The Midweek Modernist Pizza Report: Traveling the world to eat the best pizza, getting paid for it AND collecting frequent flier miles? How do you get THAT gig? (Part III)
Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 3, "Pizza Travels" (Part III)
Legendary pizza can lead to legendary disappointment. To wit: a crust that is “Dry and dense, almost like hardtack,” “charred to the point of being burnt,” “very low on salt,” “lackluster sauce," "toppings tossed on haphazardly, and a paltry grating of Pecorino.”
Welcome back to Pizza Travels with the Modernist Pizza crew. When we saw you last time, we were talking about the challenges of nostalgia. Such challenges infect certain objects of New York-style pizza love. But perhaps nowhere did the Modernistas experience the dangerous challenges of nostalgia as they did in New Haven.
The list of shortcomings in the first paragraph above were leveled at some of the most beloved pizza in the United States: That of the legendary New Haven. Their research took them to all the big, important icons of New Haven pizza. And their report? Talk about a slap in the face with a wet slice.
This chapter left me wondering if maybe New Haven is like the pizza equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. That's because Modernist went on to say, “We see the love of pizza as something akin to the love a die-hard sports fan has for his or her favorite team. The passion is always there, whether they’re winning the World Series or deep into a losing streak.” And it’s also very clear they were aware of the peril in which they’re placing themselves…
“We’re pretty sure some are going to be outraged by our view.” But like Modernist says, they’ve “promised to tell it like it is, no matter what.”
Nonetheless, there’s also something fantastic about New Haven pizza. It may be the most historically authentic pizza anywhere. After all, the New Haven pizza culture was established by a specific demographic of the Italian diaspora.
At the turn of the 20th century, New Haven business was aggressively courting Neapolitan immigrants as laborers. Says Modernist Pizza, “The connection back to Naples is both strong and deep. We have come to believe that the pizza here may be the closest in style to the ancestral pizza sold on Naples’s cobblestone streets 150 years ago. Which is actually pretty cool.”
Here now, some more ridiculous pizza mythology. Apparently, some people are absolutely certain Frank Pepe invented pizza in New Haven. One can only imagine how bent out of shape those people are going to be about a Tokyo pizza topped with algae and raw fish. (If you missed that pizza, it’s discussed here.)
The Big Two Pizzerias in New Haven are Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s. But the Modernistas feel there is better pizza in New Haven. They mention one place whose name isn’t on everybody’s lips. They also list a couple that I’ve already heard about and am curious to try.
But if we want to get into pizza love and hate, there is probably no better fish-in-a-barrel location than Chicago. In Chicago, the Modernistas didn’t love Chicago pizza—whether thick or thin. As mentioned previously in these review installments, the chronically undersalted condition of Chicago pie is a big problem. They found the best pizzas in Chicago ended up being Neapolitan style, Detroit style, and the al taglio style at Bonci Pizzeria. (Gabriele Bonci is the Roman celebrity chef who started by-the-cut sheet-pan pies in Rome’s Pizzarium, and who was greatly championed by Anthony Bourdain.)
What they did seem to like about Chicago was the attitude. They found that the restaurateurs spoke highly of their competitors. This is apparently not common in the restaurant business.
And maybe the best quote about Chicago pizza: “So. Much. Sausage.” A deep dish pizza can have as much as two pounds of dough, two pounds of cheese, two pounds of sausage, plus cheese and other toppings. Woof!
There are two basic kinds of Chicago deep dish pizza. There’s UNO’s yellow, high-fat dough that they say seems inspired by biscuit dough. Then, there’s a white, pillowy, bread dough similar to what they found in Argentina.
Sadly: Gooey gel layers are common. But all is not lost. As mentioned, they loved Bonci Pizzeria. Other Chicago faves include: Spacca Napoli, a Neapolitan joint that does tribute pizzas to A16, a landmark San Francisco restaurant; and Lampi ala Mozza, a nod to Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame.
The big mystery of the Chicago pizza scene is thin-crust bar-style or tavern-style pizzas—sauced to the edge, and often cat into party squares. Many different bars call it their own. And the Modernistas never found much pizza like this that was very good to eat.
SIDEBAR: At this stage in the game, I’m suddenly wondering how much time these global pizza seekers spent in hotel fitness centers during their travels. Heck, I’m doing New York pizza experiments several times a week, and I’m pudged up beyond reason. But I digress. Moving on!
Modernist Pizza next gives a nod to the weird Quad Cities pizza of Illinois and Iowa. It includes malt in the crust, a tomato sauce that’s made with cayenne pepper or chili flakes, and the toppings are all placed beneath the cheese. When the pizza arrives at your table, it has been cut into strips instead of triangular slices. The strips are floppy and difficult to handle.
And then there’s Old Forge, Pennsylvania—self-proclaimed “pizza capital of the world.” 40% of the Old Forge population claims Italian heritage. And the white-bread, cafeteria-style pan pizza could not sound less Italian. But all the pizzerias are very congenial and they support each other.
“In the end, maybe the story of Old Forge isn’t so much about pizza as it is about a struggling small town creating a shared identity with the tools they had at their disposal.” Now, THAT seems so very Italian: the struggle and the cooperation. Additionally, hats off to Modernist Pizza for recognizing that culture matters, too.
Detroit pizza. Yes, they went to Detroit. Ready? The best Detroit-style pizzas are in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Chicago.
The next Modernist declaration: Portland is best pizza city in America if not the world. They suspect it’s because of a lack of pizza tradition. Portlandians have been free to experiment. The result is a few excellent pizzaioli who get very cheffy about things and support each other.
I’m so ready to head off to Portland. I was even before cracking this book. But Modernist Pizza’s descriptions of the pizzerias there are inspiring. They portray an eclectic Portland nature, to say the least. You also have to wonder how so many people can spend so much time doing so many unusual and complex things to such a simple food—but it seems they pull it off to great effect.
Ultimately, it seems that pizza is as much about the people who make it as the product itself. With that in mind, this volume of Modernist Pizza is about so many pizzas and so many people.
That’s also why it’s so satisfying finding this gem buried so deep within such a huge book: “We tried hundreds of pizzas while researching this book. Yet there’s one we all continued to talk about even months after our tasting tour was over. It wasn’t the fanciest pizza we tried; it wasn’t even the best. But everything about this place, and this particular pizza, felt so satisfying that it struck exactly the right chord for us. Shardell Dues, a firecracker who’s funny, genuine, and swears like a sailor, opened Red Sauce Pizza in 2015…If Red Sauce was in our neighborhood, we’d be there all the time.”
Just for fun, I went to find Shardell Dues online. Her pizzas look fantastic. They look like pizza, not so much like art as some do. They’re browned really nicely. They’re just irregular enough (nobody here is using calipers, apparently). They look like they taste great and are made with love.
Pizza really is about the people. Witness some of the things the Modernistas have said about places like Portland’s Sizzle Pie: “They weren’t pizzaioli; they were heavy-metal heads.” And “They envisioned a late-night joint that served stoner food, including pizza, waffles and nachos.”
You realize after reading the brief stories about these pizzerias that this massive volume is only scratching the surface. There are a hundred other books that could be done—one book about each of these pizzerias and the people who make them possible.
And by the way, their favorite New York Slice from across the country? It’s in Portland at Scottie’s Pizza Parlor.
Now, about the rest of the country… In California, they give a nod to San Francisco, where the pizza scene never really gelled the way it did in the northeast. Alice Waters gets her due, as does Tony Gemingnani. They also tip their hats to Los Angeles and Nancy Silverton and Wolfgang Puck for their clear and present contributions, as well as Justin DeLeon at Appolonia. Philly gets its due for three great pizzerias in Fishtown. Oh, and hello, Phoenix and Chris Bianco.
Modernist stopped in at Spago and had the famous pizza with house-cured smoked salmon, dill, creme fraiche, and salmon roe. They call it “the original cheffy pizza.” They also had a pizza with wild morels, asparagus and goat cheese. This is where it all started, folks. And you can thank the late Ed LaDou for making it so. (He went on to develop the menu at California Pizza Kitchen. His own little place, Caiote Cafe, is still turning out pizzas in Studio City. I admit that I ate there once at lunch, and was underwhelmed.)
Tony Gemignani: What is there to say? The first American to win the top prize at the World Pizza Cup in Naples. A total of 13 pizza championships. Named US Ambassador of Pizza by the city of Naples. He has 30 restaurants and his own (now defunct) International School of Pizza. His motto is “respect the craft.” He is legend.
Joe Beddia from Philly went to Japan and was floored by what he saw in the dedication of the pizzaioli. When Joe Beddia called Chris Bianco, the latter said, “Find your voice. Your pizza voice.” Joe Beddia did that in a funky little joint with no phone ordering, no seats, and a daily limit of 40 pizzas. He became the best pizza in America as per Bon Appetit. Then he closed it and opened a “grown up” restaurant.
Brooklyn native Chris Bianco began making mozzarella out of his apartment in Phoenix and selling it to restaurants. In one of the book’s best quotes, they say of Chris, “While the operation wasn’t exactly government approved, he figured, ‘How much time can you do for mozzarella?’” They also refer to it as “the underground cheese gig.”
Like so many other critics and pundits, the Modernistas call Bianco’s Pizza Rossa one of their favorite artisanal pizzas. The Rossa is a white pizza with Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, slivered red onions, and Arizona pistachios. There’s a reason social media is filled with home pizzamakers making their own versions of it. It seems to be the white pizza du jour.
I’m going to admit ignorance of the rest of the book at this stage, but: This may end up being my favorite chapter. It’s huge, it’s sprawling, it’s epic—much like the entirety of Modernist Pizza. But when you consider how much travel, jet lag and indigestion must have been involved, you can’t ignore the already significant contribution to pizza anthropology. And for most of us, this chapter alone is an extraordinary education about pizza and is worth the price of admission by itself.
Next time, we move on to Chapter 4, covering pizza dough ingredients. Who knew there was so much to consider relative to four simple components: water, flour, salt and yeast?
If you'd like to see more about Modernist Pizza, including its mass and equally hefty price tag, click here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the new, 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, professional-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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