The million-dollar question: Should you buy Modernist Pizza, or 16 other pizza books for about the same total price?
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Conclusion
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 05/03/23: $294.99
People have I asked me whether they should buy Modernist Pizza. That seems like a loaded question: Whether I have an opinion on whether you should buy a $450, three-volume pizza “cookbook” that weighs 32 pounds and comes in a stainless-steel case with a bright red finish.
The answer is simple: Yes. If you can even ask the question, you are a candidate. If you are someone who doesn’t automatically say, “$450 for a cookbook? That’s insane!”, then you may well be the right person for this epic work on pizza: the history, current state of the art, techniques and recipes.
The people to whom I’ve unequivocally recommended this book are very smart people who have two things in common: They are adventurers and they love pizza.
But to feel better about making such a decision, you want more details. So let’s dig in. And let’s start with the superficial aspects of it: the dollar-per-pound investment. Let’s see what you get for all that cash (which, by the way, is not $450, but is under $300 when you use this link ):
So, what’s dollar-per-pound analysis of this one book against all those others? Well, at an average cover price of say 20 bucks each (for a total of $320) against the $294 discounted price of Modernist Pizza, the latter is a pretty good investment.
That’s because, in part, you need to consider the 7 pounds of ink required to produce Modernist Pizza. (That poundage is probably because of all the extraordinary photography being printed.) And by the way, 7 pounds isn’t a number I pulled out of the air. I heard Nathan Mhyrvold quote it in a podcast interview. (He's a fascinating guest who sounds like he loves what he does more than anyone on earth.)
Now let’s see what else that hefty price tag buys--which is so much more than just a how-to book. It’s a tour de force of research and development.
Consider the cost of researching the content of Modernist Pizza. Most every other pizza book you’re going to buy is based on the personal experiences of the author as a pizza pro. Research: zero. Life experience: 100%.
There are exceptions, of course. Peter Reinhart, author of several pizza books, is a bread pro, university instructor, consultant, and former bakery owner who is obsessed with pizza. To my knowledge, he’s made tons of pizza but has never worked in a pizzeria. A pro, yes--but not strictly a pizza pro. And there’s my book. It was written by a fool who has deluded himself into believing he makes pretty good pizza and tries to dumb it down for the newbie. I am a professional writer. (I have the paychecks to prove it.) Not a pizza pro. But for the most part, pizza books are written by pizza restaurateurs.
Modernist Pizza is written by Nathan Mhyrvold, a trained chef by avocation, who also happens to be an accomplished engineer by vocation. (If you don’t know, he used to be the CTO of a little company called Microsoft.) Mr. Mhyrvold partnered with Francisco Migoya, an accomplished chef (who also happens to be an accomplished artist).
Mhyrvold & Migoya’s names are on the cover of Modernist Pizza. Maybe we can consider them the Lennon & McCartney of 30-pound pizza books. Of course, this doesn’t include the 24 other names and photos at the back of the book, PLUS the 126 additional names that appear in a section called “Acknowledgements and Additional Contributors.”
This book is a literally massive testimony to a love for pizza: The history of it, the making of it, and the sharing of it. Don’t discount that latter point, sharing, for a even a second. They’re happy to tell us that possibly the best pizza in the country is coming out of Dan Richer’s Razza in New Jersey or Sarah Minnick’s Lovely’s 50/50 in Portland, Oregon. But they’re also happy to say their favorite pizzeria is a relatively unknown joint (whose name escapes me) and how it’s the one they kept wanting to go back to.
There is a true love for pizza at work here. Indeed, it would not have been possible without the love. The entire first volume of Modernist Pizza is a world travelogue. That takes an investment beyond sheer perseverance. You have to want that travel and that pizza.
They visited 250 pizzerias around the world, visiting the world’s key pizza cities and places--like Naples and Campania, Rome, Northern Italy, São Paolo, Bueno Aires, Tokyo, New York, New Haven, Chicago, the Quad Cities, Old Forge, Detroit, Portland, and “the rest of the United States.”
I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and say that this book would’ve been even longer had there not been a pandemic. They apparently had to cut their travels short because of COVID. How many more cities would they have visited? How much more pizza would they have eaten? How many more volumes would there have been? (Don’t laugh. The predecessor books, Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Bread are each five volumes. By comparison, Modernist Pizza is an exercise in restraint.)
Then there’s the research and development. Yes, they made a lot of pizzas based on standard recipes. They also invented a lot of their own recipes. And in case you don’t think experimentation matters, this book is a total eye opener in terms of the best ways to make pizza, regardless of whether you’re a moderately obsessive amateur like me or you’re a total pro. They even did things in a machine shop to try out methods that didn’t exist. They tried crazy things like coloring every part of a pizza black to see if it affected how the pizza absorbed heat. (They also provide the recipe, which requires activated charcoal. The all-black pizza is a little disquieting in appearance. Or maybe that’s just me.)
There’s a lot of technical detail about how ovens work. There are experiments about things like solid metal doors versus doors with windows and how it impacts baking. There are sections about the process inside a baking dough that give you insight nobody else has. Food scientists might be aware of these things, but there’s no way we’d ever get that intel from any source we normally have available to us as consumers.
And very important is this: The explanations of science and process and technique are all concise and easy to understand for an intelligent and interested layman. As someone who has both read and written a lot of dumbed-down tech for people with no background in tech, it is impossible to emphasize how helpful this is.
Are there things I don’t like about Modernist Pizza? That’s a tough question. This is supposed to be a critical review. Is the book perfect? No. A smattering of the writing is a little corny—and is exactly what I would expect from a world-class tech geek when he’s having fun. So it’s authentic. I’m for it. (In college, I lived in a dorm that had an entire floor of engineers. I had roommates who were engineers. I've worked alongside engineers. I’ve lived this. It’s the product of smart, funny, engaged people who live to push boundaries and occasionally revel in the absurd.)
Do some of the photos seem a little excessive? Well, most of the photography is stunning and revealing. But replicating Salvador Dali’s Persistence Of Memory as a photograph in pizza is…well, eccentric. But then, so is producing this book. And as a fan of Jasper Johns’ artwork, I admit a degree of affection for the photo called Jasper Johns With Pepperoni. (We don’t have time to get into a discussion of the abstract expressionism of Jasper Johns and why he painted flags. Just know that pepperoni is America’s favorite pizza topping.) Yes, excessive. Just like Modernist Pizza in all its glory.
At the risk of sounding like some kind of sycophant, this work strikes me as close to perfect as possible. It should appeal to anyone who cares about pizza, and about making better pizza.
But—what If all you’re trying to do is make a pizza in a hurry? Then you don’t need a book like this for that. However, if you’re interested in understanding the wide world of pizza, if you’re interested in learning how to make the best product you can in your own home (or in a pizzeria), if you love the idea of history and context and the details and the idiosyncrasies, this might be the kind of book you need.
I’ve heard that there are people who hate Modernist Pizza. I don’t know who they are. I haven’t seen their reviews. I’ve searched for them. One guy on Amazon gave it a two-star review because it’s too heavy for his mother to lift. It’s not a “verified purchase” review, and could easily have been written by a troll. What do I know? Only that I’ve read this entire book cover-to-cover, all three volumes. And I’m glad to have done it.
I did see one comment on Pizzamaking dot com, where a gentleman admitted that it’s a lot of money. But pizza is what he loves doing. And he’s grateful to have a billionaire out there who’s interested in creating something like this so he could benefit from it.
I admit that it is indeed a lot of money—but I also believe this will be a lifelong resource. The day it arrived in a cardboard box with the word "HEAVY" printed on it in bold letters, I admit to being in awe. I long ago gave up any idea that I might return it. It will remain in my library long after many other books have been relegated to the recycling bin. Like the guy writing in Pizzamaking dot com, I also love doing pizza. I love it enough that I finally had to leave most of the groups of Pizza Social because there’s too much anger and ego running around in there to make it loveable.
And at the end of the day whose time is measured on a clock whose face is the same shape as a pizza, loveability is what matters. If you love pizza, you will probably love Modernist Pizza. It’s a gift to pizza lovers at our level. It opens your eyes to what’s possible.
Some of the pizzas will make your head spin. You will see some of them and think, “I’d love to taste that pizza—but I’m certainly never going to make it. I don't think.” Modernist Pizza is about an expression of culinary art that never seems to get old for the people who practice it. And this was produced by a person who could be doing anything in the world he wants—and somehow, this was what he decided to do.
I applaud Nathan Mhyrvold and Francisco Migoya and all the Modernistas who made this book possible. Not that they care what I think. I will never even scratch the surface of the potential that this book carries as a cookbook. But I’m glad to try. And I’m glad to have waded through it all.
Thank you to Mr. Mhyrvold and his team. They did a brilliant job. And thank you, especially if you’ve stuck it out through all of these review installments. If my math is correct, there are 28 of them, including this one. If you’ve read all of them, you’re a stronger human being than I am. Thank you for playing.
If the idea of owning a copy of Modernist Pizza attracts you like a moth to the candle flame, you can find it here. If you want a skinnier, simpler, sillier book that teaches only one kind of pizza, you can find Free The Pizza! 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?
When you click those links to Amazon (and a few other sites we work with), and you buy something, you are helping this website stay afloat, and you're helping us have many more glorious photographs of impressive pizza.