Traditional American Pizza Styles: States of Play
Explaining what an American style pizza is to anyone is like showing them a what an American looks like. The breadth and depth of diversity of pizzas in this country is peppered with differing dough making, toppings and cooking methods. Unlike some other countries, pizzas in the U.S. are not regionally bound to mimic centuries of pizza making in that range or region. To find the spine of pizza making in the United States, we must look to our culinary past, which relies upon the tools and techniques of Europe but then accommodates the wide and productive American landscape and the diverse culinary desires and tastes of this diverse populace.
“At its core, American pizza is one that favors the present over the past and it follows customers, not custom. It’s not even a style, it’s a refusal to adhere to one specific style because it’s always evolving.”
— Scott Wiener, Founder, Scotts Pizza Tours, and Slice Out Hunger
Phat of the Land
The United States has always been known as the “land of milk and honey.” Our shared history of domination, immigration and integration has always relied upon the commoditization of foods. The first pilgrims tilled the fertile soils producing plenty of traditional foodstuffs but did not mimic the native American use of the ebb and flow of the seasons and use of wild foods. The coastal tribes’ practice of putting up food stores of corn and smoked fish and meat for the winter sustained them but the pilgrims’ disdain for native practices lead to starvation in the first years. In fact, at Plymouth alone, half of the pilgrims were dead before the first winter was over.
Stat-chew of Liberty
The first fact to know about American cuisine is that compared to European countries, we are culinarily, very young. Mass starvation and poverty through wars and upheaval in Europe has necessitated specific techniques, methods and creative twists in food. This innovation seems to be missing in historic American cooking practices. Our largesse of meat, fish and vegetables mirrored the huge fertile landscape of this country. This is reflected in the number of toppings on an American pizza. More cheese, meat and dough tend to satisfy U.S. customers. The arrival of soldiers who served in Italy in the 40s brought a new craving for Italian food and started the ball rolling for the different styling of American Pizza. The past 20 years have seen many chefs practicing traditional European pizza making in the United States and have upped American culinary mojo with pizza schools, demonstrations, media and social media putting this finesse on the fast track. This has also led to more innovative sauces, meats, cheeses and grains.
There are many factors that have influenced American style pizzas. Corporations, regions, cheese, flour and meat companies, supply and even individual pizza chefs have had a hand in making some traditional American pizzas popular. Here are some variations of American pizzas that you may, or may not, not be familiar with. I’ve kept individual names out to protect the innocent.
New England Beach Pizza
This Pizza made only in Southern New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts is both simple and different. The crust is wafer thin, cooked on seasoned sheet pans and you can get a single slice or a box of 8 or 20 squares. Other toppings are available to pair with a very sweet sauce and just a smattering of aged provolone. Two pizza places dominate this market and are rivals which is why I will not disclose their names.
This cracker thin pizza originated at the Caradaro Club and has evolved into several micro-styles depending upon the place you go to. It is sheeted round or oblong, some with a cornmeal dusting and each tavern-style cut is crunchy like crazy. Some pizzas are as thin as two credit cards. In some places, this crisp thinness is achieved by par-baking the crust in deck ovens then turning it over before saucing and cheesing, others go straight on the deck. The sauce is simple, sweet, and placed as just a thin layer of whole milk mozzarella.
This Mississippi River Valley style is prepared in Davenport and Bettendorf Iowa, Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline Illinois. This pizza is made with malt and hand-stretched to a thin crust with a slight cornicione, or crust. Chili flakes and ground cayenne makes the thin tomato sauce zing with spice. It is usually loaded with fennel sausage. Pizzas are available in 16-inch and 10-inch styles and cut into strips as opposed to slices or squares.
This rectangular pizza baked in a seasoned blue steel pan that was initially said to be used in the automobile business for draining oil or catching grease. This focaccia-like pizza with small cell structure is usually par-baked with Wisconsin brick cheese baked in a “Frico” or bark around the side. Cheese and toppings lie under the sauce which is put on after the final bake. Many different variations now dominate the market.
These small 8-inch round pizzas have a braided crust with added honey in the dough. A major heaping of whole milk mozzarella tops the extra-sweet sauce, and the braided crust ensures that the boatload of toppings doesn’t fall off. Colorado style has been described as like Chicago deep dish but sweeter with a cooking time that is shorter. This pizza is sold by the pound and is accompanied by more honey.
This pizza tends to lack a particular crust, size, style or even bake. The similarities of this pizza lie in the dissimilar nature of them. They all tend to lean on seasonality, international flavor profiles, freshness and artisanal ingredients that Spago, Gjelina, Hail Mary, Tony’s, Tandoori, Mozza, Pot Pizza, California Pizza Kitchen all have made available to Californians.
Originally made at the Altoona Hotel before it was burnt down in 2013. Other pizza shops have taken up the mantle. This is usually a square-cut, sheet pan baked, thick Sicilian style crust with a soft feel. It was originally topped with Velveeta over deli salami and green peppers but now most places place the salami and pepper slice under processed American cheese. Other toppings can be added.
Ohio Valley Pizza
This pizza is made in the northeastern Ohio Valley around Steubenville, Ohio and Wheeling West Virginia. It is best described as a square pie with a bready crust, sweet sauce baked at 550 F and garnished with sauce made of green bell peppers, oregano and olive oil. This pizza is par-baked and taken out before topping with more sauce and a small amount of cheese. After the final baking, the pizza is topped with shredded provolone cheese and cold toppings and cut into squares.
Philly Tomato Pie
This square pizza is usually compared to the Sicilian Sfincione because of its thick, focaccia-like crust. It is also called a “Bakery Pizza” in nearby Rhode Island. Most of this style has just a smattering of Romano after the bake. The thick sauce is just as high as the crust and is cooked for over 40 minutes with sugar, oregano, garlic salt and olive oil.
Midwest Pizza Dough Recipe
Here is a dough recipe which, to me best reflects the middle ground in middle America. I’ve left this recipe at 66% hydration. Strong enough to hold sauce, cheese and toppings and flavorful enough after proofing to enable a digestible crust. Mixing it with cold water (and using less yeast) followed by cold fermentation slows the yeast activity down, giving the starches in the flour time to convert to simple sugars releasing fantastic flavors. This recipe is designed to be used within 6 hours if using warmer water, and up to 3 days using the cold holding method.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.