Pizza in America: From cheap commodity to chefs’ obsession


HomeHome / Blog / Pizza in America: From cheap commodity to chefs’ obsession

Jun 24, 2024

Pizza in America: From cheap commodity to chefs’ obsession

During high school, Tony Conte worked at a pizzeria beloved by locals in Hamden, Conn., where the owner was wholly dedicated to the craft of pie-making, at least by the standards of late-1980s

During high school, Tony Conte worked at a pizzeria beloved by locals in Hamden, Conn., where the owner was wholly dedicated to the craft of pie-making, at least by the standards of late-1980s America. Regardless, Conte’s stint as a teenage cook at DiMatteo’s didn’t inspire him to follow in the footsteps of countless Italian Americans and open his own pizzeria. He figured he’d been there, done that. Nothing more to learn here.

For a cook with any ambition in the 1980s and 1990s, the goal was not to open a pizza shop, but to land a job in New York or some other metropolis, maybe at one of the marquee restaurants that let its French flag fly. True to form, once he graduated from culinary school, Conte made his mark at fine-dining establishments, including Jean-Georges in New York City and the Oval Room in Washington, where he racked up the stars.

But Conte abruptly reversed course in the mid-2010s. His career change came not long after a few conversations with Edan MacQuaid, a pizzaiolo who was consulting at a sister restaurant to the Oval Room. Conte had already started playing with a pasta extruder, which got him reminiscing about his childhood and his father and grandparents, who had emigrated from Pontelatone, just north of Naples, the universally recognized home of pizza.

The best pizza in America, region by region

Conte was hungry to learn more from MacQuaid, who was an ideal teacher. MacQuaid learned how to work a wood-burning oven at Pizzeria Paradiso, a shop off Washington’s Dupont Circle, where in 1991 Ruth Gresser took the cooking techniques and ideas that she had absorbed from the legendary educator Madeleine Kamman and applied them to pizza. In his talks with Conte, MacQuaid laid out all the difficult-to-master processes for an artisanal pie — the time, the temperature, the flour, the hydration, the fermentation, everything — to a well-decorated chef who thought he knew something about pizza.

The more MacQuaid told him, the more Conte wanted to know.

“Then he goes, ‘It sounds like you’re trying to open a pizza place,’” Conte recalls about his exchanges with MacQuaid. “I’m like, ‘I guess that’s probably it.’”

Conte’s Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Md., is the kind of place where, after one bite of the chef’s puffy and perfectly charred pies, you immediately grasp that pizza can be an expression of the chef’s art, as much as any entree on white china with tweezer-applied garnishes. Inferno is one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of craft pizzerias that have helped reform America’s reputation. Just a few short decades ago, pizza in the United States was more or less an institutional product, especially in those parts of the country without access to a shop run by third-generation Italian Americans. For much of America, pizza was a commodity, perhaps made with industrial flour, generic canned tomatoes, factory-made mozzarella and the same eight toppings found everywhere, all baked by a teenager worried about Monday’s exam.

How America, and its cooks and chefs, became obsessed with artisan pizza is a complicated tale, one involving the rise of the internet, food television and social media. But the odds are good that the trendy pizzeria in your neighborhood also owes a debt of gratitude, directly or indirectly, to a small handful of artisans who rethought pizza in this country. Call it Six Degrees of Chris Bianco. Or Anthony Mangieri. Or Peter Pastan. Or Ruth Gresser. Or Peppe Miele, the Naples native who served the first certified Neapolitan pizza in America — in 1992 at Antica Pizzeria in Los Angeles.

Bianco, the 61-year-old founder of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Los Angeles, doesn’t think of himself as the godfather of craft pizza in the United States, even if he first started selling pies in 1988 in the back of a specialty grocery store. That’s just not how his brain works underneath that shock of gravity-defying gray hair: Bianco sees himself as part of a long continuum of pizza-makers in America, beginning in the late 1800s with Italian immigrants who brought their cooking traditions with them.

Does Chicago pizza mean deep dish? Depends who you ask.

Those immigrants didn’t always have access to the freshest ingredients, Bianco notes, or maybe they imported many of the necessary products from the mother country. By the time chains and food manufacturers entered the pizza-making business in the 1950s and 1960s, the quality had diminished to commodity-product levels. Many Americans ate mass-produced frozen pizza baked in home ovens, or they waited for pies to be delivered straight to the doorsteps, no questions asked.

Bianco didn’t necessarily rethink pizza by returning to old Neapolitan traditions. He turned instead to sources such as Gourmet magazine, Alice Waters and Jonathan Waxman at Chez Panisse, even Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel. They were all singing the same tune: local ingredients, seasonal ingredients, classical techniques. Bianco incorporated these ideas into his pizza. He not only hunted for the finest flours — like the stone-milled varieties from Cairnspring Mill in Washington state or Central Milling in Utah — but he started his own line of organic plum tomatoes, Bianco DiNapoli, grown in Northern California.

“I guess I was blessed to be conscious and look around and notice that there were people making change and making better food,” said Bianco, a Bronx native who moved to Phoenix in the mid-1980s. “I was lucky enough to have a little bit of a skill set.”

As Bianco reminded me, his philosophy has always been to “buy good things grown in good Earth from good people.” It’s a philosophy not foreign to high-end chefs or even to Italian home cooks, but for pizzamakers in America in the late 20th century? It was a seismic shift, and the James Beard Foundation took early notice: Bianco won a Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2003, the first pizzaiolo to take home a regional chef medal.

When Bianco won the award, “it was a moment that people were like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” said Ed Levine, the founder of Serious Eats, who wrote the book, “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.”

It wasn’t, however, much of a shock to Levine. “Chris has always been obsessed,” he said. “If you visit Chris, or at least when I did, he wanted to take me to meet all the farmers that he worked with, or farmers would drop stuff off at the pizzeria’s back door.”

The pioneers of this pizzamaking era had both advantages and disadvantages, which can only be understood from the vantage point of 2023. Gresser and Mangieri, the founder and pizzaiolo at Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan, say their pizza education may have started with travel to Italy, but it included trips to the library, too, to seek out books and magazines. The internet, with its easy access to how-to videos, was not yet available to help with their mission.

The goal was to find a book, Mangieri says, that had “an inkling of information that you could pull from and fill in the blanks yourself — and hope for the best.”

If Bianco, Gresser, Mangieri and others didn’t have the internet to build their base of pizza knowledge, they eventually had it to build their reputations. Contrast this, Mangieri says, to Ed LaDou, the original pizzamaker at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles, or Michele Perrella, the pizzaiolo at the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who both pushed pizza forward in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither man had listicles, Instagram and TikTok influencers to help turn them into stars.

Food television, social media and the internet were able to fetishize chefs’ pizza obsessions in a way that spoke to a new generation of cooks who might have never considered a life slinging pies, Mangieri says. “They are drawn to the excitement of the pizza business,” he said. “It seems from the outside like something that’s got a lot of potential: It’s exciting and sexy. You’re working with fire.”

The influence these trailblazers had on a younger generation was not always filtered through a third-party medium. Michael Friedman, the proprietor and chef behind All-Purpose Pizzeria in Washington, remembers when he and business partner Michael O’Malley were sitting at the bar after service at their first restaurant, the Red Hen. They were reminiscing about their days working at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda, Md. On their nights off, they would find themselves at 2Amys, chef Peter Pastan’s temple to Neapolitan pizza in the District, just two more industry worker bees who buzzed around the pizzeria.

In a fit of inspiration, Friedman turned to O’Malley and said, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we did pizza?’” the chef recalled. “A lightbulb went off. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to do pizza!’”

It would take nearly two years for Friedman and O’Malley to open their first All-Purpose. Time was needed for the partners to develop a concept, separate from those who had shown chefs and restaurateurs a path forward in the pizza world. Friedman wanted to open a shop that paid tribute to his upbringing in New Jersey and New York.

“I was interested in bringing back the food of my youth — the restaurants and pizzerias and trattorias of my youth — and trying out deck-oven pizza,” Friedman said. His would not be a replica of New York deck-oven pizza, but more of a cheffed-up interpretation of the thin-style pies that, unlike Neapolitan rounds, are made from a dough that incorporates both a fat and a sweetener. Friedman’s pizza starts with a cold-fermented dough built with ultrafine 00 flour — the kind used for Neapolitan pies — as well as whole-wheat flour, extra-virgin olive oil and diastatic malt powder.

“Pizza and bread baking were never something that I thought I would really delve into, and it was a deep dive for me,” Friedman said. “All of a sudden, you had a completely different craft that people started playing with. People started fermenting differently, and people started sourcing better. And that’s really what the Neapolitan movement did” in America.

The beauty of these pizza trendsetters is that they were not proselytizers. Some may have been following the rules of Neapolitan pizza-making (as Pastan was at 2Amys for years) or they may have subscribed to the local-seasonal tenets of fine-dining chefs and educators. But they were not dogmatic. They were open to influence.

“For me, I see this as discovery,” Bianco said about pizza-making. “The minute I tell people about what they need to do, that’s not my place.”

Robbie Tutlewski, the chef and co-owner of Little Donna’s in Baltimore, ran the kitchens for Bianco’s group of restaurants for years. His title was director of operations, Tutlewski says, but Bianco simply referred to him as “Robbie the rock.” A cooking school graduate from the Midwest, Tutlewski had little experience with Bianco’s Neapolitan-inspired pizza. He had grown up with tavern pizza, a thin-and-crispy flatbread that’s often cut into squares, in and around Gary, Ind.

One of the truths that Tutlewski absorbed at Pizzeria Bianco was that no two pies were ever alike. This truth reflected the many variables, both human and environmental, that could affect a pizza’s final flavor, texture and appearance. But it reflected the creator of the pizza, too. Talk to anyone about Bianco, and they’ll tell you how unique he is.

“When I met him, he was the first chef that made feel like myself, like I could be myself in this industry,” Tutlewski said. “He didn’t teach you to be an individual, but the guy himself was such an individual.”

When Tutlewski and his wife, Kaleigh Schwalbe, opened Little Donna’s in the former Henninger’s Tavern, they followed Bianco’s lead. Their place would be personal, channeling both Tutlewski’s Eastern European heritage and his youth gobbling up tavern pies. The chef’s version of tavern pizza is individual, too. It ditches the pie-like crust that Tutlewski remembers in favor of a crispy base built with three flours and baker’s yeast, the kind of leavening agent preferred by his mentor.

“It was too much of a gift to work with him to not do something” with pizza, Tutlewski said about Bianco.

Some will tell you — Pastan in particular — that chefs have flocked to pizza in recent years mostly because it’s just easier than working in fine-dining — and probably more profitable. I floated this theory by several other pioneers in the field. They all disagreed.

“It is absolutely not easier. It’s different,” said Gresser who had worked at white-tablecloth restaurants early in her career. It took Gresser more time than she cares to admit to master her craft, and it continues to evolve.

“I would put up our pizzas today against the ones that came out of the oven on the day we opened, and the ones today would win,” she said.

Mangieri says that, yes, from the outside, running a pizzeria can seem easier to chefs, just as making ice cream might seem easier to him after a long day at a 900-degree wood-burning oven. But, Mangieri said, “whether it’s making pizza or baking bread or making great ice cream. . . once you make the commitment to be into it and start to do that deep dive, you realize everything is the same. It’s all a nightmare.”

These preconceived notions about making pizza have a downside, too, Mangieri says. Young chefs — fresh from culinary school and full of themselves — don’t always understand the devotion required to feed America exceptional pizza, day in and day out.

“I am in front of the oven and I have made every dough ball for 30 years in our restaurant,” said Mangieri. “There is nothing sexy or cool about that when you’re working to the point that you can’t see straight and your brain hurts and your face hurts.”

Pizza regions: The best pizza in America, region by region

Dishing on styles: Brooklyn’s best slice shops | Chicago’s deep dish debate | How pizza went fancy | America’s lesser-known pizzas |Greatest pizza show on earth

D.C.-area pizza reviews: Pizza Serata | Boogy and Peel | Martha Dear | Dumm’s Pizza and Subs | DC Chi Pie | Pupatella | Menomale NoMa | Stellina

Pizza recipes: FAQ for home cooks | Easy cheese pizza | No-knead pizza dough | Gluten-free pizza dough | Muffin-tin deep dish | Thin-crust pickle pizza