I recently spent a whopping 40 hours in São Paulo, Brazil and my brain almost exploded from excitement. São Paulo has had pizza for over 100 years and there are so many pizzerias in town that nobody really knows the exact count (it’s in the thousands). I ate some pizza, but my biggest takeaway had to do with the pizza boxes. They are insane.
You can see in the photo above that Brazilian pizza boxes don’t look like normal pizza boxes. First of all, they’re not square. I get the question all the time “Why does a round pizza go into a square box?” Squares are easier to deal with in manufacturing and assembly. It takes much less time to assemble a standard American pizza box, but what’s the fun in a boring square box when you can get octagons like they have in Brazil!?!?
Once you recover from the shock of octagonal pizza boxes, take a closer look at the artwork. All three boxes in the above photo contain funny die-cut shapes on their lids. The one all the way to the left becomes a soccer field, complete with goal posts that pop into place and a two-piece soccer ball that snaps together for gameplay. But the other two boxes get even crazier.
Here’s what the box all the way to the right looks like when you snap out and assemble all the pieces:
The box all the way to the right is even more incredible. This photo shows the same box construction with a different pizzeria’s design:
Mind = blown.
But Brazil doesn’t stop there. Before the octagon appeared on the scene, Brazil was all about the round pizza box. Very few pizzerias still use these due to their high price point (molding the lids and bases is extremely expensive and takes up LOADS of space inside the pizzeria) but I managed to get my hands on a couple for the collection.
Let’s recover from the shock of all these crazy shapes and get to the really exciting part. The city of São Paulo has a unique feature on their boxes I have never seen anywhere else. Box bases have side tabs that lock into the lid. The concept is that this feature will prevent the delivery guy from tampering with (ie eating) the pizza. I’m not kidding.
Here it is in action:
According to Pizzerias Unidas, a trade association for Brazilian pizzerias, a city council member once found that his delivered pizza was missing some olives. He was obviously upset and did what any great politician would do: he pushed a law to protect others from similar pizza fraud. As of May 2008, “Restaurants and other companies that are delivering food for immediate consumption are required to use a warranty seal or seal on packaging for delivery.” A delivery with broken locks gets sent right back and the violation can incur a R$500 fine (about $225 US). Want to read the law? Check it out here. The law applies only to delivery pizzas and only in São Paulo.
Today is the 125th Anniversary of the Pizza Margherita Myth
Today marks the 125th anniversary of the Pizza Margherita! It’s a big day for pizza lovers everywhere in which we avoid sausage, peppers, onions, anchovies, pepperoni and the like in favor of a simple combination of crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil.
As the story goes, Queen Margherita joined her husband King Umberto I on a trip to Naples in 1889. As a sign of goodwill, she sampled a local food, popular only with the peasants, called pizza. The pizzaiolo she hired, Raffaele Esposito, crafted three different pizzas for her: one with only oil, one with fish (whitenbait) and one with mozzarella and crushed tomato. As the final pizza was about to leave the kitchen, Esposito’s wife Maria Giovanna Brandi tossed a handful of basil on top so that it will match the colors of the Italian flag in a display of patriotism. The queen loves the pizza and Esposito dubs it Pizza Margherita in her honor.
It’s a fantastic story, but one with many holes. I’m as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the legend, but the time has come to take a closer look at the facts behind one of pizza’s great creation myths.
In 1889, the pizzaiolo Rarraele Esposito owned a pizzeria called Pietro e basta cosi (Pietro and that’s enough). That pizzeria still exists under the name Pizzeria Brandi. It’s one of the most famous in Naples but the main attraction isn’t edible. Brandi has a framed copy of the famous thank you note sent by Queen Margherita to Raffaele Esposito.
As the only historical document tied to the events surrounding this story, this is an extremely important letter. First of all, it gives us a date. The top of the letter clearly states “11 June (Giugno) 1889,” which is why pizza enthusiasts celebrate today. But that’s about the only concrete piece of information we can get. Check out the translation:
Household of Her Majesty Capodimonte 11 June 1889
Moth Office Inspectorate
Most Esteemed Raffaele Esposito. I confirm to you that the three kinds of Pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious. Your most devoted servant
Galli Camillo Head of Table Services to the Royal Household
No mention of mozzarella, tomato or basil. No mention of the Italian flag. That doesn’t mean the queen didn’t eat the famous pizza, it only means we don’t have clear evidence of it happening in the only document tied to the events.
I recently came across a brilliant piece by Italy-based historian Zachary Nowak in which he systematically pulls apart the famous Margherita letter and exposes it as a fraud! He compared this letter to other documents of its time and finds inconsistencies with the royal seal, signature and even the wording itself. Here’s a brief article Nowak wrote for the BBC but if you’re a serious pizza geek you really owe it to yourself to purchase the full article in Food, Culture & Society.
Nowak posits that the letter may have been an attempt by Esposito’s wife’s nephews (the Brandi brothers), who purchased the pizzeria in the 1930s, to gain a stronger marketing position for their business. Esposito did receive royal permission to use the name of the Queen to bolster his business, but it was in 1871 and intended for a liquor store and not a pizzeria. Perhaps this is a different Raffaele Esposito, but it’s the only person by that name who requested and received permission to use the royal seal in that era. The involvement of the Brandi brothers becomes likely when you notice that the letter itself refers to the famous pizzaiolo by his wife’s last name, which is very out of the ordinary. If the brothers did create the letter to stabilize bolster their business in an increasingly crowded market, it was a pretty brilliant move. Heck, it’s the reason I get a pie at Pizzeria Brandi every time I go to Naples.
If we stop and think about Italian politics in 1889, the famous story makes even less sense. The Italy we know today only came into existence in 1861, before which time it was a collection of city-states. History books use the word unification but that term is pretty controversial in the minds of Southern Italian because Southern Italy was pretty much annexed by the north for political and economic reasons. By 1889, Italy was clearly not a unified country. So why would a lowly pizza maker create a dish to honor the queen who represented the Northern conquerors?
Some Neapolitans are even go so far as to claim the Pizza Margherita isn’t even named for her at all, that it’s named for the margherita flower, or daisy. I can see the mozzarella flower petals, but what about the yellow in the center? One Neapolitan pizzaiolo told me it used to be an egg yolk. I’ve seen plenty of pizzas with eggs, but never in Naples and never on a pizza Margherita.
And so the mystery remains. Regardless of what you read on pizzeria menus or hear from Italian tour guides, we just don’t know the true story behind the naming of the Pizza Margherita. It’s very likely it has something to do with the Italian Queen, but I’m not comfortable making any claims beyond that. Just think of today, June 11, as a day to enjoy and celebrate the elegant simplicity of fresh mozzarella, crushed tomato and torn basil leaves,
Michael in front of his toaster oven as it reconstitutes treasures from his youth.
There’s something so special and untouchable about the pizza you grow up eating. Every Sunday night you’d gather with family at the same restaurant and order the same dishes and eat them the same way. You’ll eat better pasta, better chicken marsala and better pizza in your life but somehow it will never make you feel the same as those family get-togethers. Sunday nights were particularly special for my friend Michael Berman, who would spend them at a restaurant called Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland. Michael is a fantastic photographer, recent author of a great book about things to do in NYC with kids, AND he runs an excellent blog called PizzaCentric. I was deeply honored when Michael invited me to his Brooklyn abode to share some of the pizza he carefully transported back from his favorite pizza restaurant in Bethesda after a Memorial Day weekend visit.
Actual conversation between two adult males about pizza transportation.
I tried to visit Pines of Rome on Michael’s recommendation when I was in Washington, D.C. a few months ago. I got there 30 minutes before closing time but the pizza guys had already gone home, leaving me with a consolation prize of eggplant parmigiana, which I ate on the bench out front. I knew in my heart that one day I would make good on my blood oath to Michael to eat his favorite hometown pizza.
As much as I do love eating great pizza, I’m far more interested in the story behind it. One taste of a slice, even one that has been reheated, paints a portrait of the pizzeria itself. This is an Italian-American restaurant in its most classic form. Bread is served in baskets, the walls are lined with faux wood paneling, salads are served in textured plastic bowls and accompanied by an oil-and-vinegar caddy. Pizza is available, but it’s not based on an ancient family recipe. This is pizza that fills a void on the menu. Not to say it isn’t delicious — because it IS — but it has been cast as a supporting actor rather than the lead.
Michael showed me a great video of the pizza-making process that confirmed my expectations. Doughs are pre-rolled and topped with slices of low-moisture mozzarella. When an order is placed, sauce and toppings are added and the pizza bakes in the pan for a few minutes. Nothing artistic, just the basic definition of Italian American restaurant pizza.
Michael’s 95 year old grandfather enjoying the Sunday ritual.
The experience of eating this pizza in Michael’s kitchen was beautiful. Maybe it would have tasted better in the restaurant, but that really didn’t matter. I could see that sharing it with me was for Michael what religion is to some people. He asked me if this pizza was truly as brilliant as he always thought it to be or if it was just the attachment to his youth that made him love it so much. I started thinking about my own childhood pizza and how I have long since come to terms with the fact that it isn’t very good. But does that really matter? Do we need to separate emotion from flavor? In a food culture that’s getting more judgmental every day, I truly hope that separation never happens.
Just some details about my latest bread-baking session last week…
Step 1: Making Dough
I began with a starter fed with rye flour and water. Once it doubled in volume, I whipped up a batch of dough with the following amounts:
387g total starter
306g Trader Joe’s white All Purpose flour
156 room temp tap water
I let the mixture sit 20 minutes before adding that salt, then I kneaded it all until I was convinced the salt was evenly distributed. It’s a wet mix, so kneading is done more by lifting and folding than by pushing.
I then put the dough into my mixing bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. That sat in the fridge overnight, actually about three days.
Step 2: Shaping and Proofing
The shaping process is hard to describe in text, but it basically involves folding the dough together and tightening its form so it will capture more gas during the proofing stage. I let the shaped dough sit in the base of my cloche (sprinkled with semolina to avoid sticking and give texture) until it reached room temperature and filled with some gas. On this particular day, I turned my oven on for a minute and then switched it off so the dough (in the cloche) could sit in the warmth for a bit to speed up the process.
Step 3: The Bake
Once the dough had rose sufficiently (ie I was running out of time) I sprinked some flour on it and scored a pattern so it would A) rise and open, and B) look cool. It worked! Bake temp was 450 F but I let the oven preheat for about 35 min at 550 F with a Baking Steel in there. Since I didn’t preheat my cloche, I figured I’d use the steel’s fast conduction to throw heat into the clay and give the dough some nice spring. The bread baked in the cloche for about 30-35 min before I removed the lid for the final 7-10 min. That last bit gets the top nice and golden brown!
Step 4: The Crumb Shot
You gotto wait at least 30 minutes (it’s fun to listen to the little crackling sounds) but then you get to cut in and find out whether or not you’ve made anything worth eating. Sometimes the outside looks great but the inside is dense and undercooked. This loaf came out awesome and the crumb is clear about that! Funky, uneven holes but dense enough to spread some butter or jam.
I love books about pizza almost as much as I love animals dressing in disguises just so they can eat pizza alongside humans without getting chased away with a broom. That’s why I absolutely adore Secret Pizza Party by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri. It perfectly captures one raccoon’s pizza obsession and the lengths to which he will go just to savor a slice. Go buy it for everybody you know!
I was beyond honored to be invited to the 2nd Annual ConPizza conference in São Paulo, Brazil earlier this month. I had no idea Brazil was so into pizza but they’ve apparently had it for over a century and São Paulo has so many pizzerias nobody knows the real count! The event was sponsored by a pizzeria association, similar to the VPN in Italy (and the US), but they’re more of a union than a certification agency.
The goal of ConPizza is to get a bunch of pizzeria owners and pizza business folks into a room together to share information that could be mutually beneficial. They had a bunch of speakers from big companies talking about marketing and franchising but it was all in Portuguese so I had almost no idea what was going on. Attendees got cool headsets so they could hear an interpreter’s version of my talk about pizza diversity in NYC and pizza box design around the world (I always manage to squeeze that in).
I only had two days to experience the wonders of São Paulo’s pizza scene but here are some highlights of the trip.
Let’s get pizza boxes out of the way first. From what I can tell, 99% of the pizza boxes in Brazil are octagonal! Most pizzerias deliver by scooter, so the unconventional box shape might be a way to keep the pizza from bumping around too much. They come in two pieces (a lid and a base) which seems crazy to me because it takes so much more time and material, but they seem to love it over there. The artwork is also insane. The boxes int he photo above are all interactive. One becomes a soccer field with upright coal posts and even a two-piece cardboard “ball.” The other two have pieces that pop out to form either a toy airplane or a model dinosaur. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!
The gentlemen from the association even took me to their headquarters, where they store a box from every pizzeria they work with. It was incredible. There are boxes in that pile are beyond belief and I’m just glad I had the opportunity to see them in person! New York City truly is living in the pizza box dark ages.
Now for some pizza. We spent night #1 at Quintal do Brãz, an absolutely beautiful restaurant with an incredible yard. I noticed a couple amazing things here. First of all, they offer pizzas divided into three sections. I’m used to seeing a half-and-half pizza, but this is seriously divided into thirds! It seems so much harder to cut and top, but they did it and I applaud them for it. The pizza above has one section with soppressata; one is a Calabrese salad with fresh tomato and mozzarella; the final section has a “requeijão,” or creamy cheese, made by a local company called Catupiry. From what I can tell, Catupiry is to creamy cheeses what Kleenex is to tissues. It’s a little strange for my palate but the people here seem to love it.
At Quintal, I noticed that the staff serves your slices and leaves the remainder on a table to the side of the dining area. It gets covered with a vented lid and marked with your table number. The pizza isn’t sitting on your table while you eat, so the server has total control when it comes to who gets the final slice!
Quintal do Brãz is one of several locations, but the word “quintal” separates this one from the others because it means this place has a serious “backyard.” Here’s a photo of the most beautiful path to a restroom I’ve ever seen.
We spent the second night at 1900, a pizzeria that has been family owned since it opened in 1983. We tried a ton of different pizza from the restaurant’s 30 year history before I had to zip to the airport.
Erik is the owner of 1900 and he’s extremely proud of his family’s restaurant. He told me how his father used to stop service for an hour every Monday night so the restaurant could become a concert hall for local musicians. This wasn’t meant to attract business, they wouldn’t sell food during the performance. That’s pretty damn cool.
His pizza was really interesting. The crust is a dense, yet soft, surface (probably because of the extremely short fermentation time) and topped with more interesting ingredient combinations. These were served as whole pizzas instead of three sections like Quintal do Braz. Both places baked in a wood-burning brick oven. Most Neapolitan ovens I’ve seen have an arched doorway but the wood-fired ovens in Brazil all had square openings. Bake times were in the 2-3 minute range and most of these places are burning composite wood logs rather than straight chopped wood. They claim it’s cleaner and easier to manage.
In Brazil, pizza is treated like a proper restaurant food. People sit down and use a fork and knife to eat it. They apparently don’t eat it for lunch, only dinner. And most of the pizzerias in São Paulo are delivery/takeout only. I’m so used to seeing wood fired ovens as showpieces inside restaurants but in a delivery business the customer will never see them. I completely forgot that these ovens are tools for food, not just for marketing.
Here you have it, every single pizza I judged at the 2014 International Pizza Expo. The International Pizza Chanllenge has several categories: Traditional, Non-Traditional, American Pan, Gluten Free and Blind Box. This year I judged Non-Traditional, American Pan and Blind Box (an Iron Chef-type challenge where pizzaioli compete using their own dough and surprise ingredients).
Every compeditor has to bring their dough and toppings to the event, get them through airport security, keep them alive in the hotel room and prepare the pizza using an unfamiliar oven in a gigantic convention center. No easy task.
1. A company selling bags of coal! Pizza was introduced to the USA at coal-burning bakeries in the Northeast. After all, anthracite coal comes mostly from Northeastern Pennsylvania, so it only makes sense that cities like New York and New Haven still have a bunch in use (and even more laying dormant). But coal-fired pizza ovens died out as natural gas became the easier, less expensive alternative. Now companies like Grimaldi’s, Tommy’s Coal Fired, Anthony’s Coal Fired and a bunch more are bringing it back. Gotto get that rock!
2. Lots of dough acrobatics. Dough needeth not need be airborne to make a good pizza, but it really is hard to look away when someone’s doing crazy tricks with it. These guys do crazy choreographed routines with dough that contains extra salt so it won’t rip.
3. The World’s First Breathing Pizza Box! A packaging company from India may have solved the problem of crust soggification - you know, that tubby gummy crust you get from delivery pizza. The VENTiT box utilizes indirect venting to allow humid air to escape while containing valuable dry heat. They had all sorts of cool demonstrations and even a FOG MACHINE that pushed smoke through the logo on their booth. Pretty sweet.
4. Hardcore culinary competitions! I’ve been fortunate enough to judge culinary competitions at Pizza Expo since I started going in 2007. Here’s a shot of my fellow judges checking out one of the many many pizzas we had the honor of eating. That’s Jonathan Goldsmith (Spacca Napoli in Chicago), Tom “The Dough Doctor” Lehmann (American Institute of Baking), Domenico Crolla (Bella Napoli in Glasgow, Scotland) and Theo Kalogeracos (Little Caesars in Perth, Australia - NOT the American franchise). Some of these pizzas were excellent, some were vile.
5. Amazing pants! They must shop at the same place.
6. A live artist painting a classic pizza box scene! We’ve already covered my love of pizza box art, but I’ve never witness its creation in action! This artist was on-site at the RockTenn booth (they make 65% of all pizza boxes in the USA) all three days of the event painting a classic cafe scene. I patiently await the day I see this image on a pizza box.
7. Merchants of nightmares! Seriously frightening pizza costumes. There were several of these booths at the event and they were clearly separated to avoid turf wars. Have fun sleeping tonight!
8. Pizza Stadium! The final culinary showdown pits the winners of all four pizza competitions (Traditional, Non-Traditional, American Pan and Italian) for an epic battle. The secret ingredients are revealed and each pizzaiolo had 20 minutes to prove they’re the best. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty damn exciting.
9. Beautiful pizza boxes and they’re all free for the taking!!! OK, this one might only be fun for me but I had to include it. After all, I have written a book about pizza box art and currently hold the Guinness World Record for Largest Collection of Pizza Boxes. To keep a collection of top-notch specimens, you have to go to the source. These companies trash all their display boxes so all I have to do is wait until the show is over before I sack all the box companies on the floor. There’s a FedEd center in the convention center, so I just wrap them and ship them back to Brooklyn. I’ll just have to wait 7-10 business days before I get to examine the loot!
10. A dude spinning a baby pool!Justin Wadstein won this year’s dough acrobatic competition, thanks in no small part to his ability to spin just about anything.
I did an interview with a cool new site called Pizza Life, run by my friend Gianluca Rottura. He’s a serious pizza lover and wine aficionado. He has a killer wine store in NYC and a book about wine called Wine Made Easy. I’m super excited about this interview because it reveals some deep secrets, such as which concert I went to after eating a great slice of Sicilian pizza last summer. ENJOY!
Pizza Box Gallery Show Hits Brooklyn This THURSDAY
Steph Mantis built these rad custom frames to house beautiful pizza boxes!
The art world will never be the same after this epic gallery show of amazing pizza boxes hits the scene this Thursday at the Melville House Gallery in DUMBO. About a dozen boxes will be on display all month long, most of which are featured in Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box, the acclaimed new book about the history, art and science of pizza boxes.
I was so completely delighted to attend a tomato tasting at Razza Pizza Artigianale in lovely Jersey City a few weeks ago! The owners, Dan and Fred, are solid dudes and they truly care about their goodies — enough to invite a bunch of folks over to taste 11 different canned tomato products.
Everybody got a super-detailed scoring sheet, complete with grading rubric and helpful hints. All the cans were covered so we couldn’t see labels. Dan mashed all the can’s contents with an emersion blender and that was that.
He even put his own sauce into one of the cans to see how it held up against the rest. The results were pretty consistent with tomato tastings I’ve done before (2010 part 1, 2010 part 2, 2013) so that was comforting!
Cameo by Pizza A Casa's Mark Bello as Dan unveils the results!
The Results 1. Stanislaus Alta Cucina - 3.6 (a tomato from central CA, usually wins) 2. Ciao - 3.5 (Italian tomato found on the pies at Keste and Don Antonio in NYC, among others) 3. DiNapoli - 3.4 (lovely California tomatoes) 4. Escalon 6 in 1 - 3.28 (a crushed tomato product on the sweet side) 5. DaniCoop San Marzano DOP - 3.26 (Very good DOP tomato) 6. Razza’s Pizza Sauce - 3.23 (I LOVE that Dan included this!) 7. Jersey Fresh - 3.18 (another crushed product, I dig it) 8. Muir Glen - 3.1 (California organic product) 9. Cento San Marzano DOP - 2.76 (go-to supermarket availability) 10. Bianco DiNapoli - 2.1 (I love these, surprised the came in so low) 11. Teo - 2.04 (private label tomato from Chef’s Warehouse)
Tastings like this are important because the crop changes every year. If you’re struggling with your sauce, start by finding a tomato you like. The better the base, the less you have to do. Most NYC pizzerias use the Stanislaus Alta Cucina tomato, but that’s not available in stores unless you’re a restaurant. Good comparable tomatoes are the Trader Joe’s whole peeled variety (I used them on my pizza last night!), which you can get either salted or unsalted.
Big thanks to Dan and Fred and everyone over at Razza for having us! Best part after tasting all those tomatoes was having their delicious pizza! They’re hardcore about dough and natural fermentation, so DO NOT skip the bread when you go to Razza. EAT EVERYTHING YOU CAN!
I made some dough four or five days ago using some Ischia starter pretty much just because I had to feed it. It was getting a bit raunchy so I invited my downstairs neighbor Simon up to help me eat it all. The results were solid!
First, the recipe: 175g room temp water 300g King Arthur bread flour 50g Whole Wheat flour [mix to combine and let that hydrate for 30 min or so] 300g Ischia starter (highly active) [mix to combine] 13g salt [knead gently until you don’t feel like kneading anymore, split into 3 and store balls in lightly oiled containers in refrigerator]
Now, the bake method: I’m using a Baking Steel right around the center of the oven. Oven is set to highest (mine goes to 550 degrees F (290 degrees C) but I switch to BROIL after about 3 minutes inside the oven. Last night was the first time in a loooong time I didn’t clock each pie, but they seemed to be about 4-5 minutes.
The dough was a bit tough to stretch, but the third pie pulled easiest (photo on top). Here are the results, using a mix of lo-mo and fresh mozz plus whatever random toppings were laying around. Simon brought 6 or 7 Calamata olives and we stretched them over two pies. I loved the one with the olives copped really fine and sprinkled about. Check them out….
Sweet bubble action but I’m not happy with the stretch on this.
I recently spent 24 hours in Baltimore while in town for an awesome book event at Atomic Books. I hit 6 different pizzerias ranging from hometown classics to late-night fallbacks and a couple in-between. Here’s my road report…
Stop #1 was Matthew’s, a Baltimore landmark that claims to be the oldest in town. They started serving thick pan pizzas in 1943 and continue to this day in a space that looks more like a place senior citizens go for the early bird than it does a pizzeria. Still, there’s a TON of charm in here and Baltimore IS the Charm City, so everything seems to be in order.
I developed a serious hunger during my three-hour drive from Brooklyn and may have had a case of pizza goggles. I ordered two whole pies: one they call the Traditional Tomato Pie and one crab pizza. The Traditional Tomato Pie is listed on the menu as having sauce and hand-grated Reggianito cheese. At first I thought this was a typo meaning ParmigianoReggiano, but it turns out to be a slightly different cheese. It’s a smaller, less aged Parmigiano found mostly in Argentina. It’s not a huge surprise since massive amount of Neapolitans fled to Argentina in the late 19th century. Perhaps the founders of Matthew’s stopped in Argentina before landing in Baltimore.
I wish I could think of a better way to describe the pizza than interesting. That word usually means something isn’t enjoyable but still has academic value. In the case of Matthew’s, interesting means “I’ve never tasted a pizza quite like this and even though I don’t love it I’m really glad I’m trying it.” First of all, the crust is puffy yet heavy. They use lard in the dough and it has a seriously unique effect that really defines this pizza. The next thing I noticed was the cheese. I expected a dusting but it’s more like a full load of Reggianito, so thick it resembled a hard piece of funky low-moisture mozzarella. Pretty odd, but definitely enjoyable. It’s a good pie, but nothing I could eat every day.
The crab pizza was something I just had to order since I was in Maryland and crab is the thing to get. I always feel guilty for being in a city and ignoring the local cuisine in favor of sampling pizza, so this seemed like a good compromise. The crab was mighty tasty, but I found myself picking it off the slice rather than eating it as-is. I’m not against seafood + cheese, it just didn’t work for me in this case. Still, I’m glad I gave it a try.
Next up was Ledo Pizza, another Maryland tradition. Unlike Matthew’s, Ledo has multiple locations around the area and it’s the pizza everyone grew up eating. I really enjoyed it in that it brought me back to the pizza flavor of my youth, but with a twist. This is a square pizza that’s thin and chewy, unlike thick and puffy Sicilian pizza. It’s so thin and the slices are so small you feel like you’re really pigging out when you’re probably just eating the equivalent of 1-2 slices.
The room itself was less than exciting, but I could see myself getting Ledo for take-out if I lived in the hood. It’s a real go-to pizza but nothing worth a special trip.
Stop #3 was a relative newcomer to the scene: Iggie’s Pizza. My sources tell me this place is PACKED at night so it was good we got there early in the evening before things got nutty. Speaking of nutty, we ordered a pizza with pistachios! It’s sort of like the Rosa at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AV, which has thinly sliced red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary and crushed local pistachios. It’s a great flavor combination and I really dug it! The crust was pretty tame, but I wonder if that changes as the night gets busier and the room gets warmer. Check it out and let me know!
The fourth pizzeria I hit was Joe Squared. These guys installed an Earthstone coal-burning oven that bakes the pizzas in just over a minute. It’s insane. The resulting crust was a bit soft, but suuuuuuper tasty!
We ordered two pies, one Margherita and my second attempt at a Maryland crab pizza. The crab pie at Joe Squared was definitely better than the one at Matthew’s. It had a roasted garlic cream, crab, cilantro, zucchini, red onion, egg, mozzarella, provolone and cheddar. There are three cheeses on this one, but they’re applied perfectly so the crab could sing. I do remember the crab itself tasting better at Matthew’s, but we’re talking about the entire pizza here, not just one component.
The Margherita pizza was really nice and balanced as well. Lovely gobs of fresh mozzarella and a post-oven shredded basil that gave every bite a hint of sweet herby goodness. The only trouble was that since the crust was so soft you really had to grab a corner slice for stability. I bet if I go back when they’re busier and the oven floor is a bit cooler I’ll get some more crunch.
After Joe Squared, we ventured to a newer place called Homeslyce. I was instantly annoyed by the spelling because my searched for a Homeslice in Baltimore kept coming up with no results. I thought the GPS was busted but it turns out they just use a crazy spelling. Our relationship started out on the wrong foot, so I shook it off an went inside. It’s a sports bar with a couple Skeeball machines in the back. The menu looked pretty good but there was a bizarre item on the menu called a Slyce. I figured this was a single slice, but that’s almost nonexistent in Baltimore. It turned out to be a weird boat-shaped pizza that’s pretty much like a calzone that didn’t get sealed on top. Fair enough.
We ordered a small pizza they called the Homeslyce Classic. But this isn’t just a cheese pizza, it has goat and mozzarella cheese, walnuts, eggplant, spinach, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and HomeSlyce sauce. The toppings were fine, although a bit on the salty side. But what caught me was the super heavy greasiness of the crust. Every slice (or is it slyce?) removed from the pie left behind an oily trail. I’m all about the grease, but I prefer it to drip off the top of my slice and not ooze out of the crust.
The final stop on this whirlwind journey was the strangest, which is why I’m giving you three photos…
That’s my friend Phil about to go into a place called Charles Carryout. I’m jut as surprised as you are that they even have a website. It’s a totally weird take-out Indian fast food joint with a conveyor oven and a Chicken Tikka Masala pizza several people recommended to me. But more about the pizza in a bit, now you must take in the grandeur that is Charles Carryout…
Yup. That’s it. Pretty dumpy place, but it’s not like they’re trying to be anything else. After all, the place is called CARRYOUT, so they’re not expecting anyone to stick around. But if you do, there’s a weird secret bar attached to the place and an extremely baron side room with a few table for those who defy the restaurant’s name and dine in.
We chose to defy the name and had our chicken tikka masala pizza right there out of the box. I guess I understand why people talk about this pizza. It’s super weird and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. But it’s not even close to being something I’d ever tell a sober person they had to try. It’s a late night pie and one that requires several lapses in judgement to attempt and/or enjoy. I know that sounds mean and I do fully support you eating this pizza if it makes you feel good, but I think I’ll just hang out on the sidelines and watch next time.
Baltimore, you truly are one strange pizza town. Next time I’m there I’ll go back to Joe Squared and round out the trip with a visit to the one place I meant to go but didn’t: Verde PIzzeria. It’s a beautiful Neapolitan joint in a lovely part of town. I showed up a couple hours before they opened but had to haul out to Philadelphia so was unable to hang around. Oh well, I’ve already expressed my desire to give some of these spots another try so it looks like I’ll be back soon.
I’m ashamed for calling myself a pizza fanatic yet never visiting Chicago in the past 10 years. It’s a good thing that shame has ended, thanks to a couple days I spent in the Windy City this past November while touring in support of my new book. I hit TONS of pizzerias and the vast majority were facilitated by a true pizza hero names Jon Porter. I first met Jon years ago, just as he was starting a company called Chicago Pizza Tours. Our companies are not related, but I consider him a real pizza brother. Since he started the company, we’ve met several times and even spent some quality time at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas a few years ago! But after all that, I’m proud to say I have FINALLY experienced the fruits of Jon’s labor and the tour was awesome. Here’s the scoop.
Tour tour met at Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, a pizzeria that belongs to one of the most important families in Chicago pizza history. It’s located at a super central location, so very easy to find for an out-of-towner such as myself. It was there that we met Jon, who owns the company and runs lots of the tours, and a tour guide who works for him named Jonathan (I know that’s going to be complicated, but I’ll stick with those name variations). Jon took a back seat and let Jonathan run most of the tour and he was awesome. Super relaxed and informal enough that you didn’t feel like you were receiving a lecture.
Jonathan gave us some info about Chicago pizza history before bringing out not one, but TWO tastings. Chicago has a reputation as a deep dish pizza town, but there is a native thin crust style thats at least as important. Pizano’s makes both so we tried a slice of each. Both were really good! But the tour has four pizzeria stops so we hit the road as soon as everyone finished because there was no time or stomach room to waste.
The tour rides all over Chicago and stops change all the time, so we cruised around in Dough Force One, a swanky mini coach that fits around 16 people. While driving, Jonathan (and sometimes Jon) gave us some great Chicago history. I loved the tour because it was so much more than just pizza, so you could learn a ton about the city while also hitting some serious pizzerias.
My favorite stop of the day might have been our second pizzeria. It’s a little walk-up spot called Italian Fiesta. It’s famous for being the favorite pizzeria of the Obama family, but there’s not a single sign bragging about it. Very cool little place with a killer thin crust pizza.
But as much as I loved Italian Fiesta, I was most interested in deep dish. I knew about the big nationally-known places like Uno and Gino’s East and Giordano’s, but one name kept popping up when I asked serious pizza freaks for advice: Pequod’s. It’s a cool spot with a perfectly casual atmosphere and gnarly pizza. There’s one in Morton Grove but we hit the Chicago location.
Check out this slice, overflowing with big chunky sausage and framed with a crunchy caramelized crust. It’s beautiful. I’m writing this as it’s snowing outside my window and all I want to do is crawl inside it and take a nap.
But the tour is not just about pizza that’s indigenous to Chicago, it also covers pizza styles that are not native to the city. Neapolitan pizza is exploding around the country and Chicago has a few solid spots for it. We stopped at Nella’s, where we had the pizza Margherita. This was a nice comfort slice because it wasn’t loaded with toppings, as the other Chicago pizza has been on the tour. That made it the perfect palate cleanser!
After those four stops, just every single person on the bus full and ready to hibernate. I loved it, not just for the pizza but also for the super well-rounded education about the city. I can see it being just as interesting for locals as it was for me as a tourist. In fact, there were at least two locals on the tour when I took it and they LOVED it! Good pizza, good info, great tour guide(s)… thanks to Jon and Jonathan and William the bus driver!
I’ve been saying it for a while now: New York needs a deep dish pizzeria. The mark of a good pizza city is variety and while NYC has a good amount, we’re missing a very large piece of the pizza style pie. Yes, I’ve seen the various Daily Show pieces about how deep dish isn’t even pizza and I do feel strange being forced to eat my slice with a knife and fork, but every slice has its place and I truly believe deep dish pizza is an acceptable format.
Chicago has its fair share of New York style pizzerias, but most New Yorkers have never experienced deep dish pizza because we just don’t have access to it. Sure, there are a bunch of Pizzeria Uno (oops… I mean Uno Chicago Grill) locations around the city but they are only in pizza deserts where you have no other option. But all of that has changed. In the midst of all the Chicago-NYC pizza hubbub on The Daily Show, a tiny bar/restaurant opened in the Soho/South Village nook on Macdougal just south of Houston Street. Emmett’s has about six tables and a bar, not too dissimilar to the original Uno in Chicago. But there’s one major difference: Emmett’s makes a great pizza.
The space is adorable, complete with a rad green glider bench out front. But there’s no loud proclamations boasting about deep dish pizza, it’s much more subtle. Two brothers run the place and they’re all about Chicago pride. It’s probably wise to keep the place understated. Tensions could produce a dangerous situation.
Most wanna-be deep dish pizzas just have a thick crust, but that’s garbage. Emmett’s is the real deal, with a dense biscuity crust covered with stringy cheese, loads of toppings and a highly seasoned plum tomato sauce. I really enjoyed the robustness and zing of this sauce, it’s a great counterpoint to the usual laid back tomato of most New York pizza sauces.
I loved the chunky sausage. It was perfect for the pie and totally reminded me of the sausage I ate on Chicago pies in November. It balances the dense crust in a way thin crumbly sausage cannot. But the crust was the real telltale sign that whoever is back there making these pizzas has done some serious Chicago pizza homework. The owners are a pair of brothers from the Windy City and they clearly have their pizza act together in a way I really respect.
The rest of the team agreed and the four of us took down an entire large pie. That’s not a big deal for a NY style pizza, but more than one slice of this stuff creates a seriously different experience. But as you can see from the photo above, people in New York just cannot be restrained by the tyranny of a knife and fork. I think all of us went for the open-face hand-hold method for at least a portion of each slice.
This is the perfect place to hole up on a cold night. It’s tiny, so get there early. Deep dish pies take a while to bake, but there’s a good beer selection to keep you company. If you get annoyed at the 45 minutes it takes to make your pizza, just remember it’s wayyyy shorter than the flight to Chicago.
Every month, TEAM SPT gets together for an evening of intense pizza study. Past events have brought us to New Haven, canned tomato tastings and pizza making workshops. Last month we agreed it was time to get our hands dirty and do some serious trench work, so we ordered pizza from all the major chains within delivery distance of my Brooklyn apartment and conducted a not-so-scientific chain pizza showdown.
First up was Little Caesar’s. I thought they had gone out of business years ago, but it turns out they’re the third highest grossing pizza company in the country! Locations are scattered in NYC and really only in low-income neighborhoods in the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. I get it — they have a “large” pizza (it’s just 14” as opposed to the usual 16-18” large) for only $5 and there’s little to no wait time to get a pizza. It’s clearly going to be a low-quality pizza, but not everyone wants imported Neapolitan flour and San Marzano tomatoes. Fast food pizza is a necessary evil.
Truth be told, I had only had LC’s once before and I completely forgot about it until weeks after we tried it - so this felt like it was my first taste. It was the first pizza of our test because LC’s doesn’t deliver (they’re take-out only) so we picked up a HOT-N-READY® pie. I have to admit, I was pretty excited to finally try Little Caesar’s. It’s the closest pizza to my apartment and I felt guilty for walking past it every day. I was also pretty hungry, so they clearly had the best positioning of the night.
While I’d never eat this again on purpose, I thought it wasn’t the worst of the night. The CSR (cheese-to-sauce ratio) was pretty even. I might even say it was the sauciest of the night. Shredded low-moisture mozzarella has a tendency to slurp up sauce and I was surprised at LC’s moisture level. The crust was floppy and soft, as expected from the conveyor oven bake, and the cheese had a reasonable pull without getting in the way. The pie’s temperature upon arrival was 130 F, which (SPOILER ALERT) turned out to be the average for the night.
Overall, I’d call this a very solid desperation pizza, one you only fall back on when all else fails. You’ll feel guilty immediately upon taking the first bite, but you’ll move on with your life and pretend it never happened.
The second pie of the night was from Domino’s. We wanted to order the exact same pie from each place, but I think this one’s technically a specialty pie. I have a longer history with Domino’s than I do with the others we ordered for this test. My family never ate it when I was a kid. I remember the family mantra “Domino’s tastes like cardboard” and that alone prevented me from ever ordering it even in my darkest hour. Then Domino’s famously changed their recipe in 2009 and I felt it was my job — no, my responsibility — to give it a go. If the new version was an improvement, I’m glad I never had to deal with the old version. A couple years passed and decided it might be fun to get to know the pizza industry better by working some pizza jobs, one of which was as a delivery boy for my local Domino’s. I worked for about three weeks and made just over 100 deliveries.