THE MIDWEEK MODERNIST PIZZA REPORT: "Modernist Pizza on food snobbery, old-timer's disease, what is pizza, and victims of Culinary Stockholm Syndrome" (Part II)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 2, "World Of Pizza" (Part II)
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
When we left you last time, we promised to explain Culinary Stockholm Syndrome, among other things. And shortly, we’ll be doing exactly that—and we’ll be speaking of some important philosophy from the Modernist camp. We just have to do a little more business before getting there.
So, our last “World Of Pizza” observation is that there is no true “Roman style pizza.” Roman “style” actually covers range of styles and lots of hype. The Modernistas believe this is unfair to Rome’s rich culinary tradition. So it goes.
One of the interesting developments here in the land of Modernist Pizza is something that I believe explains a lot of vitriol. There’s a widespread and vocal hatred of Chicago deep-dish pizza exhibited by many. For me, Chicago deep-dish is simply uninteresting. I’ve certainly never said, “I could eat a doorstop right now, but there aren’t any nearby. Where’s the nearest Pizzeria Uno?
But the folks at Modernist take Chicago pizza seriously. Here’s the factoid about it that they deliver to us: Across the board, no matter what the pizzeria, Chicago pizza is undersalted. And I’m going to bet, in part, it’s this lack of salt that creates such animosity. You buy this heavy thing which defies pizza as you know it, and there’s something about it that just tastes wrong. You can’t put your finger on it, so you decry it as a casserole and not a pizza.
But it’s really just undersalted. How much better would the reception be if it were tastier? And this cultural phenomenon is nothing new. Apparently, the “awful” bread of Tuscany has been chronically undersalted going on 700 years. And the myths justifying it aside, nobody can explain why in a way that makes actual sense.
Here’s the frightening thing about Modernist Pizza: There were unpleasant things said about the pizza in New Haven. Yes, the legendary land of Sally’s and Pepe’s was some of the worst pizza they ate on their pizza world tour. I’ve eaten at Pepe’s once. I know people who are so staunchly committed to it that they’ve had pizza airlifted to them across the country, where they stash it in their freezer.
There’s a fantastic documentary about New Haven called Pizza: A Love Story. I recommend it highly. There are big stars and notable people as well as pizzeria owners and longtime aficionados of New Haven pizza. It’s streaming on Amazon and I highly recommend it. But it’s also open to interpretation as an example of a cult phenomenon. (Lyle Lovett loves it, and his appearance alone is worth the price of admission. This little film also gives me new appreciation for Michael Bolton—a performer who I saw so long ago, he was still playing heavy rock under the name Michael Boloton. And no, that extra “o” is not a typo. But I digress.)
And this leads us to one of the most important philosophical underpinnings of Modernist Pizza and the people who make it possible. They had to experience a crisis of introspection and debate about food snobbery. They recognize the intensely personal nature of food, and don’t believe they have any right to tell anyone they can’t like something.
That said, it leads us to a sad reality: “Some styles are so deeply flawed that even the best executed examples are terrible.” That is a direct quote from the book, and I believe it is a courageous statement to make. And it lead us to my favorite new concept, to wit…
Culinary Stockholm syndrome. In the context of our beloved pizza, they say, “If you grow up held hostage to bad food (specifically pizza) you might develop a taste for it and to the point that you love it and defend it against heretical fools like us who point out its flaws.”
Cue applause. It’s satisfying and reassuring to know that the Modernistas have a sense of perspective and humor about all this. (In my own writing, I’ve called myself a heretic, and I am clearly foolish beyond measure by comparison to these genuine geniuses. In fact, why are you even still here? Do you identify with your captor? Yay!)
They also mention an article from Vice.com called, “The pain and sorrow of learning that your beloved childhood pizza is trash.” In that article (which I had to look up so you don’t have to watch the train wreck yourself), writer Peter Rugg describes the “legendarily bad” pizza of the Quad Cities region of Iowa and Illinois. It’s made of a “dough with malt for sweetness, a spartan smear of spicy red sauce, one pound of crumbled pork sausage seasoned with fennel, and a chunked, regionally-made mozzarella. The cheese is shelved over the toppings thick as the rubber on an all-terrain tire.” Wow. I’ve had some bad pizza, but that sounds so epic that I’m not sure what to make of it. And it leads us to…
An Emperor’s new clothes quality to pizza culture. They’ve noted a couple of times in the book that nostalgia sells pizza. Just because something is being made the way your great grandfather made it doesn’t mean it’s good. The Modernist Pizza narrative tell us, for instance, that if you want the best pizza in Naples, you have to go to one owned by a living pizzaiolo.
It’s “the storytelling power of Old-school disease.” And here, they’ve deemed that Portland is the best pizza city. That’s “because there’s no Portland style pizza to muck it up. The best Detroit style pizza is not in Detroit.”
This is where we have to start looking at the known history of pizza for perspective. Yes, Modernist Pizza’s taxonomy says that despite what its detractors say, deep dish really is a pizza and not a casserole. “True Neapolitan pizza” as per the AVPN (the governing body of pizza in Naples) is an invention of the late 20th century. And many AVPN-sanctioned Naples pizzerias don’t even follow strict AVPN guidelines.
Is it wrong that some of the finest Neapolitan pizza is in Tokyo? I think not, but I also think it’s telling. I also think some knucklehead somewhere is screaming “Cultural appropriation!” Feh. But this fact does tell us that a) the Japanese are doing what they do so well with so many inventions from elsewhere: looking at it and improving on it. The finest Neapolitan pizza is half a world away from Naples—and of the two pizzerias that tied for world’s best pizzeria in a recent judgement by The Top 50 Pizza organization, one is in Naples and the other is in New York.
Believe what you want—but it’s possible that everything we know is wrong. That includes apocryphal pizza.
More Emperor’s new clothes: Italians are obsessed with digestion and the digestibility of pizza. This despite the fact there is zero scientific evidence supporting various claims made about what makes it so and not. Also…
AVPN demands true Neapolitan pizza have a soft crust. But research has shown that people prefer the crunch of a crisper crust. So...wherefore, AVPN?
Let’s not harp on this. The undeniable fact is that, at some level, pizza is what you want it to be. Modernist Pizza is not here to tell you that anything is wrong or right. It is here merely to offer facts and let you make decisions.
For me, a key decision was that I don’t like Neapolitan pizza as much as American style "NEOpolitan" pizza and artisan pizza. I made this decision long before I went to Naples, but that trip merely confirmed it. The more memorable pizzas I’ve had in Italy were much more like the best pizzas I’ve had in the States. And that’s the kind of pizza I aim for in Free The Pizza!
And in their objective effort to cover all pizzas for all people, you get to discover some pizzas you may never have heard of. There’s Pizza Gourmet, canotto pizza, kebab pizza, and the forementioned al taglio.
They even recognize chain pizza—not as a style, of course. They do recognize it as “a driver of commerce and innovation” and give it props for its willingness to adapt to local tastes. This latter nod is interesting. Several years ago, Honey Parker and I worked with a fellow who helped open Domino’s in India. It was a colossal failure—until they dumped the US menu and made pizzas that were recognizably Indian in their toppings.
Anyway, “World Of Pizza” is a big and important chapter for the pizza fan. And it paints an objective portrait to inform the variations of the science to follow. But first, it’s boots on the ground in Volume One, Chapter 3: “Pizza Travels.” And yes, they go everywhere that matters—even the Quad Cities for some “legendarily bad pizza…”
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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