THE MIDWEEK MODERNIST PIZZA REPORT: "Modernist Pizza on food snobbery, old-timer's disease, what is pizza, and victims of Culinary Stockholm Syndrome..." (Part I)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 2, "World Of Pizza" (Part I)
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
Stockholm syndrome: a condition in which hostages in captivity develop a psychological bond with their captors.
What does that have to do with pizza? We’ll be getting to that. It involves many beloved pizzas and their questionable veracity as exemplars of the craft. It’s all part of Modernist Pizza’s Volume 1, Chapter 2 foray into the "World Of Pizza."
And when they say “world,” they mean it. You can get pizza in almost every country on earth. And they point out the couple of places where you just can’t. (Doesn't that contrarian inside you just want to go to one of those two places and order a pizza?
The pizza crew from Modernist Cuisine went all over the world themselves, chasing pizza. They went with cameras, of course. That's part of what they do. And the resulting photography, from landscapes to pizzascapes, is phenomenal. (I've found myself reading, and I'll suddenly be confronted with a photograph of pizza that makes me feel as if I've wasted my life. Some of the pizzas look incredible.)
In the process of doing all this, the Modernistas were not just gorging on pizza. They actually learned to not gorge. And they were also being scientists. They were doing their best to develop what they refer to as a kind of “pizza taxonomy” for identifying and classifying what is a complex world of food.
Developing this taxonomy required things like determining what actually constitutes a style of pizza. And in that process, all roads lead not to Rome but to (where else?) Naples. If the pizza doesn’t have characteristics that clearly link back to the birthplace of pizza, it’s not pizza.
So now, you’re asking, “Dude, what about my favorite flammkuchen?!” Sorry. That particular flatbread, also known in French as “tart flambée,” is not pizza. Neither is your beloved Armenian lahmacun. (But man, when it’s topped with minced lamb, it must be fantastic!)
Do you enjoy scouring Sicilian bakeries for sfincione? It’s lovely—but it's not pizza. (This despite what we heard an Italian judge on a pizza competition TV show said about it recently.)
I’m not going to identify a certain Japanese "pizza" chef on that same TV show. But this chef was competing, and prepared pizza-wedge-shaped sheets of nori topped with rice and seafood--and called it pizza! Eegad! But the judges allowed it and loved it—and it’s surprising the contestants didn’t come to blows. Clearly nothing about it fit the Modernist taxonomy. But I digress.
In their science-driven effort to make us all feel intellectually satisfied about Pizza Truth, the mavens at Modernist have developed a list of parameters. They involve things like crumb range, rim range, and topping ratios. It’s mind boggling how much food is out there that wants to be pizza.
Modernist Pizza also declares, “Provenance is not enough.” Just for example, there are a lot of lists declaring the best “Greek diner pizza.” Sorry. Greek diner pizza is not a style. It’s just pizza that's served in a diner run by folks with Greek heritage.
It’s also difficult to not love the Modernist explanatory metaphor for this "style" prediczted on provenance: Thomas Keller’s famous California restaurant, French Laundry, is in Yountville. It also follows a specific culinary tradition. But they’re not making “Yountville-style cuisine.”
Here’s one of the actual big surprises: There is no Sicilian pizza. There is literally nothing in Sicily to be defined as such. There is also no consistent style of purported Sicilian pizza. As a case in point, they gladly show us 18 high-quality photographs of square pizzas claiming to be Sicilian. No two look the same beyond being a thick crust.
And this leads to demystifying the Sicilian pizza’s “gluey gel layer.” Ever wonder about that kinda wet, shiny layer of crust just beneath the cheese? I have. And long before I knew anything about making pizza, I wondered why pizzerias were always baking these thick-crust, pan pizzas in the same oven as the thin-crust pizzas that go right on the deck with no pan.
SURPRISE: They’re doing it wrong! That gluey gel layer is just uncooked dough. It's the product of baking a pan pizza in a too-hot oven. The pizza is removed from the oven before the top of the dough is fully baked. Leave it in longer, and the bottom of the crust burns. Good pizza joints use another oven that’s not as hot and bake the thick-crust wannabe-Sicilian pizza all the way through.
And at the end of the day, the question remains: Why is it even called “Sicilian?” Nobody can source it with certainty.
In other assertions sure to cause fistfights:
And just by the way, pinsa Romana (if you've even heard of it) is often claimed to not be pizza. Instead, it’s a “pizza replacement” made with a proprietary flour. Modernist defines it as fitting the definition of pizza, but is not a style of pizza.
Now, are you a Yankee who loves the New York slice-shop model? Get this: Pizza by the slice is virtually unheard of in major pizza cities like Naples, Chicago and São Paulo. The only other major pizza city besides New York where slice pizza is widely offered is Buenos Aires. Who even knew Buenos Aires loved pizza?!
Conversely, as slices go, the Roman-style al taglio pizza is almost never sold as a whole pie. Notable domestic exception here: Honey Parker and I interviewed the couplepreneurs behind Philadelphia’s Rione, a pizzeria which is mentioned in this chapter of Modernist Pizza. Rione is happy to sell whole pizzas and often do—especially during football season. If you’d like to hear the CoupleCo interview in which we eat entirely too much of their excellent pizza while talking to them, you can find part 1 here.
Anyway, there is no true Roman style pizza. Rome has a range of styles and lots of hype. Modernist finds calling a pizza “Roman style” unfair to Rome’s culinary tradition. So it goes.
And in an effort to not be overwhelming, this concludes Part 1 of "World Of Pizza" conversation. It's rich and fascinating for merely a chapter. (Granted, a seemingly book-length chapter.) Part 2 will come around to haunt you next week--and we get around to explaining food snobbery, old-timers disease, more about what is pizza, and victims of Culinary Stockholm Syndrome...
If you'd like to see the entire epic, 30-something pounds of Modernist Pizza on Amazon, click here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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