Hairy Styles: Classifying Pizza Styles
If you feel like you’ve been experiencing Regional Pizza Style Fatigue lately, you’re not alone. Not long ago, the vast majority of Americans categorized all pizza into just a few broad categories: New York Style, Chicago Style and Other. Thanks to the Food Network, social media and various pizza competitions, we’ve been exposed to a wide array of global variations. Some are legitimate regional specialties while others are mere mirages used for marketing. How do we tell the difference and when is it important to ignore such classification? Let’s find out by diving into the history of regional style nomenclature.
What defines a food as regional in the first place?
The original pizza of Naples was itself a regional distinction. Well into the 17th century, the term pizza was used to describe cookies and cakes. The famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1570 recipe collection, Opera, includes several recipes for biscuits and cinnamon buns that he portrays as different types of pizza. When the savory pizzas we now love appeared in Naples around the mid-18th century, the modifier Napoletana specified the dish based on its point of origin. Geography is certainly the most important element of a regional style’s definition.
There are strong parallels between pizza and BBQ, particularly in the case of provenance. BBQ expert and New York Times best-selling author Meathead Goldwyn explains that “South Carolina [currently] has many different styles of BBQ but the one that’s unique has a mustard-based sauce. Germans brought that in through Charleston.” In the same way, Texas style BBQ is often beef-focused because cattle were more common than pigs by the time the regional designation was made. The connection between place and food is integral to the legitimacy of a regional style.
Differentiation is another important step in determining a regional style’s definition.
Karen Dybis, author of Detroit Style Pizza: A Doughtown History, relied on that concept for clarity in her research for the book. “Detroit style pizza is not round, isn’t baked in a standard pan, does not only use mozzarella, and the sauce is not below the cheese.” The fact that Detroit’s deep square pizza isn’t identical to any other city’s indigenous style is what defines its identity.
This explains why Chicago’s deep-dish pizza has long defined its hometown despite being far less popular locally than thin, square-cut pizzas. By the early 1980s, it was seen as the antithesis of New York City’s thin slices. Chicago Pizza Tours founder Jon Porter points out the contrast between the Chicago deep-dish and NYC slice dining experience. “There weren’t many places that did [deep-dish] pizza. You had to go downtown, find a parking spot, and wait 40 minutes for your pizza. It was a special occasion restaurant, unlike the everyday corner slice shop experience in New York.”
Although the distinct characteristics that form a regional style are integral to its definition, the public is more concerned with what’s on the plate rather than a set of required recipes. According to Italian food expert, award-winning author, and TV host Katie Parla points out that Romans accept variation among their city’s Pizza Tonda restaurants. “They’re not all adhering to a specific [recipe], but the final product has the crispy and chewy texture that the local population requires.” We see plenty of variation in the pizza of Naples, but they all serve a similar size, texture and experience. The same goes for the pizza of New Haven, Connecticut. The city’s pizza is often associated with coal-fired brick ovens, but only a small number of its
pizzerias use them.
New Haven pizza expert, and author of Pizza In New Haven, Colin Caplan credits longevity for his hometown’s signature style. “Pizzerias in the New Haven area have been making it the same way for around a century. Our pizzas are thin, crispy, and charred – that’s what the people of New Haven have come to expect,” says Caplan. “I get [upset] when the pizza’s not charred.” Charred pizza isn’t unique to New Haven, but it has become an expectation across the past century.
What legitimizes a regional pizza style?
A legitimate regional style requires critical mass both in terms of the number of pizzerias serving it and the number of consumers recognizing it. A new pizzeria in Tuscaloosa that claims to have created Tuscaloosa style pizza last year is not making a legitimate regional style. Nor is a pizza that bases its identity on a topping combination. For instance, Hawaiian pizza has never claimed to be a style of pizza from Hawaii. It’s merely a topping combination loosely referential to the island state. Windsor, Ontario has several pizzerias that claim to make Windsor style pizza, but the only common thread among them is the use of shredded pepperoni, canned mushrooms and a local mozzarella. That’s a topping combination, not a regional style. We tend to identify artisan pizzas made with local produce as California style, but pizzerias across the country have managed to do the same without being anywhere close to the Golden State.
This begs the question: at what point does one pizzeria’s specialty transform into a regional style? Dybis thinks it’s all due to recognition from beyond the region. Despite being around since the 1940s, Detroiters didn’t recognize their own deep, square pizzas as a regional style until just over a decade ago. Some of the earliest
instances of the phrase “Detroit Style pizza” come from articles written in the 1980s in places like Lincoln, Nebraska, reporting on the new pizzeria in town that’s making “unique thick square pizza with the sauce on top.” Once enough pizzerias started serving the thick squares in Colorado, California, Texas and New York City it suddenly became a recognized regional style.
Pizzerias today often desire to be associated with a particular style. It definitely makes marketing easier, especially when a style is different from the mainstream options. Pizza schools and certification courses are making it easier than ever to gain credibility and acceptance. There are programs for Neapolitan, Roman, New York, New Haven and even Detroit style. For pizza makers interested in learning new methods or newcomers looking for a place to start, categorization can be extremely helpful.
With all the content bouncing around social media, it’s now easier than ever to draw inspiration from multiple styles, resulting in cross-pollination that blurs the lines separating regional classifications. Meathead Goldwyn believes that strict taxonomy is becoming less advantageous. “I think those walls have tumbled down. There used to be regional styles, but we’re in a global economy now.”
Humans love to categorize. It gives us a sense of order that helps establish expectations. As helpful as it can be for those entering the pizza business or customers encountering an unfamiliar slice, it can get in the way of creativity. Meathead puts it best. “I think we really need to worry less about these definitions and just make beautiful food.”
Regional Pizza Style Requirements:
- Origin: All regional pizza styles are tied to a specific birthplace.
- Differentiation: Must be unlike other styles in the area and unique from styles in other areas.
- Longevity: Requires decades of existence.
- Critical Mass: Both in terms of the number of pizzerias making the style and the population’s acceptance.
- Recognition: The strongest regional styles are referenced from beyond the region.