from a lot of other styles. “It’s such a defined product that the margin for error is so small,” Scott said. “When it’s done well, when it’s done correctly, I should say, it’s all the same.”
Adam agreed. “I never thought about that, but that makes a lot of sense and that’s why I find [Neapolitan pizza] a little bit more boring. I like toppings on pizza, I’m sorry…When I first moved [to New York] I was a big proponent of, ‘You gotta try a plain pizza, a plain slice first to really get a feel of what it is,’ but I got so bored eating plain slices and Neapolitan Margheritas that I almost can’t do it again.”
We also tackled some less controversial topics, such as what Adam and Scott think is responsible for the heightened interest in pizza all over the world. Adam thinks it’s the internet and the way it brings people who share a similar passion for a subject together: “We’re just nerds about pizza, other people are nerds about sports or movies. It just wasn’t until the internet came that people who were nerds about pizza could get together and talk about it and then do it in such a way that everyone else on the internet could see it.”
So if you want to geek out about pizza with these funny, smart pizza geeks, give a listen to this week’s episode of Special Sauce. I hope it has you salivating for next week’s final deep dive in pizza.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Adam Kuban: He was trying to recreate Patsy’s in his home oven and he’s like one of the first ones to hack his home oven by disconnecting the self-cleaning cycle. He literally hacked off the lock on the self-cleaning cycle so that he could put the oven on self-clean-
EL: And open it.
AK: Threw in a pizza at like 800 degrees and it went viral in 2005, 2006.
EL: But it was like 20,000 words.
Scott Weiner: One of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, yet that webpage is the worst webpage I’ve ever seen in my life.
EL: Pizza freak, Scott Wiener and Adam Kuban are back to talk about pizza past, present, and future, in New York and elsewhere. Adam is the founding editor of the seminal food blog Slice.com, his fellow pizza enthusiast Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, the author of Viva La Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box.
Let’s talk about pizza past because we’ve all done some digging into pizza history, right? I know Scott has been to Naples, I have been to Naples. I got into trouble because Naples was where the margherita pizza was invented when a pizza maker for the Queen made a pizza with the colors of the Italian flag, green. Now, if this was a video podcast, Scott was like, “We need to dispense what that myth.” Talk to me.
SW: Oh, you were just leading me into that trap.
SW: Wow, skillful. Well, number one, tomato and cheese were both on pizza at least 45 years before that margherita pizza is said to have happened.
EL: In 18- whatever it was.
SW: There’s explanations of what pizza was written by the French and by the British coming and visiting Naples in the 1830’s and 40’s.
SW: They mention cheese and they mention tomato. So, complete myth that the pizza margherita was the first time that the cheese pizza was invented. I’m responsible, in part, for spreading … every year on the date that’s thought of as the anniversary, I always, starting probably nine or ten years ago, would put up a blog post. One of the few blog posts I ever put up every year was that. Every year, if you track them, the post changes and every year it got more skeptical about that story and new evidence about how it didn’t happen.
EL: What’s weird is when I went to Naples for the pizza book, because everyone is like, “Oh you gotta go to Naples, best pizza in the world is in Naples.” I went with a Neapolitan and we went to I think 20 pizzerias in one week. It was serious, we weren’t messing around. I was on the back of a scooter, it was a little scary.
SW: I got a great mental picture.
EL: In Naples, oh my god it’s a terrible thing. Then, I was like, “Okay, well some of this pizza is good, a lot of it is mediocre, often it has a pool of not even olive oil, but sunflower oil in the middle. It’s kind of flaccid, so why do people tell me that the best pizza in the world is in Naples?” I got into trouble when in A Slice of Heaven I said the best pizza in the world is made in Phoenix, Arizona at Chris Bianco’s. Everyone was like, “Oh, come on man.” Jeffrey Steingarten, who was the food critic in Vogue for a long time, called me once he read that and he said, “This is bullshit, I’m going to Phoenix, I told Anna Wintour I have to go to Phoenix.” Then he called me from the tarmac on the way back and he says, “You’re right.” Is it because it’s generally considered to be the birthplace of pizza as we know it? Or are there pizzerias that I just didn’t get to? I went to Don Michael, I went to all the classics. I didn’t go to the one that opened after I wrote the book outside Naples, which is supposed to be amazing. What’s the name of that?
SW: Pepe in Grani.
EL: Yeah, Pepe in Grani. Let’s talk about Neapolitan pizza, both in Naples and here.
SW: My first thought with your whole question of why do people say it’s the best. Part of it is exactly the whole origin point theory. If that is the definition of it, it’s the world’s pizza cognition theory refers back to Naples. But, we all know that it’s been a long time since that was really the case, we’ve all experienced other things, so the rules have changed. The other thing I keep thinking about, because I know both of you have a similar thought on Neapolitan pizza. I happen to really like it, but it’s such a defined product that the margin for error is so small that it can so easily be done poorly. When it’s done well, when it’s done correctly, I should say, it’s all the same.
EL: Describe what you consider to be a well-prepared Neapolitan pizza.
SW: If we’re talking pizza margherita, I like really minimal cheese. The tomato amount, so that after the bake, there are a couple of spots on top of the dough that the sauce is really thinned out, it’s almost bare and blistered. The edge, the cornicione, is blistered evenly, not with dark circles, but small light speckles and the underside is evenly charred, fully cooked all the way through, pliant, fragrant, gentle, and not soggy in the center. Yet, not crispy.
EL: Yet, not crispy. That’s the key thing and I think that’s the thing I have the hardest time with. There’s no crispy edge.
SW: It’s like, if you want a car with a lot of trunk space, you don’t get a Lamborghini. You know what I mean? If you want crispy, don’t go Neapolitan pizza shopping.
EL: What about you Adam, what’s your take on Neapolitan pizza?
AK: I can recognize when it’s well done, or when it’s done well. Cause well done is a different beast. I can recognize when it’s done well and I appreciate it for that. Just like Scott said and I never heard this before, when it’s done within the correct parameters, it’s all the same. I never thought about that, but that makes a lot of sense and that’s why I find it a little bit more boring, the margherita anyway. I like toppings on pizza, I’m sorry. All these years later, even New York style. All these years later when I first moved here I was a big proponent of, “You gotta try a plain pizza, plain slice first to really get a feel of what it-” it’s probably true to some extent, but I got so bored eating plain slices and margherita, Neapolitan margheritas that I almost can’t do it again.
EL: You’re like me, you like sausage, you love pepperoni-
AK: I love sausage.
EL: You love meat on pizza, except and I think we’re all on in the same place, I do not think that chicken belongs on pizza.
SW: I’m all right with it.
EL: You’re all right with it, but it doesn’t mean you actively embrace the notion.
SW: On a tour, when inevitably every night somebody says, “Where’s the best buffalo chicken pizza?” That’s where I have to bow out and say, “I’m not qualified to answer the question.”
EL: I’ve been on a bus with you with … do you agree with me about the pineapple on pizza being another crime against nature? Or, you’re okay with it?
AK: I’m okay with it.
EL: I’m sorry you guys, this is the end of the podcast.
AK: Thanks for coming.
SW: It’s almost like talking about Neapolitan pizza, in a way. Because so much of the pineapple pizza you’ve had has been poorly made … because pineapple is one of those things that nine out of ten they are going to throw it on out of the Dole can with the slime still on it. Of course you’re not going to like it. But, if you take an actual pineapple, it’s a real fruit, it doesn’t just come in a can.
EL: And you put it on a grill or roast it or whatever.
EL: Concentrates its flavor, its sweetness.
SW: Sweet, tangy, get some spice in there, I think it’s awesome.
EL: It’s great. Have ham with it?
SW: Oh yeah.
AK: Fatty ham, don’t give me that deli meat ham.
EL: You want good ham.
SW: Yeah, but again, nine out of ten, you go in and they got the deli meat thrown over the pie.
EL: Right, that’s wrong.
SW: You need the fat to cut up the acid from the pineapple.
AK: I don’t even do ham, I do pepperoni.
SW: Hell yeah. Jalepeño.
AK: Yeah, there you go.
EL: Jalapeños. You guys are big fans of jalapeño on pizza, and hot oil, and hot honey.
SW: Hot honey.
EL: All these new fangled things. Relatively speaking.
SW: Listen to this geezer.
EL: Let’s talk about pizza in the U.S. and Scott and Adam, we’ve all talked about the origins of U.S. pizza. I think it’s now acknowledged Lombardi’s opened as a grocery store.
EL: Okay, whatever it opened as, they started making pizza.
EL: That was before, some people claim people were making pizza in Trenton before-
SW: That conflict is … That’s a place called Papa’s in Trenton, now in Robbinsville, they relocated. They started making pizza in 1912, Lombardi’s started in 1905, but Lombardi’s was out of business for eight years in the late 80’s and early 90’s, therefore, Poppa’s has been running continuously. The argument that Papa’s gives is that they are older, not realizing that Lombardi’s never claims to be older, they only claim to have been the first. It’s a lot of-
AK: We are getting into some deep scholarly pizza shit here, man.
SW: Look, I’ve spent every day this past couple weeks in the library and the municipal archive looking at 110-year-old phone books.
EL: I know, this is why I trust you, Scott.
SW: The thing why I shook my head when you said about grocery store it’s just because we don’t have any actual evidence that there was a grocery store at that space before Lombardi. The evidence that we have is a photograph we have of Lombardi and Totonno was taken probably in 1908, famous photograph of the two of them on the front steps. There’s cans in the window, which makes some people say, “Oh, it was a grocery store.” Meanwhile, every pizzeria picture you look at before 1950 has a stack of cans in the window, all of them do.
EL: Right. There’s the controversy around that fact that it’s Totonno that has flour on his shoes as opposed to Gennaro Lombardi. Maybe Gennaro Lombardi wasn’t making pizza and Totonno was.
SW: It’s entirely possible that on the day that photo was taken, Gennaro Lombardi had clean shoes and Totonno didn’t.
EL: He just had his shoes shined.
SW: Who knows. The point is, we know that pizza was being made in America before Lombardi’s opened in 1905. We know that there were bakeries making pizza. There are tons of articles that mention pizza in Boston.
SW: A pizzeria that opened in Boston in 1907 because the owners left New York because there were too many bakeries and pizzerias in New York in 1907.
EL: Right, so they just weren’t called pizzerias, they were bakeries making pizza like that place in-
EL: Yeah in Astoria. Rosie Joe’s.
AK: Yeah. Rosie Joe’s.
EL: Of course in other cities, you’re right, like Philadelphia, every bakery makes pizza, room temperature pizza.
SW: Tomato pie.
EL: The pizza belt, as I called it, in A Slice of Heaven–
SW: I love it, I love it so much. I still have to say … I’m sorry to interrupt you, I still love that I’m in a room talking to you guys about this because it’s your stuff that got me into this mess.
EL: Yeah, but you’ve taken it to a whole other level. Actually, you both have. So, the pizza belt is interesting because I called it the pizza belt in A Slice of Heaven because it went from New Jersey all the way up to Boston. It was where the Southern Italian migration took place around the turn of the 20th century because Southern Italians immigrants were in search of jobs. Where could they find jobs? In the small manufacturing in Trenton and New Haven and all those manufacturing centers that are no longer manufacturing centers. So, pizzerias opened to serve the needs of the Neapolitans that settled in those cities.
EL: It’s so weird, when we talk about the pizza belt, we’re talking about New Haven and Trenton and all kinds of places in New Jersey and other places in Connecticut and all the way up to Boston. Is it true Scott, that until World War II, there wasn’t much pizza outside the pizza belt?
SW: I would adjust that year and I would say, really pizza had spread already outside of that area by the 1930’s, late 1930’s because of the bars and taverns that were installing ovens and making pizza on the side.
EL: Got it. I ascribe to the myth that it was a GI coming back from World War II who had been stationed in Italy and learned to love pizza, came back and developed a pizza oven for use which begot the slice. You told me that is indeed not the case.
SW: Yeah, not exactly the case. It was somebody who learned about stainless steel while in Germany, while in World War I.
EL: Okay. So I was close, I was one world war-
SW: One World War away.
EL: And one country away.
SW: Yeah, pretty tight. But, no, you’re talking about Ira Nevin who started Bakers Pride. He started that company in 1943 in New Rochelle. But, four years before that, there was a company called Mastro on the Bowery.
EL: Oh yeah you can still get Mastro ovens.
SW: Yeah the old ones. They are no longer made, but Frank Mastro started tinkering around with that in the 30’s and made it commercially available in 1939. That’s the first oven intended to be sold to pizzerias. The oldest evidence I can find of any oven being marketed to pizzerias is the 1940 tax photo that the city of New York took of every single building in all five boroughs. The one that they took of 240 Bowery in 1940, shows the Mastro building and there’s a sign in the window that says, “ovens for pizzeria.”
EL: Scott, we now have to take Scott away.
SW: Too many facts.
EL: You looked at the tax records?
SW: Ed, the tax records are just the beginning. Let’s not go down that road yet.
EL: It was based on a photograph in the tax records?
SW: Yeah. Photos speak loudly.
EL: But, why did the slice start in New York?
SW: Number one, there’s that gas oven that we’re talking about. Having an oven that’s fueled by natural gas, in a world that was previously populated with mostly coal-fired ovens, suddenly the oven temperature, the max oven temperature drops by 400 degrees. Now that you’re in the 500, 550 degree range, the pizzas take longer to bake and they’re baking up drier. But they have a longer shelf life on them because more of the water is cooked out. So, they’re reheatable. Pizza by the slice has to be reheated most of the time.
SW: Unless you get a fresh pie.
SW: That oven is a big deal.
EL: Was a slice a thing that you saw in Kansas?
AK: No, it was really rare to see a sliced pie. We had one place in downtown Kansas City.
EL: Isn’t that weird? What’s the explanation for why slices emanate from New York and the surrounding area and the pizza belt? And that there are no slices still, to this day, I mean, yes there are the occasionally slice places all over the country, but New York is still the slice town.
SW: Right. It’s the density of New York City and it’s the layout of New York as a grid. It’s a tight grid where everybody is walking, it’s a pedestrian city. This is not like Los Angeles where you have to have a car. If you’re stuck in your car all the time, you’re not going to pull into a parking lot to get a single slice of pizza, get back in the car and then go. No, in New York, you’re waling, you get out of the subway, you pass the slice joint, you grab your slice on the way home. Then, you do the same thing every day. You can have so many of these 400-square-foot businesses that don’t need a dining room, that are selling pizzas just one or two slices at a time. It works in New York, it’s not the format that works in most cities.
EL: Because the population density. But, even you’d figure that it could be made to work in downtown areas where there’s tons of foot traffic and lunch business to be had. Yet, still, even in Chicago, for example, there’s a little bit of slice culture, but not much.
SW: The way you just phrase it is great because slice culture is an important way to phrase it. Maybe it has something to do with the time period that it was happening in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, which is when pizza’s identity really got linked directly to New York City. That direct link of New York slice with the city is hugely important. When people think of New York style pizza, they don’t think of coal oven and they don’t think of all the other styles that we have in New York City, it’s the indigenous pizza of New York, is the slice.
EL: Yep, it’s true. Let’s talk about Chicago pizza. As you know I got in a lot of trouble for saying in A Slice of Heaven that the best Chicago pizza is a good casserole. First of all, Chicago has many pizza styles and I say that semi-facetiously, but I was referring to deep dish pizza. How was that developed? What’s the story with Chicago pizza?
SW: That’s another style that’s got a few different stories floating around, but basically the one that everybody thinks about is, it was two guys who opened this place in 1943 with the decision that they wanted to do a sit-down restaurant with a bar component and that this deep dish pizza was developed specifically for that restaurant and it was called The Pizzeria, in 1943. It was semi-popular, but it was very small so it didn’t take a lot for it to be packed. A few years later in the 50’s, 1955, they decided to open their second location down the block, which they called Due, which is when they renamed their first one, Uno.
EL: Got it. And Uno eventually became the chain.
EL: That became a thing. At the same time, there were other styles of pizza in Chicago.
SW: It’s interesting, I wouldn’t even say it became a thing because of one store in 1943, two stores in 1955 and then in the 60’s with Lou Malnati’s, it takes 20 years for there to be a half dozen of these places?
EL: That’s not a thing, you mean?
SW: I think Chicago wanted to make it a thing. Even now, you get so many Chicagoans who will defend it to the death.
SW: Then, in the next breath they say, “Yeah, but that stuff is just for tourist, we all eat the thin crust.”
EL: I know it’s really weird.
SW: I don’t dislike deep dish at all. I just think it’s funny, the attitude situation.
EL: Yeah. For sure. And it is all about attitude. Now of course Chicago, interestingly enough, is where the great Roman pizza place opened its first U.S. location in that sort of farm-to-table, artisanal rectangular slices. It’s almost more like bread than pizza.
SW: Yeah. I’m so jealous.
EL: Me too, it’s really, really good. What’s his name. Gabriel-
EL: Bonci, yeah. I went to the one in Rome. It was really, really good. I was blown away by it. So, where is pizza right now, in this country and all over the world? Because pizza has become not just an obsession in New york. It’s an obsession in Tokyo. It’s an obsession in New Delhi. It’s an obsession wherever you go. In China. What do you think is responsible for that? Adam.
AK: The internet.
EL: The internet.
AK: Yeah, the internet. The internet is responsible for a ton of stuff like that. In the first hour, like last week you were asking about, you asked like, “What is it about pizza? Why are you guys nerds about pizza?” Why are people nerds about sports? We’re just nerds about pizza, other people are nerds about sports or movies. It just wasn’t until the internet came that people who were nerds about pizza could get together and talk about it and then do it in such a way that everyone else on the internet could see it.
EL: Yeah. It’s fascinating and you’re right about the internet. When I first met you Adam, you were the first person to point out that insane, obsessive Jeff Varasano post about he was trying to replicate Peppi’s?
AK: It was Patsy’s. But he also had a thing for John’s in Mount Vernon.
EL: Exactly. Which you and I went to eventually.
AK: Or is it Johnny’s?
EL: Johnny’s, it’s Johnny’s.
SW: I was holding back.
EL: Which is still there. He’s like-
SW: I’m sorry I’ll leave, I’ll leave.
EL: He’s like spell check.
AK: Varasano was trying to recreate Patsy’s in his home oven and he’s one of the first ones to hack his home oven by disconnecting the-
AK: Self-cleaning cycle, he literally hacked off the lock on the self-cleaning cycle so that he could put the oven on self-clean-
EL: And open it.
AK: Throw in the pizza at like 800 degrees and he eventually got … it went viral in like 2005, 2006.
EL: But it was like 20,000 words.
AK: Yeah he had a website that had all the places he visited, his methods for doing his … basically his experiment notes.
EL: Yes, it was crazy.
SW: One of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, yet that webpage, is the worst webpage I’ve ever seen in my life.
AK: Well it’s all on a single page, so it’s megabytes.
EL: He was not technologically savvy. But it’s funny, because he then opened Varasano’s in Atlanta, which I haven’t been in years, but it was really good. He opened one at the airport, I don’t know if that worked out.
SW: I’ve been there twice and I loved it.
EL: Really? Oh good. The internet, I think you’re right. Of course, you’re right because we all came to Slice and Serious Eats to chew the fat about pizza. To hang out, to get questions answered and nothing was too geeky. It was a pretty friendly, democratic environment. We prided ourselves on not being snobs and that came from you, Adam, because that’s what your point of view about Slice was and A Hamburger Today. It’s one of the reasons I think you and I bonded was because you believed in passionate, discerning, and inclusive before I ever told you that’s what I wanted Serious Eats to be.
AK: I probably didn’t know that. I didn’t have it in quite those words, but that was essentially what I was doing. I don’t like snobs and I don’t like snob culture and I don’t like overly masculine bro stuff like, “Hamburgers, ugh.” I hate that, I hate “Pizza, ugh.” Let’s be into it, but let’s not be stupid about it.
AK: So A Hamburger Today, when I started as a sister site, I tried to avoid all the dumb meathead stuff.
EL: Chefs got into pizza and the first chef that got into pizza was Alice Waters, she started serving that and then Wolfgang Puck shortly after that. Spago in LA, Alice Waters of course at Chez Panisse in Berkeley served pizza at the café, not at the formal restaurant. Now, it’s like so many chefs have opened pizzerias, Marc Vetri in Philadelphia, Michael White, Mark Ladner and everybody in the Batali-Bastianich camp, Nancy Silverton in LA. This is because it’s awesome, or is it because they think they have something to add to the pizza cannon?
SW: I think it goes back to that pizza cognition theory, in that everybody has that baseline, but that as a chef, you get into this territory of messing with cuisine. I think pizza is a return to simplicity and in a lot of ways, you’re able to flex your muscles on this canvas that’s very simple, but not easy.
SW: And really has a ton of variations.
EL: When I was writing my book, I remember I did an interview with Alice Waters when I was on the beach and my cell phone and she was like, “Cooking is easy, pizza is hard.” Which I thought was so interesting. Because there’s no place to hide in pizza because it is so simple.
SW: It’s also baking and it’s cooking at the same time. It’s not like cooking the way normal people do, where you add a dash of this and you taste it and adjust, it’s you put it in the oven and three to four minutes later you find out if you did it right.
EL: In A Slice of Heaven, Chris Bianco has that famous line where he says, “I could teach a monkey how to make one great pizza,” he said, “The hard part is making great pizza when all the elements are changing.” When the barometric pressure is changing, when the humidity is changing, when the temperature is changing, when the mozzarella is different, when the tomato is … is it really just a matter of an infinite number of micro adjustments?
AK: I would say that sounds pretty accurate. I think I remember one time we had lunch with Anthony Mangieri and he said there’s a window during the evening when he made as close to perfect of pizza as he would make. And he would never say he made a perfect pizza, I would think.
AK: He said, “I’ve never made a perfect pizza, but I’ve made a close to perfect,” is what I think he said.
EL: Right. I think pizza makers are like that. It’s like that line from Eric Dolphy that, “Once you hear some music, it’s over, you can never hear it again.” Pizza is moments. Music is moments. We had Maira Kalman on here, the great graphic designer and writer, and she talks about life as a series of moments and that’s what she tries to capture in her drawings and in her writing. I think pizza is really a series of moments. Anthony Mangieri, who just reopened Pizza Napolitano, finally, which we’re all thrilled about and the pizza is awesome. Once I brought a couple of food writers, when I think I was on the James Beard restaurant, a long time ago. I brought a couple of other people on the committee and I was like, “Hey you gotta try this pizza,” and I walk in and it’s packed. I say, “Look Anthony, just make us a couple pizzas to-go.” He was like, “No.” I was like, “Why?” And he was like, “The pizza sucks today and if I had any integrity I’d throw everybody out and close the place.” He would not make the pizza. He wouldn’t make the pizza for me. It was like, “But, it’s the restaurant critic from the this and the that.” I don’t care.
SW: I love that it wasn’t because it wasn’t good enough for those critics. It wasn’t good enough for him.
EL: No. It was all about his standards.
SW: Which is the mark of an amazing pizza maker, partially insane person, but a really great pizza maker.
EL: Yes and he’s still the same guy. We have run out of time for this episode of Special Sauce and we haven’t even gotten to the state of the slice in New York and the rest of the country, and the world for that matter. Thank you both for coming on Special Sauce.
SW: Thanks for having us.
AK: Thanks Ed.
EL: We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.