America represents a rich and colorful tapestry of individual influences by historical waves of foreign immigrants to the United States. They have all left their indelible marks on the fabric of local culinary culture.
The U.S. has some very distinct regional approaches to the art of pizza making. From thin crust and deep-dish to traditional, time-honored Neapolitan Italian varieties, the styles on offer are varied and strongly influenced by the unique preparation methods of its inhabitants.
There are not many that can say their national dish has become an internationally renowned phenomenon. Conceived in nineteenth-century Italy, pizza is one such dish. Since its introduction to U.S. shores over a hundred years ago, its evolution has spawned a wonderful array of pizza styles that is sure to please the most discerning palate.
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Pizza: The Italian Connection
With a staggering three billion sold in the U.S. annually, the pizza has become as synonymous with American culture as baseball and muscle cars. No wonder then that it has spawned as many variations as it has. It doesn’t require a college degree to acknowledge its undisputed Italian origins, yet few know its early American connections.
An early ancestor of pizza, the panis focacius or focaccia as it’s known today, first appeared in 1st Century Roman cuisine, earning its position as an Italian staple from then on. Other iterations of the humble flatbread have appeared in historical records as far back as 7000BC across the Mediterranean and the Levant.
With its customary basic ingredients that make up a classic Italian Neapolitan or American Margherita pizza, the modern pizza can be traced back to Southern and Central Italy, specifically the Naples region in Central Italy.
In the late 19th century, Italian immigrants in New York City and other large cities and metropoles in the U.S. were baking pizzas at home for their families.
In 2009, a column in “Serious Eats” mentioned that “pizza” first appeared in a Boston Journal article in 1904. It alleged that the Bruno brothers, Giovanni and Gennaro, arrived in the U.S. from Naples, Italy, in 1903 and introduced the Neapolitan pizza to Boston. Later, Giovanni’s son, Vincent, went on to open the first pizzeria in Chicago.
Many alternate theories have emerged over the years; however, it is not disputed that Italians first brought pizza to America.
G.I.’s serving in the Italian campaign during World War II were exposed to Italian cuisine, and as a result, the popularity of pizza upon their return was a foregone conclusion. So much so that it was featured in an episode of “Popeye the Sailor” in the 60s. The rest, as they say, is history.
Pizza Types: Italian vs. American
What makes as “authentic” pizza is somewhat open to interpretation. If you type in “pizza” on Youtube, you’re bound to find videos claiming that an authentic pizza is undeniably “Neapolitan.” If you punch in “American” before the “pizza,” you’re likely to get results that bear little resemblance to its Italian counterpart on closer inspection.
And that has something to do with the ingredients used, cooking methods, and even the size and shape.
Although the early American pizza did not differ substantially from its Neopolitan forebear, it quickly changed after its introduction to the U.S. It soon took on evolved characteristics to fit American tastes.
In its modern form, the American and Italian varieties still differ in several fundamental ways.
1. Flour Type
Considered the gold standard for making pizza dough, Double Zero or “Tipo 00” flour is a finely milled flour with a typical protein content of around 11 or 12%. This leads to a crunchy crust synonymous with Italian pizza.
Most American pizzas are made from all-purpose flour made from Durum wheat and with a protein content as high as 14%.
American pizza often has vegetable oil or shortening mixed into the dough; this is not as common in Italian recipes.
2. The Cheese
Italian pizza is made using buffalo mozzarella, which is fresh and mild with a creamy consistency. These cheese balls are usually stored and sold in glass jars or plastic bags filled with water or whey to keep them moist.
They are not grated but applied whole or sliced, fairly sparingly. Once cooked, the tomato base should be visible between the cheese dollops.
The mozzarella used to make American-style pizza is firmer and more rubbery with a mild, salty taste. This mass-produced cheese variety is usually grated before applying, melts well, and can be stringy.
Sometimes, a mixture of cheeses, including mozzarella and cheddar or provolone, can be applied to create a richer texture and taste.
3. The Tomato Sauce
The sauces used are a key difference. In the U.S., a slow-cooked tomato concasse using pureed tomato paste is used. They often differ based on the manufacturer or a restaurant to create a signature sauce.
In Italy, however, this is not usually the case. You are more likely to see a freshly made sauce comprising crushed or pureed fresh tomatoes and garlic, oregano herb, and olive oil. This herby sauce is used to infuse the dry crust of the base.
4. The Meat Toppings
In the U.S., customers are more likely to get their toppings, including the meat, just as you want it. These meat additions can come in the form of any manner of sausage, salami, bacon, pepperoni, ham, or even mincemeat. A real meat lover’s pizza will even include a combination of meats.
The Italians, on the other hand, find this approach sacrilegious. Mixing meats in Italy is considered taboo, and you won’t find a meat salad on your pizza. They will usually use only salami or pepperoni and apply sparingly.
5. The Crust
Depending on where you go, you will find a variety of crusts catering to every taste. Every little mom-and-pop village pizzeria will have its own version and loudly declare it the only way to make a proper pizza.
Usually, though, a traditional Italian pizza has a wafer-thin base with a puffed-up crispy ring edge.
The correct way to eat the pizza slice is to curl it in with your hand to form a folded-up Calzone-style pizza.
American pizzas usually come in two basic styles, the standard thin-based pizza and the deep-dish pan pizza, so thick sometimes that it’s like eating a loaf of bread. This is an entirely American take on pizza crust.
Many a Neapolitan pizzaiolo will tell you that in his “professional” opinion, there are only three types of pizza that should be served, although this can be taken with a slight pinch of salt.
The three basic types of Naples style pizza are:
- Margherita – tomato, mozzarella, and basil
- Marinara – tomato, oregano, and olive oil
- DOP Margherita – tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and olive oil
The U.S. has taken the traditional pizza and run with it when it comes to variations. There are perhaps as many variations on the choice of toppings as pizza joints that serve them.
However, a few popular variants, such as the Hawaiian, Pepperoni, and Regina, are usually found in chain pizza restaurants and take-out diners.
Regarded as the only “true” pizza, the Italian government has claimed the Neopolitan pizza as requiring protection and promotion. In 2004, The Ministry of Agriculture released a set of guidelines outlying the step-by-step requirements for making the famous Neopolitan.
Amongst others, some of the rules stipulate the following:
The base must be round and no more than 35cm in diameter, and the dough kneaded and shaped by hand. The dough must rise for around six hours. The pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired oven. The final product must be elastic and soft, and easily foldable.
Only three types of Neapolitan pizza exist, they say. The first is Marinara with garlic and oregano.
A Margherita must be made with basil, tomatoes, and Mozzarella cheese from the southern Apennine mountains.
Finally, the “Extra Margherita” variety must include buffalo mozzarella from the Campania region.
According to the draft bill, pizzas that make the cut are allowed to sport a prestigious STG or Guaranteed Traditional Speciality label.
“The STG Neapolitan approved pizza is characterized by its raised, golden crust, soft to the touch and the lips with the red of the tomato visible through the white spots of the mozzarella.”
In 2009 the Pizza Napoletana was, according to an article in the British daily “The Guardian,” awarded this special status by the European Union. Pizza professional “police” do apparently make spot checks on all stages of the pizza-making process.
Although the three basic variations of the Neapolitan pizza are the standard fare found in any authentic Italian pizzeria, there is some room for an artistic license when creating a culinary masterpiece. Therefore some offshoots have been making gains in the popularity stakes with Italians and foreign visitors in recent years.
1. Pizza viennaise
Surprisingly a native of Naples, this kid’s favorite is a traditional Italian variety despite its germanic-sounding name. Topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella, it also includes vienna sausages sliced into pieces.
It’s quite commonly served in the northern Italian regions bordering Austria and is sometimes accompanied by fries. Definitely not for calorie counters. Also known as pizza wurstel and pizza with hotdog.
2. Pizza carrettiera
A much loved very typically Italian variety; the carrettiera is most commonly topped with salsiccia (a type of pork sausage), rapini (an Italian vegetable resembling broccoli), pepperoncini or hot peppers, and smoked provolone instead of mozzarella cheese.
To finish it off, it’s usually drizzled with olive oil and fresh basil leaves for garnishing.
Another variation of the carrettiera is called the “ripieno,” a stuffed version, similar to a calzone with the main ingredients sealed between two halves of the dough and baked in the oven, sometimes without the tomato sauce base.
3. Pizza montanara
Pizza montanara (or mountain-style) is common street food in many parts of Italy. The montanara calls for the dough to be tossed in the deep frier for a short while, then topped with cheese, basil and mozzarella before being placed in the oven to finish off with an imbued toasted flavor and to make the crust airy and light and also crunchy.
The history of this legendary take on pizza dates back ages ago in the mountains of Campania surrounding the city of Naples. This pizza is often served in Italian restaurants in New York City.
4. Pizza fritta
Fritta or Neapolitan fried pizza was one of the oldest types of classic street pizza when it was more convenient and faster cooking with hot oil rather than tending to a wood-fired oven.
It’s basically made by sealing the toppings between two layers of dough and frying it in oil until it becomes crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, almost like a doughnut.
It is very popular amongst locals in Naples and has to be eaten piping hot from its paper wrapping.
5. Pizza marinara
One of the classic original three Neapolitans, despite its name, it is not topped with any seafood but rather gets its name from the fact that it was a staple for the Neapolitan fishermen returning after a day out fishing in the early 18th century.
There are rumors that anchovies were sometimes added for those who could afford it but that the anchovies eventually gave way to garlic in later years.
Alleged to be the oldest pizzeria in the world, Pizzeria Port’Alba is considered the Marinara’s birthplace. It is one of the protected pizzas, with specific guidelines and rules governing its production.
The main ingredients include tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, oregano, and optional fresh basil leaves.
6. Calzone pizza
Similar to the ripieni version of the carretierra, this unique, half-moon-shaped pizza is made by folding a pizza in half. Originating in 18th century Naples, calzone’s literal Italian translation means “pant leg,” referring apparently to the fact that calzone’s original intention was to be consumed while standing or on the go.
The ingredient choice is quite versatile, with ham or salami and cheeses such as mozzarella, parmesan, pecorino, or ricotta-stuffed inside. A variant from Apulia, called panzerotti, includes special locally grown tomatoes.
Typically, calzones are filled with salami or ham and cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, and pecorino. In contrast, fried calzones with mozzarella and tomatoes are a specialty from the Italian region of Apulia and are known as panzerotti.
Depending on the region, there are many variations on the calzone, and recipes even differ from family to family. The most notable version is probably from Puglia, or Bari, prepared with onions, pitted olives, and anchovies, resembling more focaccia than the standard calzone.
7. Pizza margherita
One of the most popular and best-known pizzas globally, this simple pizza has an interesting genesis.
Although pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito of Pizzeria Brandi and his wife often get credited with inventing the original Margherita, the truth is that it was invented around the turn of the 19th century.
The story goes that in 1889, Italian Queen Margherita of Savoy visited the city of Naples, where she was served a pizza in the tri-colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white mozzarella, and green basil. Yet more theories trace the origins back to 1866 and earlier.
It is also one of the three original greats protected by the STG European Union protection labels of 2009.
There are no specific industry guidelines that regulate the American style pizza and how it should be made; rather, individual tastes and personal preferences have been the cornerstones of the evolution of American pizza.
From the local corner pizzeria or Italian restaurant pizza joint to the frozen foods section of your local supermarket or deli, pizza and its variants are rather difficult to discern.
There are, however, some regional favorites that have evolved and are sure to endure for generations to come.
1. New York-style pizza
This perennial favorite has to be one of the most well-known and is reminiscent of the old southern Italian pizza types.
New York-style pizza is mostly found in New York and New Jersey but is prevalent throughout the Northeastern United States.
Many mainstream franchise pizzerias such as Pizza Hut will advertise their brand of this iconic favorite but are not generally accepted as authentic.
The hand-tossed high gluten base is typically rolled out large and thin, with the resultant crust baked crispy and thicker along the edges and is often sold as slices to go.
The slices are so wide and thin that they can be folded in half to eat. Simple toppings such as tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese are typical: oregano, chili flakes, or garlic.
Variations on the New York pizza can include toppings such as salami or pepperoni or by using buffalo mozzarella instead of the usual dry type.
It is a commonly held belief that the high mineral content in the New York water supply contributes to the texture and taste of the dough mixture used.
2. Chicago-style pizza
Revered as a Chicago native creation, there are contrasting theories on the origins of the Chicago-style pizza or deep-dish pizza as it is colloquially named. What is not disputed is that it gets its deep-dish designation from the way that it is prepared.
The Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, resembling a pie, is either thick all the way through, or the crust is thinner on the inside in more traditional variants. This pizza is baked in a round pie or cake pan or skillet that’s oiled beforehand to limit sticking and create a fried edge texture.
The dough is often a mixture of wheat flour and semolina or cornflour and can have a yellowish tone, resulting from food dye added to the mixture.
The dough is pressed up against the inside of the pan, allowing a deep space for a thick layer of toppings.
The usual sliced or grated mozzarella cheese is sprinkled onto the base, followed by pepperoni, salami, sausage, or ham meat toppings. This can then be complemented by other additions such as mushrooms, peppers, and onions and sprinkled with Parmesan shavings for a richer flavor.
It is then finished off with a generous helping of canned crushed tomatoes. The toppings are applied in the reverse order of conventional pizza styles.
This pizza is quite dense and moist on the inside and is usually not sliced until it’s ready to be consumed, thus preventing the crust from getting soaked by the sauces.
3. Detroit-style pizza
Detroit-style pizza is another regional diversion from its Italian roots. These pizzas are served in a square or rectangular shape, similar to the “sfincione” or thick sponge ones found in Sicily.
A local fable credits the shape to Detroit auto workers using car oil drip trays from their factories and auto workshops to bake the pizzas in. Like deep-dish pizzas, the dough is pushed and pressed up the sides of the baking dish, resembling an apple pie crust or a focaccia bread.
The same principle as deep-dish pizza applies whereby a layer of pepperoni or other meat topping is applied directly to the base, followed by a thick layer of either more traditional Wisconsin brick cheese or mozzarella, or a combination of both and then topped off with the tomato sauce.
The toppings are applied to the edge and, when melted, add fats and oils to the crust edge to create that extraordinary crispy crust with a pillowy inside.
4. California pizza
A fairly modern and unique variant originating at the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in the ’80s, the California or Gourmet pizza combines a New York-style and Italian thin-crust with a range of unusual toppings such as barbecue sauce, goat cheese, pineapples, and chicken or with a seafood mixture of shrimp and smoked salmon with asparagus.
Resident chef at the Chez Panisse, Ed Ladou, even experimented with ingredients such as ricotta, pate, mustard, and other interesting combinations.
This culinary alchemy that ended up with over 250 pizza recipes eventually led to the formation of the menu for the California Pizza Kitchen chain restaurant.
There are no specific toppings required to make a California pizza. Anything goes, and you can request it served either as a thick or a thin base.
5. Greek-style pizza
Unlike the “Greek Pizza” item often served in restaurants as a basic Greek salad served on a regular pizza base, an authentic Greek pizza was created by Greek immigrants to the U.S. who were introduced to Italian cuisine.
A style of pizza that’s chewier and puffier than the standard thin-based fare, they are baked in shallow oiled pans, resulting in a slightly fried crusty bottom. Not to be confused with the deep-dish crust, it’s thinner, and the dough is sometimes very dense.
The sauce is quite spicy with a heavy infusion of oregano and is layered on the crust quite thickly, as is the cheese mix, which can include mozzarella, provolone, or cheddar.
Added toppings can include feta cheese, olives, and red onion.
6. St Louis-style pizza
St Louis-style pizza is a mid-western U.S. favorite popular in restaurants such as Imo’s Pizza and can be found in the frozen foods section at some supermarkets and many local bars and taverns.
The crust is made without yeast and forms a thin, crispy, cracker-like crust that does not bend well. The toppings laid all the way to the edge include a processed cheese mixture called “Provel,” which includes Swiss, Provolone, and Cheddar.
The sauce is usually distinctly sweeter than traditional varieties, thought to be brought on by Sicilian immigrants to St Louis and their influence on Italian cooking.
The pizza is served sliced into squares instead of the usual triangular wedges, with the reason for this largely unknown.
While the traditional pizza has been around for around 200 years in its modern form, new creations are constantly being added. With the increasing drive to healthier eating, variations on the ingredients, including vegan and gluten-free options, are becoming the new norm.
One thing, however, is certain, no matter how you like your pizza served, it is surely here to stay for some time to come. Buon Appetito!
Taste of Home: Guide to Regional Pizza Styles
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Hungry Howies: American vs. Italian Pizza
The Guardian: Italian Pizza Wins Protected Status
The Spruce Eats: Types of Mozzarella Cheese
Taste Atlas: Most Popular Pizzas in Metropolitan City of Naples
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Fine Dining Lovers: American Pizza Types
The Spruce Eats: What is Sicilian Pizza