Pizza originated in southern Italy, but it took on a life of its own here. America’s first specimens were simple flatbreads that emerged from bakeries’ coal-fired ovens with a fetching bituminous char.
America’s First Pizzeria
A Neapolitan baker named Gennaro Lombardi opened the nation’s first pizzeria in New York in 1905, and to this day Lombardi’s pies stand up as stellar examples of Italian-America’s take on the Neapolitan original: Larger in size, they’re topped with fresh-tasting sauce, milky mozzarella, grated Romano cheese, olive oil, and aromatic basil leaves, and cooked in a coal oven. Today, most New York pizza uses coarser flour, gooier industrial mozzarella, and a longer cook-time in an electric oven.
New Haven’s Pizza Evolution
In New Haven, Connecticut, a different style of pizza, known as apizza, evolved from the same Neapolitan roots. Frank Pepe opened his eponymous pizzeria in that city’s Little Italy in 1925, and today his establishment and neighboring ones still make pies that are thinner, wetter, and more heavily charred than most New York-style pizza. In the mid 1960s, Pepe introduced its signature clam pizza topped with juicy bivalves, grated pecorino, garlic, and oregano.
Chicago Enters the Scene
Chicago pizza is a different beast entirely. When Pizzeria Uno founders Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo invented it in 1943, they weren’t trying for true Italian. They believed Chicagoans needed something more substantial, ergo deep dish pizza, which is more a casserole than a flatbread.
California Takes the Pizza Upscale
California is where pizza became boutique food, starting in the 1980s, as part of a larger exaltation of Mediterranean cuisine. Alice Waters put a wood-burning oven into Berkeley’s the Cafe at Chez Panisse, and Wolfgang Puck got famous by feeding Hollywood stars $100 caviar pies. Puck’s pizza man, Ed LaDou, went on to found the California Pizza Kitchen chain, now famous around the country for its barbecued-chicken pizza.
America’s pizza map is a crazy quilt of invention, from inspired to insane. If you doubt that, have a taste of pulled-pork pizza in Memphis, or saltine-thin, unleavened-crust pizza in St. Louis, where mozzarella is shunned in favor of Provel cheese, a mix of cheddar, Swiss, and provolone. Detroit’s signature is a thick-crust variation, called square pizza because it is cut into squares, gilded with caramelized cheese, and dotted with sauce. In the pork-loving Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa, pizzas come blanketed with ground Italian sausage, and they are cut into long pieces called “strips.” Square, lightly sauced Grandma pizza is a Long Island specialty. Similar pizzas are known in other parts of the country as bakery pizza; a whole isn’t a pie, it’s a tray.