The Many Faces of American Pizza

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.

While Italians may rightfully claim to bethe originators of the dish that we havecome to know as pizza, there can be littledoubt that the United States has developedthe most diverse expressions ofthis culinary mainstay. This is a resultof many factors, including cross-culturalinfluences, creativity, and the vast arrayof ingredients and equipment availableto ambitious America-based pizza chefs.Unlike classic French cuisine, the rusticItalian cooking arts that inspired Americanpizza are highly regionalized andresistant to rigid structure and rules. Studentsof the pizza making craft have feltfree to experiment and innovate so thatin the United States we now have dozensof identifiable pizza making styles oftencoexisting side by side.

Because my restaurants are located inLas Vegas, which has residents and visitorsfrom all over the world, we featureseveral different types of pizza that arerepresentative of diverse techniques andpreferences. The ability of pizza to absorband adapt to social, cultural and historicalinfluences has allowed it to thrive inchanging marketplaces and find a placeon menus throughout the world.

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Some chefs would claim that there areas many pizza styles as there are peoplewho make them. However, in the UnitedStates, the dominant popular forms canbe identified by some basic key elements,including dough type, stretching andshaping method, sauce and spice profile,cooking methods and topping variations.In the past, most of the variations could befound only in their places of origin; however,in the modern era, each of the styleshas adherents throughout the country.

New York Style (modern) featuresa classic thin crust. New York-style pizzaremains the most popular form in thecountry. The basic dough uses high-glutenbromated flour,
milled from wheatprimarily grown in North Dakota andMinnesota. Fresh yeast is used, and longfermentation times are employed to createflavor and texture. Olive oil is addedfor enhanced flavor and to prevent thesauce from penetrating the dough. Thispizza is always hand-stretched to order,with a minimum size of 16” in diameterand a pronounced rim. The smooth, thintomato sauce is made from sweet, vineripenedCalifornia tomatoes and can beseasoned with oregano and occasionallythyme. High-butterfat, low-moistureshredded mozzarella cheese from Wisconsinis preferred, and an additionallight sprinkle of imported Romanocheese may be added after the pizza isbaked. Typically, this pizza will be cookeddirectly on the stones of a gas-fired oven,with many pizza makers claiming thatolder stones are superior.

New Haven Style is loosely based onthe pizza of Naples. Local residents usea dialect-based pronunciation, alwaysreferring to this type as “ah-beetz.” Thedough recipe for this pizza uses medium-proteinall-purpose flour and a high percentageof water. This formulation resultsin loose dough that is hand-stretched ona marble table. The dough is usually toosoft to pick up and is simply flipped ontothe pizza paddle before being slid into acoal-fired oven, which produces a crispyyet tender crust. Typically, these pizzasare irregular in shape and distinctivelycharred. The sauce is similar to the NewYork style but may include fresh garlic.Cheese can be a combination of low-moisturemozzarella and New Englandcheddar; however, these pizzas tend touse light amounts of cheese. New Havenis famous for the clam pizza, whichuses only olive oil, garlic, fresh clams andoregano without any form of cheese.

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Mountain or Western Style hasbeen influenced by the climate and activelifestyle of its residents. Dough isformed using warm water and fast-actingyeast. Often, whey or milk will be addedfor mildly sweet dough, or recipes willinclude sourdough starter. Crust is mediumto thick, with a pronounced rollededge. Pizza is topped with a relativelylight amount of thick, tangy sauce thatis seasoned with oregano, thyme, drybasil, marjoram and granulated garlic.Pizzas are covered with large amounts ofpart-skim California mozzarella cheese,sometimes mixed with yellow cheddar.Pepperoni is the most common topping,but more exotic local ingredients may beadded, such as ground American bisonmeat. Pizzas are baked on wire racks inconveyor ovens and are usually cookedlightly with no distinct charring or blistering.In colder climates, this pizza willbe served with a side order of honey fordipping the remaining crust at the completionof the meal.

Southern New Jersey-Style TomatoPie, on the surface, appears similarto the New York style; however, thereare several distinct differences. Typically,dough formulation will not include oliveoil. While the hand-stretching method isdone as in the New York style, this pizzais topped with locally produced shreddedmozzarella before the sauce is applied.Sauce is smooth but thicker than NewYork-style sauce and is splashed on thepizza randomly, with Romano or domesticParmesan cheese added on top. The“cheese first” method produces a crispiercrust with creamier melted cheese. Traditionaltoppings are anchovies, or slicedsausage that is precooked and then distributedon the pizza before baking.

Chicago-Style Thin Crust is sometimesreferred to as “tavern pizza.” Doughis made from all-purpose flour, and containslow water content and a high percentageof vegetable oil. Fast-acting dryyeast is preferred with short fermentationtimes. Dough is never hand-stretched, butis instead rolled out in advance using arolling pin or a mechanical dough sheeterin high-volume restaurants. This methodproduces a flat, tight crust with no raisededges. Pizzas are topped with a tangy,thick tomato paste that has been heavilyseasoned with oregano and granulatedgarlic. All toppings are placed under theshredded mozzarella cheese. Raw sausagethat has been removed from the casingis the most common topping. Pizzas arebaked in a rotating or carousel deck ovenat relatively low temperatures. This methodproduces a crackerlike crust. Pizza iscut in small squares before serving.

Recipe: How to make John Arena's focaccia

Chicago-Style Deep Dish is oftenconsidered a Chicago creation, but it’sactually a variation of the savory holidaypies first introduced to Southern Italy byAlbanian refugees in the 15th century.The rich biscuitlike texture of the crustis achieved by using winter wheat flourfrom the Midwestern United States mixedwith a high percentage of shorteningand sometimes aided by the inclusion ofcornmeal or semolina. A small amount ofbeer may be included in the mix to createmore complex flavors and aroma. Doughis pressed into heavy, high-sided, blacksteel pans that have been coated with oil,shortening or butter. This pizza gives theappearance of having a thick crust becausethe dough has been shaped up theside of the pan; however, it should not beconfused with thick-crust pizza. Dough isallowed to rest in the pan for 15 minutesor more and then is filled with layers ofmozzarella, toppings, and a covering ofsmooth or crushed tomato sauce that isseasoned with oregano and domestic Parmesanand sprinkled with olive oil. Themost common toppings include fennel-flavored sausage, pepperoni and cookedspinach that has been seasoned with nutmeg.Pizzas are baked in deck or carouselovens at 425° for up to 45 minutes.

Philadelphia-Style Tomato Pie issimilar in name to the New Jersey pizza,but this type is actually quite different.Dough is made from all-purpose flour,allowed to ferment, and then stretchedand placed in a square black steel panthat is coated with olive oil, or baked directlyon the stones of an oil-fired oven.A light sprinkle of shredded mozzarellais generously covered by a chunky slow-simmeredtomato sauce that containsyellow onion, fresh garlic and a largeamount of extra-virgin olive oil. Thepizza is topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano before baking.

California Style (modern) was developedin the 1980s, though there has beenpizza in California since the first Italian immigrantsarrived in the 19th century. In thelast 25 years, the infl uence and innovationof California-based chefs have revolutionizedAmerican cooking trends. Organic,locally grown ingredients combined withthe fusion of Asian and classic Europeantechniques have inspired a new “GoldenAge” in pizza baking. Typical dough formulaswill use organic unbleached breadflour, often combined with honey or sugarto produce a chewy, pliable crust. Pizzasare hand-stretched with a pronounced rimand do not exceed 12” in diameter. Woodfired ovens, often using aromatic woodssuch as mesquite or hickory, are preferred,but gas-fired open-flame brick ovens willbe used when local ordinances prohibit theburning of wood. Toppings are selected inaccordance with seasonal availability. NoticeableAsian influence can be seen in theuse of fresh lightly cooked vegetables thatretain beautiful color and texture. Greatemphasis is placed on the balance of fl avorsand texture. A wide variety of locallyproduced artisan cheeses are employed incombination, including cow, sheep andgoat milk cheeses.

And then you have the two most recentlyresurrected forms:

“Authentic” Neapolitan Style isgaining in popularity but is not withoutcontroversy.
Some pizza makers viewthe rules and criteria established by self-appointedorganizations to be confiningand created more with the intent of sellingItalian products and equipment than withproducing the best-quality pizzas. On theother hand, a properly made Neapolitan
style pizza is truly delicious and an exercisein culinary simplicity and restraint.Dough consists of Italian “00” flourcombined with only water, sea salt andfresh yeast; no other ingredients are allowed.Gentle mixing is followed by varyinglengths of fermentation, with longertimes currently in favor. Dough is carefullyhand-stretched to no more than 12” indiameter with a pronounced cornicione,or edge, that becomes well-blistered whenbaked. Tomato sauce is thin and consistsonly of vine-ripened San Marzanotomatoes from Campania that have beenpassed through a food mill. Cheese mustbe fresh sliced mozzarella from the areasurrounding Naples but can be made fromeither cow or water buffalo curd. Freshbasil is applied either under the cheeseor after the pizza has baked. Pizza may befinished with a light sprinkle of sea salt,Parmigiano-Reggiano and olive oil. Thepizza must be baked in a wood-fired ovenusing nonaromatic wood. The oven mustbe manufactured in Italy or assembled byItalian artisans from Italian materials. Inthe past, this pizza was limited to four varieties,but in modern times seasonal andregional toppings are common, and it isnot unusual for an Italian pizza maker tohave as many as 200 different combinationsin his repertoire.

“Old New York” Coal Oven-StylePizza (pictured right) has recently beenrecognized as an emerging trend in theUnited States. It is often marketed asthe original style of Italian-Americanpizza, although this claim is highly debatable.Origins aside, this method cancertainly produce unique and deliciouspizzas. Dough is made from Americanhigh-gluten flour, water, salt and freshyeast. Early Italian immigrants to theUnited States were amazed at the varietyof flours available and developed recipesto take advantage of this abundance. Pizzasare thin and hand-stretched, witha small raised edge that becomes verycharred and blistered from the intenseheat of the oven. Sauce is made fromcrushed San Marzano tomatoes, andeach pizza is individually seasoned withoregano and Romano cheese. Pizzasare topped with thin slices of cow-milkmozzarella from New York State that isspecially formulated with slightly lowermoisture content than traditional buffalomozzarella or fi or di latte. Raw vegetablesare never placed on these pizzas;instead, most toppings are preroasted inthe coal ovens before being added. Hand-slicedpepperoni with a high fat contentis prized for its tendency to char, cup andrelease flavorful oils on the pizza. Thebaking time for coal-fired pizza can be asshort as 90 to 120 seconds. Unlike modernNew York pizza, this type is rarelysold by the slice, and the pizzas never exceed18” in diameter.

By becoming familiar with all of theexisting types, you can add your ownexperiences and originality, transcendingthe current forms and adding to thelarger body of pizza knowledge for thenext generation of pizza makers andpizza eaters.

John Arena is a third-generationpizza maker with morethan 40 years of experience.He is the co-founder of MetroPizza in Las Vegas and teachesthe first U.S. university-levelpizza course, History and Culture of Pizza, for theUniversity of Nevada School of Hospitality. His restaurantshave been awarded dozens of local andnational awards, and he has made pizzas for threeU.S. presidents.