Raise your hand if you grew up in a town with terrible pizza.
OK, good. I’m not alone. But more on that later.
Today is apparently National Pizza Day. I have no idea why today is National Pizza Day, but I do not generally question such things. But at least I can honor the occasion by dining on some pizza!
That’s leftover frozen pizza that I’ve reheated, actually. But no, this is not a bad thing! Frozen pizza has come a long, long, long way since the days of the really cheap crusts that tasted vaguely (or not so vaguely) of the cardboard box. This is actually a new brand to me, by a company called the Motor City Pizza Company. Every few weeks at home we have Frozen Pizza Nite for dinner, whereupon I buy a gluten-free pizza for The Wife (she is partial to the Freschetta brand), and I buy something for myself. I don’t have a favorite, which is nice for some pizza exploration each time out.
This last one was apparently a Detroit-style pizza, which means that it’s oblong rather than circular, the crust is thick and chewy (not unlike Buffalo-style pizza, in all honesty!), and the cheese (Wisconsin brick cheese) is spread all the way to the edge, so that it melts and scorches a bit around the edges, giving the outer crust a cheesy, carbonized crunch. I don’t know how well this particular frozen pizza holds up as an example of Detroit-style pizza, but I did like this brand and I would buy it again.
(Pro tip: When reheating leftover pizza, don’t use the oven OR the microwave. Use a frying pan, on the stove, on medium to medium-low heat. Put a lid on it to get the cheese melty again, while the pan re-crisps the crust.)
Generally speaking, pizza might be the single food I’ve eaten more than any other (maybe second after sandwiches), and I suspect I’m far from alone in this. Americans tend to be nuts about pizza. What’s one of the first question anybody asks in this country when they relocate to a new city? “Where’s the good pizza around here?” Pizza is so huge that it’s simply not acceptable that celiacs live a pizzaless existence, hence the existence of many gluten-free pizzas.
I don’t remember a time of my life that was Before Pizza. In our oddly-nomadic life in my first ten years, during which we moved each year, we had a favorite pizza place in each town. Pizza Caboose was a run train-themed pizza place in the Portland area (some locations had an actual caboose inside, which you could sit in as long as the whole thing wasn’t rented out for a party), and there was another place (now gone) called the Organ Grinder, which was a trip in itself. These places, I remember liking very much, even if I, as the youngest member of the family, rarely got to pick the pizza toppings, so I had to deal with sliced tomatoes and mushrooms and having Dad admonish me for trying to pick the pepperoni off the freshly-served pizza.
(But really, isn’t it a pizza law that you pick off one slice of pepperoni from the fresh pizza? How many things in life are better than that first, and only, piece of pepperoni, picked from the top of the still-bubbling pie, dripping hot grease and pulling along with it a fine tendril of molten cheese?)
Another joint I remember, from the year we lived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, was Rocky Rococo’s. This place served up slices of deep-crusted goodness. I also remember a couple of other pizza joints in LaCrosse…one of them had barber chairs that kids could play in while waiting for food (maybe this was actually Rocky Rococo’s? I dunno) and another was a bar/restaurant in LaCrosse’s downtown section, whose name I don’t recall but I do recall their pizza being very well-endowed in the cheese department.
And then there was Olean, my hometown of roughly twenty years.
Olean, bless its heart, was not a place for great pizza. I know that some of the locals down there will quibble with this assessment, but I cannot tell a lie. One local joint, located in the mall there, is absolutely beloved, but it’s really on par with Sbarro, and it serves the same kind of product (the cheap thin NYC-style slice that you can fold). It wasn’t bad, but I never once pined for it the way many there do. Another joint served slices of square pizza cut from sheet pans, and each slice had two pepperoni slices on it. That’s it: two. This place was also beloved. I never understood why.
There were a few other mom-and-pop joints that came and went, but generally, Olean was not really a place to get great pizza. Maybe its pizza scene has improved since I moved away–it’s been more than twenty years now, after all–but at the time, well…a case can be made that Pizza Hut really was the best game in town. (And honestly, as much as I might say about working at Pizza Hut, I do still believe that their product, at least back then, was perfectly respectable, at least for a corporate “Every pizza must be the same!” joint.)
One special mention must be made of a pizza place in Pittsburgh, the city of my birth: Vincent’s Pizza Park is the home of some amazing pizzas, but they’re rather idiosyncratic. They are big, heavy, loaded with grease, and the crust goes for miles. I mean, look at these:
That’s some amazing pizza–I have never been able to find Italian sausage on a pizza that had quite the same bite as the stuff that Vincent’s uses–but when you’re eating it, you might well flash back to that episode of The Simpsons when during breakfast Bart is complaining of chest pains while Homer orders him to butter his bacon.
(Vincent’s was also apparently a bit less well-maintained, in earlier days when sanitary standards were a bit more lax than they are nowadays. My father loved telling the story of how once he was at Vincent’s when my parents were relatively newly wed, in the early 1960s, and he called home from the pay phone to tell Mom he was going to be a while because some poor guy had gotten locked in the bathroom and was shrieking to be released from whatever eldritch terror dwelt within. Dad had to see that one play out.)
What are my pizza preferences? I mean, everybody has a preference, right? My favorite right now would almost certainly be Imperial Pizza in South Buffalo, a joint that is rightfully legendary. It breaks my heart that The Wife can’t eat their product anymore. Curse you, Gluten Gods! But Imperial’s crust is that wonderful thick pillowy Buffalo crust, topped with a sweetish sauce and piled with cheese and whatever your toppings are. Each year at Christmas I treat myself and a couple of coworkers to pizza and wings from Imperial, and given the opportunity to have pizza from any place right now, I’d likely choose Imperial.
Or Cappelli’s…they may an amazing chicken finger pizza that tastes like pizza and wings all in one dish…and their crust, a bit thinner than the standard Buffalo crust, is ideally suited for one of my favorite topping combos, Italian sausage and banana peppers.
But more generally? I really do love all kinds of pizza. The New York City thin crust experience really is special, and I love it to death. But I am equally fond, if not moreso, of the Chicago deep-dish experience, in which a buttery and flaky crust contains multitudes in terms of tomatoes, cheese, and who knows what else. And everything in between! Buffalo pizza, Detroit pizza, and from my little experience with it, that super-thin crust stuff they make in St. Louis.
Pizza is so amazingly versatile that I can’t imagine ever tiring of it, or getting militant about one particular variety of it. Pizza is large. Pizza contains multitudes. You can make breakfast pizza, you can make white pizza, you can make any variation of the “traditional” pizza you can think of, you can make dessert pizza. Pizza makes life better, and we owe eternal gratitude to whichever ancestors it was who made a flatbread and then started putting stuff on it.
And then to those who made beer to wash it down with, and wings to pair with it.
Happy National Pizza Day, everyone!