September 14, 2006

The Pizza Problem

by peterb

In 1986, a girl fell through the skylight of a building at Carnegie-Mellon. She had been drinking on the roof with her friends, and lost her balance. On the way down she straddled a water pipe, which broke her fall and probably saved her life. She hit the ground pretty hard, and was knocked out.

When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics started to move her, she regained consciousness. She opened her eyes and said, very groggily, "Are you from Capri pizza? You must be, because you're slow and stupid."

I never heard what happened to the girl after that — I like to think that she perished in a freak eyeliner accident — but the incident stuck in my head because it reminds me that anyone will eat lousy pizza, if it's cheap enough and the pizza place delivers

Most people have never had great pizza. Most people like pizza that sucks. So I'm going to give you a brief guide to great pizza, what makes it great, and how to find it.

Typically when a foodie talks about pizza, they'll rant about Napoli, and how the pizza there is transcendent and delicate, "totally unlike anything you've had before." These are damnable lies. Pizza, as everyone intelligent knows, was invented in New York. Pizza in Napoli is a different thing entirely. Napoli is a fascinating city. It is crowded, filthy, beautiful, dangerous, and decadent. Apparently as some sort of apology for that whole Pompeii thing, the Gods have blessed Napoli with the best soil in the entire universe. The produce from the area around Napoli is better than anything you have ever tasted in your life, especially if you're used to anemic California vegetables.

In Napoli, you can go to the dingiest vegetable stall in the city, pick up a tomato, and eat it like an apple. They're that good.

So when people try to make Napoli-style pizza here, they usually fail. Because we're not in Napoli, and we don't have those damn tomatoes. So let's be clear: good pizza in the States is a different sort of thing.

There are two attributes that make up a good pizza: texture and taste. Here are two simple tests to help describe what they should be like:

Texture – You should be able to pick up a slice, folded, in one hand, without the entire thing breaking and pointing downwards. Only the first bite is allowed to droop.

Taste – truly great pizza doesn't need any toppings beyond cheese and sauce.

That second point is key. Take a moment the next time you're about to order a pizza. Ask yourself "How would I feel if instead of getting a pepperoni-mushroom pizza, I just got a plain cheese pizza?" If you feel excited, happy, or at least OK with the idea, you may be ordering from a good pizza place. If you feel vaguely disappointed and sad, you should hang up the phone and find a different place. You might think this is a matter of taste, but it actually isn't; your body has tiny structures called Langerhans cells that emit certain chemicals when they anticipate contact with bad pizza. By meditating on the primordial cheese pizza you are allowing your subconcious to open up to the messages these cells are sending. Listen to your subconcious. Stop eating bad pizza.

I'm not saying, by the way, that you should never eat pizza with things on it. I"m just saying that if a place doesn't make good cheese pizza, they don't make good pizza-with-other-stuff-on-it, either. Just make sure you don't put so many toppings on the pizza that you cause it to violate the texture rule. Pizza shouldn't be eaten with a fork. You have to be able to one-hand it.

My description of the proper texture, above, is intended to be a rule of thumb. There's a special case, however, that is worthy of attention. I call it the Detachable Cheese problem, and it's a guaranteed detector of bad pizza. Great pizza has the three elements (bread, cheese, and sauce) in perfect harmony. When cooked correctly it all merges, along with the toppings, and sticks together until you bite into it. Bad pizza has too much sauce and too much cheese. What happens to these pizzas is the sauce forms into a little lake, and the cheese seals it in. The overall effect is that the cheese is floating on the sauce like a duck on a pond, so you take one bite of the pizza and the entire inch-thick solid layer of cheese slides off the slice like a hockey puck. It's a true tragedy.

You can also divine a little bit about a place from their topping selection, although this is closer to phrenology, and not always reliable. My two guidelines that I feel comfortable sharing are: good pizza places have anchovies, and good pizza places don't use breakfast sausage on their sausage pizzas.

Pizza in Pittsburgh

Turning to our local market, we can apply these principles to find the best pizza in town. My personal favorite is Sorrento's on Atwood Street (currently in the process of a rename to "Pizza Roma Sorrento's", apparently — but it's the same owner). Sorrento's is the ideal pizza in nearly every way. The crust is thin. The bread tastes good. The sauce is yummy. They don't use too much cheese. It's inexpensive. You can one hand it. And their plain cheese pizza is great. They have a nice selection of toppings. Their sausage is especially interesting; they cut it like pepperoni instead of crumbling it chopped-meat style, and it's quite good. If you can only get pizza from one place in town, get it from Sorrento's.

Squirrel Hill has a few pizza places with cult followings, for reasons I've never been able to discern. Most people's favorite is Mineo's, which is more proof that people have no taste, because Mineo's is terrible. I've never had a pie from Mineo's that didn't suffer from the Detachable Cheese problem. If I'm in Squirrel Hill and need a slice, I'll usually go to Napoli's. They're not actually great, but they get the texture right, they're consistent and somewhat reliable, and I like their red sauce, which goes a long way.

If you're in the Strip district, stop by Piccolo Forno next to La Prima. This is the perfect compromise between "authentic Napoli pizza" and the New York style we know and love; ask for one with spicy green olives on it, and you're in heaven. Other people rave about Regina Margherita, but they suffer from the Not Actually In Napoli problem I outlined above. His technique may be flawless, but the end product just doesn't gel.

The Thing About The Vinnie Pie

The other local pizza tradition is to crow about Vincent's Pizza, home of the fabled "Vinnie Pie." This is a monstrosity born of hell. A Vinnie pie is approximately the size of a small fawn, and has the consistency of gloopy beef stew on the inside, but makes up for it by being nicely burnt on the outside. A typical Vinnie pie is a structural mess, with several cups of grease pooled in the middle, eating through the box and the table underneath. Vinnie himself is a local legend, 300 pounds of heart disease and moustache, giving rise to the claim that the pizza tastes better when Vinnie accidentally drops some cigar ashes into the pie.

Here's the thing about the Vinnie pie: it isn't good pizza. Here's the other thing about the Vinnie pie: it's actually a pretty good whatever-it-actually-is. So enjoy it without guilt. Just make sure you have your health insurance is paid up, and don't tell me it's the "best pizza in town."

Posted by peterb at September 14, 2006 07:49 AM | Bookmark This

Dude, you have no idea what is truly terrible pizza. Come down to Northern, VA. Been here 12 years and have yet to find anything decent.

Posted by Reb at September 14, 2006 10:36 AM

still no love for italian villiage! it is truly a 'special' establishment

Posted by noah at September 14, 2006 12:06 PM

I too am living in NoVA, there is no good pizza here, it's a constaint strain on my soul. The closest to 'good' is 'Three Amys' which isn't really 'good'.

It's sad... When can I go back to Pittsburgh? I'd like to try Sorrento and I have a hankering for MadMex again.

Posted by Chris at September 14, 2006 08:12 PM

funny thing.. i live in DC too - i'm from jersey originally though.

i don't even want good pizza, i just want real pizza that doesn't cost $20.

pizza in jersey wasn't great, but at least there was some shared understanding about how it should taste and how much it should cost.

you can get a decent pie from Vace on Connecticut, but you have convince them to put the cheese on top of the sauce instead of the other way around. god knows how they even do that. but other than that it's a cute little mom and pop deli with a large pie for like nine bucks.

they also sell dough and sauce to make your own and have great homemade sausages.

and f^ck Two Amys. they don't even cut it - those folks are clueless.

Posted by matt at September 15, 2006 10:41 AM

ah... the vinnie pie. a true Pittsburgh experience. And I can feel the arteries clogging just by reading about it...

Posted by kerriem3 at September 15, 2006 04:21 PM

Pizza _does_ come from Naples, even the oldest of the NY pie men would admit to that... The reinvented NY hybrid is what we all know and love... You mention all these gas-fired oven places in the burgh, but don't forget that the original NY Italian-American pizza makers used (and still do) coal fired ovens (Lombardi's, Grimaldi's and that pedigree), and that is something to taste. Btw, is a good place to explore some of the intricacies of the NY pizza legacy as well as delve further into the pizza obsession.

Sorrento's is one of the better Pittsburgh pizzerias, but it still can fall somewhat short in the crust. Their seemingly mysterious hours can be a bit annoying as well (closed the last Saturday I tried to go!). Any discussion of 'burgh pizza should at least mention somewhat newcomer Vesuvio, which, on a good day, makes a solid, run of the mill NY slice with crisp thin crust... I definitely agree with most of your sentiments regarding the other spots... And to the comment about Italian Village... They lost my love when they started cutting pies into more than 8 slices .. And the dough just doesn't cut it.. no essential crispness on the bottom.

Posted by adam at September 16, 2006 01:46 AM

There seriously IS a Pizza Problem which can mostly be felt in average sized cities to larger urban areas.

What I've come to realize is that immigrants come here to make a fortune (American Dream, eh) and an easy way is to open a Pizzeria. They don't really care about taste/quality/service/innovation, only profitability.

In my city they call themselves '2 For 1' Pizzerias. They've killed every single good independant Pizzeria I knew of. They even kicked out Pizza Hut for a while (almost 10 years).

They advertise as '2 for 1' but they're really just selling you two pizzas. If you order one, you'll pay less than if you buy 2.

Anyways chances are if you've tasted one '2 for 1' you've tasted them all. They're all made from the same low cost, cheapass ingredients. While they're not bad, they're also far from good.

I think the problem stems from the fact that Pizza is essentially a teenager/student type of food and most of the time that demographic is very short on cash. They want the most bang for their buck when they got the munchies. They *will* compromise Taste and Quality for Quantity.

So anyways. At least we still have 1 Domino`s and one Pizza Hut. Not that they're especially good. It's just that they taste DIFFERENT, damnit! Thinking of it I`ll probably order pizza tomorrow (and you can be sure it won't be of the '2 for 1' kind)

Posted by Benoit Tremblay at September 16, 2006 02:48 AM

I've never been to Italian Village, although I know people who like it.

I'll have to try Vesuvio.

I didn't mention the place in the South Hills that I've heard some people talk about, because, y'know. It's in the South Hills. Why would I want to go there? And psu says it's no good, anyway.

Posted by peterb at September 16, 2006 08:13 AM

We recently went back to Il Pizzaiolo ... I'm putting my snarky comment back into the restaurants page. The place has pretty good pasta, although the sauce is a bit bland. The pizza tries hard to be "authentic" pizza from somewhere. Unfortunately, they forgot to make it *good*.

Posted by psu_13 at September 16, 2006 08:56 AM

I have heard from people who went there over the weekend that Roberto's, aka Regina Margherita is closing. Roberto is moving to NJ.

Posted by psu at September 18, 2006 08:03 PM

Check out for Alton Brown's red sauce and pizza dough recipes, along with his pizza preparation suggestions (blend of three cheeses etc.). Hands down the best pizza I've ever had. As long as you have the equipment and time, you'll never order pizza again -- I haven't.

Posted by Dynamo! at September 18, 2006 09:44 PM

I can't believe that anybody would consider NY pizza what makes pizza great. If you can't have Napoli, don't go for the cheap imitators. Go for the innovators, and get a pizza in Chicago.

Now, that's what I call pizza!

And no, lame Californian imitators (like BJ's) do not make Chicago pizza.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at September 19, 2006 05:56 PM

I'm by the way highly amused by the fact that Google thinks an ad for Domino's would be right for this article ;)

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at September 20, 2006 01:01 PM

It would probably be unethical for me to point out that when you click on that, a certain pizza-selling company that funds antiabortion groups ends up spending money.

Posted by peterb at September 20, 2006 01:48 PM

I should retract part of my 'there is no good pizza in NoVA' commentary. There is ONE good place, I'd send a link but google thinks I'm in Montreal for some odd-ball reason... It's in Ashburn/Sterling (assburn Reb calls it...), they make a good pizza, NOT NYC style though, which is unfortunate.

Posted by Chris at September 20, 2006 09:38 PM

The best pizza I have ever had, Pittsburgh or otherwise, was the Southwestern (without chicken) at the Church Brew works. The other pizzas there are okay but the southwestern is amazing. It's the only pizza that I can just keep eating. I've found myself finishing a whole pizza by myself on more than one occasion. Regina Margherita and Sorrento's are not bad. but there is just something about that southwestern pizza that keeps drawing me back.

I never understood NY style pizza. maybe I just tried all the wrong places during the three months I was in Westchester. never had real Napoli pizza either.

I miss the church. it had character, good pizza, and decent chocolate cake.

Posted by Rajesh at September 27, 2006 11:08 AM

I wasn't in Napoli, but I had a pie in Milan on Sunday. Pancetta might be the best pizza topping I've ever experienced.

Posted by Mark Denovich at September 27, 2006 01:33 PM

Sunset Pizza & Grille, 38 E. Main in Carnegie opened a few months ago... Pizza is really good (the dough/sauce are both homemade) and if you want something different, the grilled kebobs are highly recommended (very tasty).

Posted by Denise at October 27, 2006 07:19 PM

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