A Guide to the Essential Regional American Pizza Styles
Before the 1950s, most Americans didn't know what pizza was. Arriving to the U.S. in the late 1800s, it was considered a cheap "ethnic" food, eaten mostly by marginalized Italian Americans in hole-in-the-wall restaurants or on the street.
As Krishnendu Ray writes in his book The Ethnic Restaurateur, it was only when Italian Americans climbed the socioeconomic ladder and were considered to be white that their food, in turn, gained acceptance and appreciation.
The shift began in the '40s, when soldiers were coming back from World War II. They'd been exposed to pizza in Europe, and now craved it back home. Some of these GIs opened restaurants; others were just inspired to take their families to existing Italian restaurants, which started reaching a cross-cultural clientele.
American appetites were changing, and technology was too. This allowed for mass production in the decades to come: Frozen pizza and big-name chains popularized the dish across the country, especially in the Midwest and West, where there weren't large Italian communities. And where there were—industrial centers like New York, New Haven, and Detroit—you saw regional Italian-American cooking styles emerge in the '40s or '50s. These eventually swept westward, until you saw the emergence of a California pizza style in the early '80s.
The post-WWII economy allowed more people to start businesses, spend money, and entertain. Pizza, as it turns out, was perfect for parties—and kids loved it, too. Its versatility meant that you could top it with just about anything and eat it a couple times a week without feeling like you were having the same meal. All of these factors played a significant part in pizza's solidification as an American symbol, as Carol Helstosky points out in her book Pizza: A Global History.
In this survey of regional American pizza styles, there are several varieties that we wanted to include but couldn't, due to space—the beautiful, busty BeauJo's pies of Colorado, or the cracker-thin, Provel-topped crisps of St. Louis. It should also be noted that styles in general are tricky to define. What's called "Detroit-style pizza" in most of America is simply "pizza" in Detroit. In other words, it's often outsiders who create the labels that then get bandied about by others, including national chains trying to capitalize on the hype.
As of a decade ago, there were 70,000 pizzerias in the United States. Here's to 70,000 more.
As the nexus of Italian immigration in the United States, New York is where the American pizza restaurant is said to have been officially born in 1905, at the hands of Gennaro Lombardi. (His spot claimed the first pizza-business license in the country, though there were most certainly under-the-radar street vendors and informal pizza operations before then, as Helstosky writes in her book. In recent years, Lombardi as the originator of New York pizza has come into question.)
When identifying a New York pie, its large, floppy slices are a dead giveaway; it's the widest and most pliable of all regional styles. It's thin, but not as thin as its Neapolitan ancestor, which is mandated by Italian law to be about a tenth of an inch. New York slices, on the other hand, are double that, give or take. And foldability is a universally agreed-upon element. Do you have to fold it when you pick it up and eat it? It's probably New York style. (That's also true of both Neapolitan and New Haven pizza, but the slices are generally smaller.) This simultaneously allows you to catch grease and and carry it around with you, harkening back to pizza's 18th-century origins: a fisherman's breakfast in Naples, proletariat and portable, eaten on the street.
Like all things Americanized, the New York slice is oversized compared to both its Neapolitan ancestor and its regional counterparts: 9'' or 10'' long. It has a crisp bite but retains its chew, thanks to the high-gluten bread flour with which it's made—in fact, this is another defining characteristic of New York pizza, according to pizza researcher Liz Barrett. While some swear New York's mineral-rich tap water plays a role, the jury's still out on that one. Also, Barrett asserts, New York pizza must be hand-tossed, never pan-stretched.
How else is New York pizza different from Neapolitan style? It lacks the pillowy air pockets of Neapolitan's airy cornicione, or rim. And unlike Neapolitan style, which is defined by its minimalist sauce of raw tomatoes and salt—protected by Italian law—New York sauce usually has some herbs. The mozzarella is hard and aged, whereas Neapolitan pizza must feature fresh mozzarella as the only cheese, if it has any at all. This is due, it's thought, to the gas ovens that many New York pizzerias now use. As opposed to hotter-burning coal and wood ovens, pizza takes longer to cook in this environment, and raw mozzarella can either turn rubbery or result in soggy crust, necessitating the aged, low-moisture stuff.
At first glance, a New Haven pie looks a lot like a New York pie. It's similarly circular, flat, and large, with cardboard-thin crust. Upon closer inspection, you'll see the slices are a little smaller—so it's never really sold by the slice and still molten towards the middle—and the pie's a bit wobbly shaped, even oblong. That's partly because the dough is allowed to ferment longer, usually overnight, making it more relaxed. Under the scorch of the oven, it stretches into irregular form.
The crust is noticeably thinner and crispier than its New York counterpart, but still with that slightly fermented chew. And on some pies, the toppings stretch all the way to the edge, nary a cornicione or rim in sight. When present, this edge is flatter than that of a New York pie, which itself is typically flatter and less airy than its Neapolitan progenitor. It soon becomes evident that "abeets"—a phonetic abbreviation of "apizza," a nod to the Neapolitan dialect of New Haven's Italian immigrants—merits its own word.
First, there's the char. So much char. Your fingers will be sooty with it after you pick up a slice. On another pizza you might be tempted to send it back due to burntness, but on apizza, it's a defining feature. And indeed, it brings a welcome crispness and sweetness. This is thanks to the coal ovens that continue to define New Haven pizza. Although coal was also a historic precedent in New York, it eventually got phased out for being too labor intensive and increasingly expensive, as the heyday of coal mining waned in the mid-1900s. (Not to mention the crackdown of environmental laws.) Today, with the exception of old-school places like Lombardi's and Totonno's, most New York pizza places use gas, oil, or gas-assisted coal ovens, despite the resurgence of coal-fired pizza in the mid-2010s. While it's true that other New Haven pizza spots like Bar and Modern now use gas and oil respectively, somehow coal continues to be more closely tied with pizza here than it is in New York.
You'll hear that coal burns at 650 F, or even 900 F. But that number can be as high as 1000 degrees, according to the late Gary Bimonte, who, as co-owner of New Haven's legendary Pepe's and grandson of founder Frank Pepe, made an indelible impact on New Haven pizza and American pizza at large. Unlike moisture-heavy wood, coal burns hotter and drier, with a biting heat. As a result, coal-fired pizzas cook faster, lending apizza its characteristic crispness.
And no discussion of apizza would be complete without talking about two styles of toppings. First, the plain pie, also called a tomato pie. Covered only with sauce, it appears cheese-less, evoking a Sicilian sfincione or Spanish pan con tomate, which are variations of tomato on bread. Although there's no opaque mozzarella (that's extra), there's a barely discernible dusting of a hard cheese—it might be pecorino romano—which adds a layer of umami.
That was one of the first pies sold by Frank Pepe in the 1920s, who's universally acknowledged to be the creator of New Haven-style pizza. He started out delivering pizzas to Italian workers in the city's rubber and hardware factories, and later opened Pepe's in the city's Little Italy in 1925. Today, it continues to be the most famous and longest running New Haven pizza restaurant, with close competition from Sally's—opened in 1938—a couple blocks away.
Pepe is also credited with creating the famous white clam pie, featuring freshly shucked quahogs that are nearby Rhode Island's culinary calling card. The clams on this pizza are barely cooked, still perfectly briny, evoking the sea. Along with the tomato pie, the white clam pizza is a requisite New Haven order. Line up with Yale undergrads and New England weekenders as you bar hop between Pepe's, Sally's, Modern, and Bar—in just that order.
Despite the popularization of Detroit-style pizza in the past several years, most people still don't think of Detroit as a pizza city. But they should. Rivaling the Detroit coney dog, Motown is also dough town, as some call it. Nationalized in recent years by chef-driven pizza shops—Roy Choi's now-defunct Pot Pizza in L.A., and Emmy Squared in Brooklyn—as well as national chains, Detroit pizza has seen a meteoric rise in American consciousness in the past five years, but we don't dare call it a trend. It's been around for three quarters of a century.
Detroit pizza is most immediately identified by its rectangular shape, but so is grandma pizza—a similarly square product most often associated with Long Island. While both share Sicilian origins of sfinciuni—tomato sauce slathered on focaccia-like crust—Detroit-style is undoubtedly thicker and heftier than grandma, while still being surprisingly light.
The shape of Detroit-style pizza, however, is simply a function of something more important: the blue steel automotive pan it's cooked in. It's the kind that was used in car factories to hold hardware parts and catch grease, at least in decades past. And as the now-famous story goes, Gus Guerra got these pans from a factory-worker friend, while his Sicilian mother-in-law furnished the recipe. It would go on to make him the universally acknowledged originator of Detroit-style pizza.
The year was 1946, and Guerra was running a bar that would later become Buddy's Pizza. GIs were coming back from the war, opening up fish and chip shops in Detroit after having been stationed in England. Elsewhere across America, other soldiers who'd spent time in Italy brought home an awareness of a thing called pizza. Both helped mobilize Italian Americans who'd previously only cooked at home or for other Italians, to expand offerings outside their cultural groups. At the same time, non-Italians were starting to become more receptive to what was still, at that time, considered "ethnic" food.
Due to business disagreements, Guerra eventually left Buddy's to start Cloverfield Pizza in 1953. His son is still involved with it today. While Buddy's gets most of the press, Cloverfield still has a lot of heart—and is arguably closer to the soul of Detroit-style pizza. These two restaurants, along with Loui's—opened by another Buddy's employee—form the must-visit trifecta of Detroit style pizza.
Other defining features of Detroit pizza? The wet dough, which lends itself to that airy rise. Although the resulting crust is thick, it's lighter than what you might expect when you pick it up (that is, if you don't go in with a knife and fork, as many do). Tradition dictates that toppings are pressed directly onto the dough, then sprinkled with cheese, and last, ladled with sauce—this helps prevent a soggy crust. While Buddy's still does this with their original style pizza, most of the time you'll end up seeing toppings on top, if only for the reason that customers seem to like it that way, because they can see what they're getting. Cheese runs all the way to the edges of the pie, and caramelizes just so, making the corners crisp real estate. It's almost always brick cheese that's used, or some blend thereof—it's buttery, cheddar-like, and, by definition, from Wisconsin. Because brick cheese is fattier and a touch softer than cheddar, it's super melty for those cheese pulls.
Chicago Deep Dish
One of the most recognizable of all regional variants, "Chicago style" has become synonymous with deep dish. This irks some Chicagoans, however, who defend the tavern-style pizza that exists in its shadow—the cracker-thin, square-cut crusted pie is thus named because it's light enough to snack on at the bar, and is arguably eaten more frequently.
Let's be clear: Chicago deep dish is indeed a beloved symbol of the city. But unlike in New York, this pie isn't as daily a custom for obvious reasons: its heft. It's a true Midwestern meal, perfect for unforgiving winters. You have to order it as a whole pie—it's a social affair, not a snack. (Although personal pies do exist, it's kind of like eating barbecue by yourself: You could, but it just doesn't feel right.)
Perhaps the biggest misconception with Chicago-style deep dish pizza is that it's heavy. While it is indeed filling ("one's a meal"), the crust itself is surprisingly light and buttery when done right. (Lou Malnati's, one of the city's most storied deep-dish restaurants, has actually trademarked the term "Buttercrust.") It's almost flaky, yet sturdy, retaining its architectural integrity to contain the toppings within.
Chicago's is truly a pizza pie: Vertical walls of biscuity crust encase a filling that's a good inch thick. Mozzarella is layered at the bottom, hidden from sight—this helps insulate the dough beneath from getting soggy from the toppings above. Because of the long cook times—at least 30 minutes—if cheese were on top of the pie it would either burn, or turn hard and gluey. Toppings are then put on top of the cheese, and sausage, if added, is put in raw. Sauce, usually with crushed whole tomatoes, is slathered on last, with a light dusting of parm. Like any good pie, when you cut into it, it should retain its structure despite the generosity of its filling. You should be able to see the strata of crust, cheese, meat, and sauce.
Like many other regional styles, Chicago deep dish came into being in the early '40s, when GIs were coming back from the war and Americans were getting adventurous with "ethnic" foods—which included pizza. Texan Ike Sewell originally wanted to open up a Mexican restaurant like the ones he'd grown up with, but his friend and business partner Ric Riccardo had recently come back from Italy with fond memories of Neapolitan pizza. When they tested recipes, though, Sewell kept wanting it bigger and heftier, in true Texas fashion—that's according to Penny Pollack, former longstanding dining editor at Chicago Magazine. Eventually, the deep dish was born at Uno's. While some locals avoid the place because of its hype, the place is an institution: If you want to try deep dish in Chicago, you can't not go to Uno's.
And then there's Lou Malnati's, which was started by the son of Rudy Malnati Sr. He might have developed Uno's recipe in the first place, since Sewell and Riccardo didn't cook. In 1971, Rudy's son, Lou, broke away to start his eponymous restaurant. Together with Giordano's—famous for its stuffed crust pizza, which features an extra layer of crust on top—it's safe to say that these three are a solid trifecta of deep dish in Chicago.
There's a story about Madonna, I think, going to see a Shakespeare play. I have no idea if it's true or not. At the end she says, "It was great, but so full of clichés."
To the uninitiated, that's what California pizza looks like. Not defined by a particular crust or shape, it seems to lack a distinctive style of its own, instead described with terms that are vague yet commonplace. There's talk about farmers' markets, seasonality, and local produce. It might have toppings like goat cheese, house-made sausage, garlic scapes. But these things are only expected, in a certain class of cooking, because California made it so. It invented the cliché. Actually, three chefs did: Ed LaDou, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck.
It's not that seasonality didn't exist before these West Coast minds; rather, it hadn't become the predominant food philosophy in restaurants across America. In the '80s, we were still crawling out of the dark ages of canned food and microwaves. Consumer food culture, with its fig jam and squash blossoms, hadn't yet washed over the country. Farmers' markets weren't yet normcore. Goat cheese was still an oddity.
So in 1971, when Alice Waters started churning out salads with organic endives and blood oranges in Berkeley, it was a revelation. Her leeks and duck confit, freed from the confines of stuffy French restaurants where they'd long been relegated, received a similar welcome—and ended up on her pizzas at Chez Panisse.
In 1980, Ed LaDou was across the bay in San Francisco, concocting pizzas with ricotta and pâté. Rumor has it that Wolfgang Puck tried one of his pies, and then poached him to work at Spago, which Puck opened in 1982 to instant success.
From there, the now-famous smoked salmon and caviar pizza was born, rising to fame via Spago's celeb-studded West Hollywood location and the open kitchen concept that Puck pioneered, which allowed his restaurant to become equal parts theatrical and see-and-be-seen. But it wasn't just about ritzy ingredients. Puck simply putting goat cheese on a pizza was a showstopper. Aside from LaDou and Waters and maybe a handful of other chefs, no one had really done it, and certainly not to this level of popular success. The public wasn't used to it, and didn't know what to make of it. Puck and LaDou redefined pizza.
California style isn't just about unexpected ingredients, though, or fancy Euro-inflected ones. Nor is it about forcedly global toppings like lemongrass or tandoori spice. Although it can be, and sometimes is.
You can see this in California Pizza Kitchen, for whom LaDou developed the first menu: Its Thai chicken pizza changed the game. While part of California pizza is its anything-goes mentality, it's also more than that. It's hard to define—it's more of a vibe.
Roy Choi's now-defunct Pot Pizza was an L.A. pie personified, with kimchi cutting the fat of cheese on his Ktown special. And so are Travis Lett's pies at Gjelina, the goop-iest of all L.A. restaurants. Nettle, duck prosciutto, pomodoro, Calabrian chili, burrata: This is all on one pizza at Gjelina. Lett's menu reads like a punchline of 2016 chef culture, but despite it—because of it?—it too is classically L.A., and utterly delicious. Mozza, Pizzana, Hail Mary, Ronan, Casa Bianca, Tandoori Pizza: So many restaurants have indelibly added to the beautiful mess that is L.A. pizza, and thus California pizza at large. It's as winding as L.A.'s highways, with no single style emerging. And, in true California style, the plurality of styles is its style.