This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Pizza Pizza!, first released on May 19. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
REALLY DOUGH SCOTT: If I put an egg on a grandma pizza, that’s still a pizza.
REALLY DOUGH MARK: I mean it’s not one of my traditional toppings, but…
SCOTT: Cheddar, is that a pizza cheese?
SCOTT: This is a pizza. Confirmed. 100%.
MARK: Yes. Why are you in such shock?
SCOTT: I’m in shock because…
MARK: It has sauce, it has cheese. It has dough… Not a pizza, but close enough.
SCOTT: French bread pizza, not a pizza. We agree.
MARK: This is really good.
SCOTT: This is crazy good. Is this like any other pizza you’ve ever had?
MARK: No. I’ve never had a pizza doughnut before.
SCOTT: But to me, it doesn’t taste like pizza crust. To me, it tastes like a doughnut.
MARK: It’s a pizza doughnut.
SCOTT: Yeah but… is it a doughnut or is it a pizza?
CYNTHIA GRABER: Doughnut pizza? I don’t know.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh I do. And it’s a yes. I mean, I don’t know know it. I don’t know doughnut pizza in the Biblical sense. I haven’t actually had one. But conceptually? Yes.
GRABER: These are clips from the Thrillist video series “Really Dough,” where two guys go around and debate whether something is or isn’t a pizza. And so the question is: is a doughnut pizza pizza?
TWILLEY: I am so glad you asked Cynthia, because this is Gastropod, the show that looks at food through the lens of science and history, and we are here today to get to the bottom of this pizza question. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and while pizza seems like it’s incredibly straightforward—crust, tomato sauce, and cheese—it’s actually surprisingly mysterious. Where does it come from?
TWILLEY: You may have just involuntarily shouted Italy, you dummies, but a) that’s mean, and b) just you wait, we’re going to blow your minds. As it turns out, most of the people living on the Italian peninsula thought pizza was weird and gross until just a few decades ago—which, why?
GRABER: I mean, I think pizza is one of the world’s perfect foods, I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s gross. But that said, there are some serious battles for the best pizza. The best type of pizza, that is. Is it from Detroit? New York? Naples? Brazil?
TWILLEY: And is there such a thing as bad pizza? I’m thinking about one I ate in China with sliced apple on top, and feeling like I might already know the answer to that question…
GRABER: Before we answer all the pizza questions you never knew you had, we did want to say thank you to all of you who’ve been so supportive and generous these days. Every dollar helps keep the show going! And we also want to give a special shout-out to a few of our supreme fans at or above the $10 an episode or $20 a month level, or an equivalent one-time donation, and that’s Melinda Jenner and Kevin Anderson, Alex Blocker, Sarah Unruh, Colin Young, Catherine Barry, Aurelius Black, Ryan Crosser, and Penney Gilbert and Aaron Ren-key.
TWILLEY: Listener support is a huge part of how we make the show at the best of times, and this is definitely not the best of times. As advertisers pull their buys and reduce their budgets, we are so incredibly grateful to all of you who have stepped up to make a donation of any size to support the show. If you haven’t yet, and you can, go to gastropod dot com slash support or find us on Patreon. Thank you!
GRABER: We eat a seriously astounding amount of pizza. Americans collectively eat 350 slices a second and 100 acres a day. More than 5 billion pizzas are sold around the world each year. It’s a lot.
TWILLEY: So we all eat it. But are we all eating the same thing? To get back to where we started, with the doughnut pizza that is going to be haunting my dreams: Is there actually a standard definition of pizza?
CAROL HELSTOSKY: Oh, no. Okay. [LAUGHS] The reason I’m laughing about that is because anytime I’m asked, I become somewhat of an expert or authority on the history of pizza. And anytime I’m asked, there’s always someone who disagrees with my definition.
GRABER: Carol Helstosky is a history professor at the University of Denver and author of Pizza: A Global History.
HELSTOSKY: So I want to be really careful about what I say here. That this is my opinion as a food historian, that I believe pizza is a yeasted flatbread that has ingredients baked onto the crust. That is sort of the most basic definition of pizza. I don’t get that specific where I say OK, it has to be round, or it has to be square or it has to, you know, be thin or thick or it has to have tomatoes and cheese on it.
TWILLEY: But here’s the thing, you ask two pizza experts for a definition of pizza, you get two different definitions.
FRANCISCO MIGOYA: I think that we need to kind of establish the fact that pizza isn’t pizza until you put tomato sauce on it, right? Because before that, it’s a flatbread. I mean, if not, then you could argue that the Egyptians had pizza cause they had flatbreads. Right? And that would be absurd to say.
GRABER: Francisco Migoya is the head chef at Modernist Cuisine, they’ve already put out a five-tome series called Bread, and now they’re working on an equally exhaustive pizza book, or books.
TWILLEY: For which they have been doing a lot of research, which sounds delicious, although Francisco says it’s actually very exhausting too.
MIGOYA: The tally as of December, it’s been 200 pizzerias. It’s just a number that boggles the mind because I mean if we’ve been to 200 pizzerias, you have to picture at least five pizzas per pizzeria. And I don’t want you to think that we eat the entire pizza. you have to pace yourself. It is a marathon of eating pizza and by the end of the day, it’s you just want to eat like a carrot or something, a vegetable, something that feels a little bit better to your body to eat. Because there is such a thing as too much pizza.
GRABER: I’m unconvinced. But I agree with Francisco that the definition of pizza is kind of a slippery thing.
MIGOYA: I wouldn’t call just any flatbread a pizza. I mean it’s, it’s—you know is a tortilla a pizza? I’m from Mexico, I would say no. But I’ve thought about it, because it has sauce and it has cheese and it’s a flatbread. And you know it’s cooked at, you know in a comal, which is a very high heat. So it… strictly defining it, you can see how some of these lines cross over each other.
TWILLEY: I think we can all agree that a tortilla is not a pizza. For starters, a tortilla is flat but it’s not really a flatbread—it doesn’t have yeast.
GRABER: But there are a lot of delicious yeasted flatbreads around the world. There’s laffa and pide and lavash and naan, and those are just off the top of my head.
TWILLEY: Carol says there’s archaeological evidence going back ten thousand years for little ancient pizza things. They were cakes of mashed grains, baked on a hot stone and then topped with whatever was handy—oil, honey, herbs, or even more complex sauces.
GRABER: So if flatbreads go back to the Neolithic, the dawn of agriculture, and if there are yeasted flatbreads in so many different cultures, then pizza can’t possibly be an Italian invention, right?
TWILLEY: These are the kind of fighting words that will land you in court, Cynthia. Specifically, the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco, which is a fake court staffed by real judges. They’ve made some landmark rulings in their time—on where the martini was invented and whether or not chicken soup is the Jewish penicillin.
GRABER: And in 1991, the court gathered to debate a serious question: Is pizza originally Italian or Chinese?
TWILLEY: The Chinese case was surprisingly strong: The prosecutor claimed that pizza is descended from ping tze—which are rice flour cakes filled with sausage and spices that were brought to Italy by our old friend Marco Polo back in the 1200s, and then transformed with the use of local ingredients.
GRABER: But the judge wasn’t buying it. Even before Marco Polo made his way to the east and back, the Etruscans in what is now Italy around about 1000 BCE were making little cakes that looked much more like pizza.
TWILLEY: The Italians won their day in court, so I guess we can say that pizza is not Chinese. But that’s pretty much all we can say for sure.
GRABER: While the exact origins of ancient pizza are somewhat murky, modern pizza definitely has a birthplace.
HELSTOSKY: Where you begin to see pizza develop and being called pizza is around the 17th and 18th century in Naples. And what people ate back then that they called pizza was essentially kind of a bread with toppings baked on to it. It didn’t look anything like what we might visualize now as pizza.
TWILLEY: For starters the first things that Neapolitans called pizza had *no* tomato.
HELSTOSKY: In fact, it was yeasted flatbread with anything that was on hand, you kind of threw whatever was on, whatever you had, usually because you didn’t have a lot of ingredients. So it wasn’t unusual for people to consume pizza, which was just, you know, crust or bread with maybe bits of fish baked on it, or maybe herbs that you’d gathered from the fields. And that would look really different from what we think about is pizza today.
TWILLEY: By the late 1700s, Italian dictionaries defined “pizza” as the word that people in Naples used for what pretty much everyone else called focaccia—a yeasted flatbread topped with oil and herbs and sometimes olives and other salty good things like cheese and cured meats.
GRABER: But what about the tomato! At least according to Francisco, a yeasted flatbread isn’t really a pizza until it meets one of the most delicious vegetables ever—oh god, it’s actually a fruit, but never mind. The tomato first had to get to Naples from Central and South America, it arrived at the very end of the 1500s but it took another century before people regularly ate it.
TWILLEY: Europeans were initially a little wary of tomatoes—there was some suspicion they were maybe poisonous. But tomatoes planted in the rich volcanic soil in sunny southern Italy were particularly sweet and delicious.
GRABER: And someone in Naples had the brilliant idea to take these delicious tomatoes and toss them on their flatbread.
HELSTOSKY: I have no idea, you know, who was the first person to do it, but I think it was very much the case like I just mentioned, that people kind of threw whatever ingredients were on hand and someone got this great idea of like, yeah, let’s slap a few tomatoes [LAUGHING] on top of this pizza.
TWILLEY: And it caught on. At least in Naples. And that’s actually the thing you have to understand, to understand where the modern pizza came from, is that Naples in the 1700s was the 3rd largest city in Europe and also by far and away the most densely packed city.
GRABER: Lots of those people in Naples at the time were really poor, they lived tightly packed in tiny rooms in multistory buildings, and they didn’t have running water or kitchens. And so they had to buy and eat their food on the street. They were eating a lot of things you could buy hot and hold in your hand. This is how Naples developed a very particular food culture.
TWILLEY: Naples was famous for its street vendors, who walked the city and cried out their wares—octopus balls, cones of fried anchovy smelt from the bay, boiled chestnuts, chunks of zucchini marinated in vinegar, this fun new food called maccheroni…
GRABER: Which of course you can hear about both in our macaroni and cheese episode and also in our pasta episode!
TWILLEY: Although actually maccheroni was comparatively speaking expensive and the very poorest Neapolitans could only have that on Sundays. Pizza was half the price, and so people ate slices of it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
GRABER: Remember, Naples is a port town, and there were a lot of fishermen there. Many of them ate plain tomato pizza for breakfast, before going out to sea—Carol says that’s why it’s called Marinara.
HELSTOSKY: And a mobile vendor would sell them a chunk of pizza or they would go into a pizzeria and eat standing up.
TWILLEY: The history of these very first pizzas is actually not super well documented—like Carol says, pizza was food for really poor people, and that’s not the kind of thing that tends to make the official histories.
HELSTOSKY: So we don’t have a lot of evidence left behind by the very poorest citizens of Naples about what they eat and when they ate their first tomato pizza. We do have evidence from foreigners who visit Naples and see that wow, all these people are eating pizza. And let me be really clear on this, that when foreigners come to Naples and witness pizza, they do not think this is a very enticing or interesting food.
GRABER: International visitors had some choice words—Samuel Morse, he’s the guy who invented the telegraph, he visited Naples in the 1800s and said pizza was a quote “species of most nauseating cake covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatoes sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients… it altogether looks like a piece of bread that had been taken reeking out of the sewer.”
TWILLEY: Even other Italians, if they weren’t from Naples, they were not usually pizza fans. In the late 1800s, a pioneering woman journalist called Mathilde Serao described these vendors walking around with slices of pizza made from quote “dense dough that burns but doesn’t cook” and “covered with almost raw tomatoes.” She wrote that the slices would “freeze in the cold, and turn yellow in the sun, eaten by the flies.”
GRABER: But also, honestly most Italians hadn’t even heard of pizza.
HELSTOSKY: It’s such a rich, varied cuisine and people in the North are eating something very different from people in the South and people in the center, so I think that certainly was the case where you had most Italians who were living in Italy, if they weren’t living in the immediate environs of Naples, they were not that aware of this dish called pizza.
GRABER: Even a visit from the queen of a newly unified Italy, who traveled south to Naples in 1889, that didn’t help pizza’s popularity. But it did give one pizza a famous new name.
HELSTOSKY: The legend of the pizza Margherita is that, right, the, the wife of the Italian king, on their visit to Naples, really wants to try some local street food. And she’s not going to go out in the streets and the alleys and you know, walk into a pizzeria, and or buy pizza from a mobile vendor, which is how most Neapolitans consumed their pizza then.
TWILLEY: Instead her staff found one of the city’s best-known pizza makers and the story goes that he came up from his cramped little pizzeria to the palace she was staying at, and made her three pizzas. One just with oil, one topped with tiny silvery fish fry, and one with tomato, mozzarella, and some torn basil leaves.
GRABER: Queen Margherita was enjoying a bit of culinary tourism. She was in Naples and she wanted a taste of what the locals ate. The local poor people. Which meant pizza. And she quite enjoyed it—her staff wrote the pizza maker a lovely thank-you note saying that the three pizzas were found to be delicious.
TWILLEY: And in return the pizza-maker named one of those three pizzas pizza Margherita, the one with the tomato, mozzarella, and basil.
HELSTOSKY: And so everyone assumed, oh, they were the inventors of the pizza Margherita. Now, it’s highly likely and I think it would be the case that many other pizzerias also made this type of pizza or some variation thereof. So I don’t think they were the only pizzeria that made it. I don’t use the story, I don’t think about the story as illustrative of an authentic first pizza Margherita. But rather, I think it’s an important story that tells us something about food and Italian nationalism.
TWILLEY: I mean, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil is red, white and green, the colors of the relatively new Italian flag.
GRABER: But even though a local guy got excited about the new national colors, pizza Margherita wasn’t a national dish, because pizza was still super regional—it took decades more for other Italians to fall in love with pizza.
TWILLEY: As late as 1900, all the pizzerias in Italy were in Naples—there had been one attempt by a Neapolitan to open a pizzeria in Rome, and it had apparently failed miserably.
GRABER: Strangely, the next place pizza takes hold isn’t somewhere close to Naples, it’s across the ocean.
HELSTOSKY: Pizza definitely catches on next in the United States.
TWILLEY: Remember Naples was really poor, even for Italy, which was a really poor country. So in the early 1900s, a lot of Neapolitans emigrated to find work, and a lot of them ended up in New York City.
GRABER: And they wanted food from home, so some started making pizza for their fellow Neapolitans.
TWILLEY: No one knows who opened the true first pizzeria in the US, but you can still get a slice at the place that calls itself the first in the US, Lombardi’s, which opened in 1905.
HELSTOSKY: Because they, they wind up being the first ones to get a commercial license to sell pizza. And again, it doesn’t mean that no one else is producing pizza, it just means that there’s some physical record.
GRABER: Lombardi and all the other guys making pizza wanted to make it taste like home, so they had super hot ovens.
TWILLEY: But they could only get hold of coal instead of the wood they’d used back in Naples, so the pizzas became coal-fired, rather than wood-fired.
GRABER: Back home, they would have used fresh tomatoes in season.
HELSTOSKY: So they wind up, initially asking for tomatoes back in Italy, and what we see is the growth of a canned tomato or tinned tomato industry back in southern Italy, which is really interesting because the market for what becomes a hallmark of Italian cuisine really develops outside of Italy.
TWILLEY: So the tomato sauce on a New York slice was already different—canned tomatoes taste cooked and more jammy and umami-ish than raw tomatoes.
GRABER: And the cheese changed, too. Back home, these pizza makers would have used fresh buffalo mozzarella, which is just like those creamy soft balls of fresh cow’s milk mozzarella you can find in lots of stores today, but it has even more delicious fat.
HELSTOSKY: And that doesn’t get exported as readily and easily as the tinned tomatoes, which keep for a long period of time. So they experiment with other forms of cheese and other forms of mozzarella cheese specifically, and so you wind up seeing these sort of mozzarella cheese factories or companies that produce the cheese for them.
GRABER: American-style mozzarella cheese, that low-fat more dried and aged kind that you buy shredded in bags or in blocks in the supermarket today, Carol says an entire industry developed around this cheese to support these early pizza makers.
TWILLEY: It’s completely different from fresh mozzarella and it forms a stretchy, stringy yellow layer on top of your New York slice.
GRABER: And this is why a New York slice is so different from pizza in Naples. The cheese, the sauce, they look and taste significantly different, and these make New York pizza a new creature, it’s not Neapolitan pizza anymore.
TWILLEY: And it wasn’t just Neapolitans eating it anymore, either.
HELSTOSKY: You do have some people who are not Italian at all, who are just in New York, who are like, you know, bohemians and, and they’re more adventuresome in terms of their, in terms of their palates. And so they’re going to try this, you know, wild Italian thing called pizza. And they’re going to drink a little bit of Italian red wine with that, and that, to them, was very exotic.
GRABER: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, all three states had a lot of southern Italians, and some people willing to try this exotic southern Italian food. This is the birthplace of pizza in the US, and the first region it really first caught on outside Naples.
TWILLEY: But pizza didn’t start to catch on anywhere else—even in Italy outside of Naples—until quite a bit later. Half a century later, actually, after the Second World War. So what happened?
HELSTOSKY: That’s shrouded in myth. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: The myth that supposedly explains how pizza spread around the US in the 50s—it’s that as American servicemen passed through Naples during World War II, they tried this strange flatbread with tomatoes and cheese and they really liked it.
NARRATOR: On reaching the center of the city, thousands of shouting, hysterical people started to swarm around the lorries, tanks and cars. It was the start of an amazing scene. Here’s the press car, snowed up under an avalanche of wildly excited Neapolitans. This was Italy’s second-most important city in the year of good-gracious-me, 1943.
HELSTOSKY: And when they came back stateside, they, you know, looked around and said, Hey, you know, I had this great thing called pizza. I’d really like to have some, and so servicemen were running into I guess, pizzerias and asking for pizza, and that fed the growth of pizza in the United States.
TWILLEY: But although you can read this story in a lot of pizza books and articles, Carol doesn’t think it’s true. And she has a very good reason.
HELSTOSKY: By the time that the Americans get to places like Sicily and Naples, and then have to sort of march up right up the peninsula, fighting the Germans the whole way. Italians are really struggling in terms of food, and how much food they’re eating. Now, if we think about that scenario, I don’t think that’s a scenario that’s conducive to a lot of American soldiers eating this great thing called pizza. There probably wasn’t a lot of pizza available. And if it was, it probably tasted pretty horrible.
GRABER: Pizza did start to catch on in the 1950s, but it seems like it was more the whole post-war period we’ve talked about frequently on the show: People had more money, they started to eat out more, they wanted to try exotic new foods. Or drinks, like in our tiki episode.
TWILLEY: And Carol says that, as part of that, there was a whole pizza craze in the 1950s.
HELSTOSKY: We begin to see the promotion of pizza through newspapers, through women’s magazines, like here’s a great Italian thing for you to try. You could basically make it at any ingredient you could find at home. So they’re suggesting the English muffin pizza. They’re suggesting making pizza out of you know, whatever, toast or whatever kind of bread stuff you could find. You just need to slap some ingredients on it and bake it somehow. So I found all these really unique recipes for various, kind of, homemade pizzas where you would put liverwurst and chopped onions on the pizza. Which doesn’t resemble anything, I don’t think, that people in Italy were consuming.
TWILLEY: This kind of thing was happening to a lot of quote foreign foods at the time—magazines were printing recipes for egg noodles and ketchup and calling it Italian. It was the 50s.
GRABER: And there was a lot of bad food being made in the US. So pizza was starting to spread around America, but it still hadn’t really caught on outside of the tri-state area.
HELSTOSKY: What I do think, made pizza breakout of this, what you call the “ethnic enclave of taste,” were the fast food restaurants, specifically Domino’s and Pizza Hut.
PIZZA HUT AD
AD NARRATOR: What makes a Pizza Hut pan pizza so good? It’s a pan full of homemade taste. Made fresh with dough we raised twice.
HELSTOSKY: And it’s really interesting to me how they get their start. They started in the Midwest, where there aren’t a lot of Italian American communities. So they’re not appealing directly to Italian Americans, right? They don’t care as much about them as consumers. What they do care about is they set up these pizzerias, and they specialize in food delivery. Later, you can eat inside a Pizza Hut, but they’re really just interested… So they add this new twist to it, where they will deliver this pizza to you.
AD: DOMINOS PIZZA DELIVERS
AD NARRATOR: Domino’s Pizza delivers. [Jingle in background: Great taste. Just like you want it to be. Domino’s Pizza delivers.]
TWILLEY: One call does it all! And that’s because these are the other big stories of the 1950s—convenience and car culture. Pizza Hut was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958, by two brothers who were not Italian or even Italian American. And Domino’s was founded two years later in Michigan, also by two brothers, the Monaghans. Again, not so Italian.
AD: DOMINO’S PIZZA TURNAROUND
PATRICK DOYLE: It was about 50 years ago that they started the first store, just about five miles from here.
MACK PATTERSON: Two brothers had a great idea and they also said they wanted to get it delivered within 30 minutes, and that’s something that no one said could be done. In fact, the first pizza delivery vehicle for our company is that vehicle right there. Around in the eighties we were exploding. We were the fastest growing company in the history of franchise business, nobody had ever grown like that.
TWILLEY: This is from a Domino’s ad, but it’s true—they had a smart business model.
GRABER: And it wasn’t just the method of getting the pizza to people, it was also who they were targeting as their ideal market. They set up shop near universities and military bases.
HELSTOSKY: Thinking these are people, students in college or universities and soldiers don’t have a lot of money. So they want to eat cheap, fast food. And that really takes off because lo and behold, guess what, college students and soldiers really do want to eat cheap fast food. [LAUGHS] So they become enormously popular. And as they begin to spread, you know, they have their sort of idea, they mass produce these pizzas in these, you know, conveyor belt steel ovens, they’re not replicating the ovens that you find back in Naples. And they’re just trying to develop a standardized product. With a set number of toppings, you have a set number of choices, and most of it’s delivered, and they can really crank out the pizzas.
GRABER: This is a new style of pizza: delivery pizza. The people making it weren’t as focused on taste as pizza makers were in New York, it’s basically meant to be fast and filling.
TWILLEY: In a weird way, though, these new delivery style pizzas were actually pretty authentic to their roots—it was fast and cheap food for people without a lot of money or time, just like in the 1700s and 1800s in Naples.
GRABER: But what made these companies particularly prosperous was that they could also take advantage of the new-ish franchise model that we talked about in our episode about McDonald’s. Like Nicky said, they were using cheap ingredients, but also standardized recipes. And the result was fast food that was easy to replicate across the country.
TWILLEY: At the same time, pizza was also morphing into a new format: the frozen pizza. The first ones hit the market in the late 1950s and early 60s.
HELSTOSKY: And these were pizzas that you could purchase fully assembled out of all kinds of standardized ingredients and heat up at home. But it was really thin, people described it as almost like cardboard-y.
GRABER: Frozen pizza was huge when I was a kid, but yes it was pretty cardboard-y and gross. And then there was a breakthrough in frozen pizza technology.
MAN 1: Hey, you ordered pizza.
WOMAN: Hey, I didn’t. It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno.
MAN 2: Ooh great toppings, where’s it from?
WOMAN: It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno.
MAN 3: Someone say delivery?
WOMAN: Duh, someone said DiGiorno.
NARRATOR: DiGiorno rising crust pizza is the frozen pizza with a crust that bakes up fresh like pizzeria pizza.
TWILLEY: Yes, it’s true. In 1995, DiGiorno introduced a frozen pizza with a yeast-leavened crust that actually puffed up in the oven.
GRABER: There’s some complicated chemistry going on here. They had to prebake the crust so that it would puff up some, but then stabilize it with thickeners and package it in a particular gas mix, not regular air, to keep the yeast from doing any more work. And then at a certain temperature in your oven, the crust would start puffing up again. It was, indeed, self-rising, and no longer flat as cardboard.
TWILLEY: A miracle of modern science. And yet still kind of disgusting. As part of his extensive research, Francisco also explored the world of frozen pizzas.
MIGOYA: And it’s kind of baffling to us why it even exists, because there is no such thing as a good frozen pizza. And we’ve done a bunch of tests. Like we bought every or most of the frozen pizzas that you can imagine exist. And they always have this weird smell, weird texture, weird taste.
GRABER: Bad it might have been, but delivery and franchising and frozen pizzas explains how pizza got big in America. But how did it get big in Italy?
TWILLEY: That happened at about the same time pizza was taking off in the US—in the 1950s and 60s.
HELSTOSKY: This is the time of the so-called economic miracle, right where Italian industry really takes off in northern Italy is a really great example not only in textiles, but also office products. The economic miracle is not so prevalent in the south. Industry doesn’t develop as quickly down there. So Southern Italian immigrants go looking for economic opportunities in northern Italy, they bring their pizza with them.
TWILLEY: These were Neapolitan pizzas being cooked by migrant Neapolitans—initially for migrant Neapolitans, but then gradually adopted by other Italians.
GRABER: But by the 1970s, there was another group hungry for a taste of Italy, and that was tourists. Air travel was becoming more common and people wanted to visit romantic Italian cities.
HELSTOSKY: So you begin to see more tourists not just coming from the United States, but other parts of Europe, trying to appreciate Italian tourism and the sights of Italy. And part of that has to do with they don’t have a lot of time, they may have five days, they may have seven days. They don’t have months to go travel to Naples and to Milan and all these places. But they want to try all the characteristic Italian foods.
TWILLEY: As Carol said, Italian cuisine is super regional. You shouldn’t really expect to find Milanese risotto and ragu bolognese and a Genoese pesto and a Neapolitan pizza all in the same place. But needs must.
HELSTOSKY: And so we begin to see, along with the development of the tourist industry in Italy, more and more restaurants throughout Italy, offering pizza as a standard. And it’s not unusual then to see pizzerias in cities all over Italy.
TWILLEY: And thus the pizza conquered its home country, Italy.
GRABER: So if you are keeping count at home, at this point we have four styles of pizza. There’s Neapolitan pizza, there’s New York pizza, there’s delivery pizza, and there’s frozen pizza. But I can practically hear you all yelling at us: What about Chicago? What about Detroit?
MIGOYA: The United States has a lot of styles that it could call its own. And that is incredible because there’ve been a lot of immigrants, Italian immigrants that have gone to other countries and established roots there and made pizza, but not necessarily created a style for that place. For example, if you go to Australia, there’s a ton of Italians that live in Australia and they’ve opened a lot of Italian restaurants, and there’s a fondness for Italian food in Australia. It’s huge. But the pizza that you see there is Neapolitan. It wasn’t like translated into Australia and its people and its ingredients. It’s Neapolitan. But if you go to New York, you have, you go to New York and you see a slice of pizza, New York slice of pizza, and you know, it’s a New York slice pizza.
TWILLEY: But while New York may be the *first* truly American style of pizza, it is no longer the only one.
MIGOYA: Detroit is definitely a very clear and specific style.
TWILLEY: Detroit style, for those of you haven’t yet tried it, is served in squares. It’s a thick focaccia-like crust with super crispy edges, and the sauce is actually dolloped on top, over the cheese and other stuff. It’s not my absolute most favorite but I certainly wouldn’t kick it out of bed.
MIGOYA: It’s a pizza. It’s baked in these pans that were used in auto mechanic shops. They’re black steel pans. I don’t know who connected that. Like they saw the pan and thought I should make pizza in that. There’s a story somewhere and I’m sure somebody knows it, but you don’t usually think of things that you would see in an auto shop as things that you would use to cook as well. But I mean I’m grateful they did it cause it produces a great pizza. And that pan is important, because it’s black, which is good because it absorbs and it radiates heat very well into the pizza. It’s thin too. So the conduction is very quick into the dough. But it also doesn’t warp and bend in the oven.
GRABER: The pan gives Detroit pizza its characteristic shape and crispiness, but it’s not just the pan. It’s also both the type of cheese and how Detroiters spread that cheese around.
MIGOYA: It’s a combination of cheeses, Wisconsin brick cheese and like what we call pizza cheese, which is the part-skim shredded pizza cheese that you see in all pizzas, mozzarella. so it’s a combination of that. And what is really great about it is that cheese goes all the way to the border of the pan. It’s in contact with the pan, so it bakes, kind of bakes into the dough, and it forms its own cheese crust.
TWILLEY: That’s what makes the edges of a Detroit style pizza so delicious, which is its true selling point, for me.
GRABER: And then of course there’s Chicago style. Though to be fair, Francisco says most people in Chicago aren’t eating what most of the rest of us think of as Chicago style.
MIGOYA: Iin Chicago, if you tell a group of people, let’s go and get pizza. People from Chicago won’t be thinking immediately deep dish. And I need to clarify that because everybody who’s not from Chicago, the first thing they think about when they think of Chicago pizza deep dish, right? Chicagoans will go for what you and I would consider regular pizza, which is New York-ish in look.
TWILLEY: But actual Chicago style—as I may have mentioned before, Chicago was the first American city I ever lived in and when I first encountered its eponymous pizza, I really didn’t know exactly what to think.
GRABER: I’m still perplexed by the whole thing. It has a really high crust, and it’s super super thick, with lots of gloopy cheese and a thick layer of tomato sauce on top that only is prevented from spilling off the sides by that ridiculously high crust.
MIGOYA: So is it pizza or is it not pizza? I mean, it’s a casserole isn’t it? I’ve seen quiches that look very much like Chicago deep dish. And just the amount of cheese and sauce in it is, it’s important. There’s—there’s a lot about it that is very mystifying.
TWILLEY: Francisco is not the only one that finds Chicago style pizza confusing.
GRABER: Jon Stewart has very, very strong words about Chicago pizza—such strong words that if you’re a parent listening with kids, it is bleeped, but you still might want to skip ahead a minute.
JON STEWART: Deep dish pizza is not only not better than New York pizza. It’s not pizza. It’s a f*ckin casserole. It’s a cornbread biscuit, which you’ve melted cheese on. And then in defiance of God and man and all things Holy, you poured uncooked marinara sauce atop the cheese. Atop! Atop! This is not pizza. This is tomato soup in a bread bowl. This is an above ground marinara swimming pool for rats. When I look at your deep dish f*ckin pizza, I don’t know whether to eat it or throw a coin in it and make a wish. And if I made a wish, it would be that I wish for some real f*ckin pizza.
TWILLEY: Jon Stewart is a very funny man and I agree with him about lots of things, but I do have to take a stand here and say that actually, Chicago style pizza is amazing. It may not be pizza, but it is incredibly great in its own way. Which is just as well because ordering one is a real commitment.
MIGOYA: One of the things that baffles me is a chef is that if you go—because we did, we went to a bunch of different pizzerias when we were there and every time you go, say you’re hungry. Because that’s why you go to a restaurant because you’re hungry. These pizzas take like 45 minutes to bake. How long of a lunch do you have to take?
GRABER: So many mysteries. What’s more, to the best of our knowledge, nobody even knows why Chicago pizza developed this way—
TWILLEY: But it makes sense, kind of. Chicago is the agricultural commodity center for the US—all that grain passing through from the Midwest, all the slaughterhouses—with all that abundance, the local pizza would naturally also be generously proportioned.
GRABER: So Chicago style is famous for its overabundance, but then St. Louis style is famous for its super thin cracker crust and its particular cheese, which was invented in St. Louis.
TWILLEY: This cheese is called provel, and it’s more like American cheese than mozzarella—it’s not as stretchy as New York pizza cheese..
MIGOYA: I don’t want to make a judgement that it’s good or bad, but I will say it’s an acquired taste. It doesn’t stretch, it just melts. It turns into a very different, soft oozy matter.
GRABER: To be honest, soft oozy matter on pizza doesn’t sound all that appealing.
TWILLEY: I’ve also tried St. Louis style and honestly I have never felt like it was something I needed to have again.
GRABER: But America isn’t the only country that welcomed immigrants from Naples, when they left in search of opportunities. Many traveled to South America, and there they invented yet other styles of pizza. In Argentina, the pizza overflows with tomatoes and cheese. Particularly cheese.
MIGOYA: The Italians that moved from Italy, which used to be a very poor country, and they moved to South America, and there’s all of this abundance all of a sudden. So we’re now taking this, you know all of that we have here and we’re going to go to town on it and our pizzas are going to be thick. It’s a thick crust pizza. It’s covered in cheese. I think it’s about the same amount of cheese as there is of dough. And to the point where you cut a slice, the cheese is still hot. It covers the slice completely. It’s like a blanket of cheese that melts on top of it. So it’s the sort of pizza, you have one or two slices and you’re done
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, just next door, Brazil also had its share of Neapolitan immigrants, but their pizzas turned out distinctively different.
MIGOYA: And in Brazil you have very thin crust pizzas. You know, just get on a plane and go to a neighboring country and the pizzas all of a sudden are super thin. Super thin and also adapted to stuff in the region, right? So there’s hearts of Palm on pizza. Um, there’s seafood, lot of shrimp, tuna fish, canned tuna. There’s a cheese that is very similar to cream cheese. It’s called Catupiry. They sell it in like piping bags so you can just squeeze it on top of a pizza.
GRABER: In fact, Francisco has a lab where he’s perfecting recipes for each of these styles for the upcoming Modernist Cuisine pizza book, and he showed us a Brazilian pizza.
MIGOYA: So as you can see it’s very thin, it’s a very thin crust. And in fact it’s so thin that you can hear how it—this is like cracker like, right. [CRUNCH CRUNCH] You can hear how it’s very, it’s very crackly.
TWILLEY: Francisco’s lab is like a chef slash scientist Disneyworld. He has everything: a professional wood-fired oven, all the kitchen tools you could imagine and then some, and also a whole bunch of scientific instruments.
MIGOYA: And one of them is called an extensograph. And so an extensograph is basically a machine that, what it does is it, it’s… picture a—like a robotic hook. And what it does is we attach a, like a string of dough to it or a very thin strip of dough. And we attach to the hook and it lifts it up and it’s connected to a computer. So what it’ll do is it’ll measure the force it took to tear that piece of dough.
GRABER: The extensograph helps Francisco measure the strength of flour. Some flours have more proteins than others—these proteins form gluten. And they affect how stretchy and elastic the pizza dough is.
TWILLEY: Which is important because not all pizza dough needs to be stretchy.
MIGOYA: For example, if you’re making a very thin crust dough like a Brazilian thin crust pizza, you don’t need to have a very elastic dough. But t like with Neopolitan, it’s very important to have that combination of strength and elasticity.
GRABER: We watched the machine tug at dough until it ripped, and then the machine showed us how much strength it took to tear the dough. Francisco uses it to compare doughs made from different flours so he can figure out which flour is best for which type of pizza.
TWILLEY: Clearly, stretching raw pizza dough is scientifically thrilling. But after talking about pizzas all day, Cynthia and I wanted to see—well, let’s be honest, we really wanted to eat an actual pizza! So Francisco made us an authentic Neapolitan style.
MIGOYA: I’m trying to gently stretch it. And this sauce is a—compared to other tomato sauces, it’s a very thin sauce. It’s very fluid. And you need to have that with this particular style of pizza because if you use a thicker sauce, there’s a chance it’s gonna burn in the oven. So we need to have that excess moisture to evaporate while the pizza is being spun in a 900 degree oven.
GRABER: Francisco ripped up some basil and sprinkled it around, then he took out a ball of fresh mozzarella and tore it into pieces.
MIGOYA: Not too much cheese. It’s not like American pizzas. It’s just a little bit of cheese.
TWILLEY: Then he slid his creation onto what pizza people call the peel, and into the oven.
GRABER: And then as soon as he started to see some blistering and color on the crust, he stuck the very long handled peel pack into the very very hot oven and carefully spun the pizza around.
MIGOYA: I like to spin it all the time so that the bottom doesn’t burn. I like to have a golden bottom crust, but I don’t have a burnt crust. So right now, I’m going to gently lift it and I’m gonna start spinning it. Okay. [SPINNING.] And I’m spinning it constantly so that I can get an evenly baked pizza. I want to make sure that the color is consistent throughout, that all of the leoparding is, is consistent throughout it.
TWILLEY: Leoparding is actually a technical pizza term. As well as a scientific mystery.
MIGOYA: If you get those little like black char marks, it’s called leoparding. And it’s a desirable thing. It’s something that you want. There’s that little—there’s a difference between charred and burnt, I suppose is the best way to put it. And leoparding is that little bit of char. We’re trying to find out what it is. We think it’s CO2 that has come to solution on the surface because you see it in a lot of sourdough breads.
GRABER: And then, after only 75 seconds, Francisco slid the pizza out. But not into our waiting mouths.
MIGOYA: So we’re going to take this from here straight to Evan over there, who’s going to put it through the 3D scanner.
TWILLEY: Francisco told us that true Neapolitan style pizza has a five minute window of perfection—that’s why it doesn’t work for delivery. And yet here he was futzing around with a scanner. It was painful to watch.
MIGOYA: Essentially the 3D scanner, it allows us to get like a very accurate volume measure of the pizza. So we basically have it on this. It’s basically—it’s spinning and what it’s spinning on is a cake stand that has, that is motorized. So if we’re comparing hydration percentages, if we’re comparing fermentation times, if we’re comparing baking temperatures, this is gonna give us some very important and valuable results.
GRABER: Do not panic, this pizza wasn’t going to waste, some of the staff there were happy to snack on the not-quite-perfect Neopolitan pizza—
TWILLEY: But for us, only perfection would do. So Francisco made another.
MIGOYA: Starting to bake, starting to get some color, so I’m starting to just spin it. [SPINNING]
GRABER: Oh, my God. Smell that.
TWILLEY: Smell it. Oh my— [LAUGHS.]
MIGOYA: So I’m going to cut this. [SLICING] Eat whatever you’d like. You don’t need to finish the whole slice if you don’t want to. But if you want to, then you’re more than welcome to.
TWILLEY: Holy Hannah.
GRABER: [LAUGHS] I think that’s about all we can say right now.
TWILLEY: That’s all I have.
GRABER: We ate the whole slice. In fact, we ate more than one slice.
TWILLEY: In fact, we ate the whole pizza. And I’ve had good pizzas, even pizza in Naples itself, and I feel comfortable saying this was a perfect Neapolitan pizza.
GRABER: Wait, I need a moment. I’m still dreaming about that pizza. Okay. But creating perfect examples of classic styles isn’t enough for Francisco—he’s still innovating.
TWILLEY: Particularly with toppings.
MIGOYA: And by this I mean like certain sauces, like you could put hollandaise on a pizza and let me tell you, it’s the most amazing thing you could do to pizza. Essentially, we make, we made a Detroit pizza recently and then we put a hollandaise on top of it, our Modernist hollandaise recipe, and then flashed it back in the oven. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
GRABER: But not all pizza is good.
TWILLEY: There are some things that are just technically bad ideas—Francisco says microwaving pizza is something he cannot endorse, because it turns the dough chewy. And he says stuffing a pizza crust, however much you need those extra fillings, that’s not the place to put them—it makes everything too soggy.
GRABER: And there are some flavor combinations that just don’t work.
MIGOYA: Well I think the, the one that still gives me nightmares is the Scandinavian—the Swedish kebab pizza, which is banana, curry sauce, peanuts, chicken, cheese. And that’s all baked on a, on a piece of dough. But it’s a thing. I mean that, that really shook me to my core. And it’s still like I said, I still think about it.
TWILLEY: So I’ve had apple on pizza, in China, which was not a culinary highlight. But banana? No. Maybe on a dessert pizza but also I’m not sure those are a good idea full stop.
GRABER: I don’t even think that dessert pizzas are pizza! They might be tasty, but they’re a different thing!
MIGOYA: It’s an interesting aspect of the world of pizza. I don’t know that I want to be the person who says, no that’s not pizza. I mean does it look like a duck? No. Does it quack like a duck? No. So then, is it a duck? No. Just because you call it a duck, doesn’t mean it’s a duck. Right?
GRABER: Or a pizza.
TWILLEY: We have a special treat for you—and I really mean special—at the very end of the credits today, so hang in there for that.
GRABER: We’ve said this many times, but I’m going to say it again—thanks to all of you who’ve been able to help support the show, especially in these challenging days. Every dollar makes a huge difference. And we also want to share some great news.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I nearly dropped our phones when we saw this email—one very generous donor, Wendy Taylor, actually gave 3,000 dollars to help support the show, which is incredible, and makes a really huge difference. We were completely floored—it feels amazing to know that we make something that is so valuable to so many of you. Thank you.
GRABER: And thanks this episode to Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, and Francisco Migoya at Modernist Cuisine, we will let you know when they publish their pizza bible!
TWILLEY: OK, the treat. This was found by our new summer fellow, the already indispensable Sonja Swanson. It’s from 1991, and it features Herman Cain, before he ran for President, back when he was CEO of the Godfather’s pizza restaurant chain.
HERMAN CAIN: Imagine there’s no pizza. I couldn’t if I tried. Eating only tacos. Or Kentucky Fried. Imagine only burgers. It’s frightening and sad.
TWILLEY: We don’t really understand why he sang this song, but we don’t care. It’s amazing.
CAIN: All I am saying Give pizza a chance! All I am saying Is give pizza a chance! All I am saying: You’ve got to, got to give pizza a chance!