Regional styles ranging from Detroit to Old Forge are spreading across the country
ost people know pizza as party food and fuel for college co-eds facing final exams. But cultures have been adding flavorful ingredients to bread since the Neolithic age. The Greeks doused bread in oils, then topped it with herbs and cheese. Persian soldiers used their shields to bake bread studded with cheese and dates. And a reference to a pizza-like food appears in The Aeneid, with men eating pita rounds topped with cooked vegetables.
But what we know as pizza—that tasty combination of bread, sauce and cheese—was born in 18th-century Naples. And the tomato-topped treat gained wide acclaim in the U.S. when Italian immigrants opened the first pizzeria in New York in 1905. Since then, Americans’ interest in pizza has skyrocketed. In 2017, the U.S. pizza market cashed in $44 billion spread over 76,000 pizzerias.
Whether Italian immigrant or homegrown, chefs across the country are vying for their piece of that pie with distinctive regional styles ranging from New York to Old Forge. And Americans are gobbling it up. Using a simple combination of flour, water, salt, yeast and kitchen-sink ingredients, here’s a sampling of the hottest regional styles hitting the pizza oven.
Pizza and New York are inextricably linked. Derived from Neapolitan-style pizza in Italy, New York pizza first arrived in the U.S. in 1905 when Italian immigrant Gennaro Lombardi began selling pizza slices out of his grocery store.
Traditional New York pizza makers bake their pies in hot coal ovens and serve up large, wide slices. The crust is crisp and thick on the edges, but soft, thin and chewy in the center so pizza lovers can fold it in half and eat it on the go.
Whether ordered at a street-side stand or in a sit-down pizzeria, New York’s hand-tossed pies tend to be light on sauce, heavy on mozzarella cheese and often dripping with grease. But as is the case with San Francisco sourdough, some say New York-style pizza gets its distinctive crust from minerals in the city’s tap water.
Just after World War I, gas ovens revolutionized the genre, allowing for easy reheating and sales by the slice rather than the whole pie. The transformation made pizza more accessible to the masses, and even converted New York pizza into handheld street food.
The revitalization of Detroit has coincided with a rising interest in “red top” pizza. The nickname describes pies that are baked in square pans and finished with sauce—the signature style in Detroit. While the saucy pizza has been around since the ’40s, it only recently began spreading across the country, heating up in places such as Telluride, Colorado, Denver and, yes, even New York.
Gus Guerra started the tradition at Buddy’s Rendezvous in 1946 when his mother-in-law Crucifissa convinced him to add food to his bar menu to improve cash flow. She taught him her Sicilian dough recipe. Guerra put the dough into rectangular blue-steel pans typically used for auto parts.
“He topped the dough with cheese all the way to edges, then pressed other toppings into the dough. The cheese caramelized with the dough to create a golden crust,” says Marie Guerra Easterby, Gus’s daughter and co-owner with her brother Jack of Cloverleaf Pizza in Eastpointe, Michigan. “Then he ladled the sauce right on top before baking.” And that became the model for Detroit-style pizza.
But the key to Motor City pizza isn’t the dough, or even the ingredients. It’s the pan. More cast-iron skillet than pizza pan or cookie sheet, Detroit-style pizza pans are thick and heavy and produce a soft, airy crust with crisp edges.
“I like to say that Detroit-style pizza is an overnight, 72-year success story,” says Guerra Easterby.
With a crust that’s thicker than traditional thin crust, buttery and somewhat flaky, Chicago’s signature style is knife-and-fork pizza. “Some people call it reverse pizza,” says Jim D’Angelo, chief operating officer at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, based in Northbrook, Illinois, who started as a busboy and dishwasher at Malnati’s and worked his way up.
“We put the cheese right on the dough, add toppings and then finish it with chunky tomatoes on top.”
Chicago-style pizza requires a distinct mozzarella with the right creaminess, firmness and salt content. As for toppings, sausage reigns supreme, with an entire layer of sausage on the pie rather than dots scattered throughout. The pans for Chicago pizza are different, too. They look more like a casserole pan or baking pan because the dough acts almost as a shell to hold the ingredients.
“The dough needs to be firm enough to hold the weight of the ingredients, but it also needs to be flaky and light, not crunchy and hard,” says D’Angelo, who believes that pizza has been ahead of its time as a build-your-own concept. “Every style of pizza offers endless opportunities for innovation. Customers get to pick and choose their own ingredients.”
Old Forge, Pennsylvania, is a former mining town. Historically, while men worked in the coal mines, their wives masterminded a way to feed them. They began making pizza in rectangular trays because it was an efficient way to feed a lot of people.
The pizza boasts a cracker-like crust that’s thicker than thin crust but thinner than deep dish. It’s light and airy and has a touch of sugar for sweetness. Old Forge-style uses a distinct blend of American, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. The red pizza features standard tomato sauce with toppings that range from pepperoni and meatballs to shrimp and clams. The white is stuffed with cheese and ingredients such as spinach and broccoli (no sauce), with a layer of dough on the top and the bottom.
The crust is baked in a conveyor belt oven set at more than 500°F. “Then, we top it with a standard tomato sauce and bake it again,” says Ashley Genell Burke, granddaughter of one of the founders of Arcaro & Genell Pizzeria in Old Forge, which has been serving Old Forge-style pizza since 1962.
The Old Forge favorite is in such hot demand that Genell ships the rectangular pizza all over the world. A whole pizza is “a tray,” not a pie. And there are no slices, just square cuts.
California boasts year-round access to tasty produce, so it’s no surprise that chefs are committed to creating pizza featuring farm-to-table ingredients.
Most people credit Ed LaDou and Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters for simultaneously inventing California-style pizza. In fact, LaDou developed more than 250 pizza concepts featuring ingredients ranging from scallops and roe to goat cheese and zucchini flowers while working as head pizza chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles.
“Anything that’s healthy, organic and especially eccentric is fair game in California,” says Tony Gemignani, 12-time World Pizza Champion and chef/owner of three San Francisco pizzerias that fire up 20 different pizza styles. In fact, California single-handedly cornered the eclectic pie trend with barbecue chicken, Thai and carnitas pizzas headlining on menus.
They can be served up with mozzarella, Gouda, goat cheese, feta or without cheese.
Traditionally a combination of New York and Italian thin crust, more recently, California-style pizza is trending toward alternative grains that include ancient- and whole-grain, as well as gluten-free crusts, with toppings ranging from locally sourced kale, wild arugula and purple cauliflower to pears, nectarines and sweet peas.
Derived from Neapolitan pizza, New Haven-style pie dough is moist rather than dry and hand-pressed because it’s too soft to toss.
“My grandfather was the first to open an actual pizza restaurant in Connecticut,” says Gary Bimonte, director of quality assurance/training at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven. “Up until then, pizza was sold in bakeries, and always takeout.”
When Pepe’s started, it offered only two pies: crushed Italian tomatoes and crushed Italian tomatoes with anchovies. Today, the options for different types of pies are seemingly limitless, with ingredients ranging from standard sausage and pepperoni to shrimp and fresh-shucked littleneck clams.
Even though Pepe’s has expanded to 10 storefronts across Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, it still maintains an artisanal approach to pizza making, using authentic ingredients that include Romano cheese imported from Italy, domestic mozzarella and flour specifically milled for Pepe’s pizza.
It’s hard to achieve a Neapolitan pizza in an oven that doesn’t reach 600°F. In fact, the crux of Neapolitan pizza is the charred crust with pillowy pockets. “We burn coal at a high, intense, dry heat,” says Bimonte. “It caramelizes the tomatoes and toppings and seals in the rich flavors.”