I don’t know if you to try to turn work into a game as a kid, but I did, and well, still do actually. Though at times, they’ve become a bit more contemplative in nature. One of my hunger-induced amusements centers around Stick Boy’s frozen pizza dough. If I see a customer has ordered pizza dough while I’m packing their box, sometimes I ponder what kind of pizza they’ll make based on the contents of the box. Do I ever get it right? I have no way of knowing, but probably never.
It did get me contemplating the nature of pizza, though. You can put anything on a pizza. You can even turn other foods like hamburgers into pizza. No matter what you put on it, a pizza will still be a pizza. When I’ve talked to people about whether they prefer pizza chain A, B, C, or none of the above, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard toppings be the answer. True, toppings are important, but I decided to check out some regional styles to look deeper into pizza’s other defining characteristics.
The first stop is New York style pizza. Most of us have at least heard of it being somehow different from other pizza, and even as a kid I knew it had something to do with folding it to eat it because of a Pizza Hut commercial I saw. My concept of it has fleshed out since then, but I wanted it boiled down to something more definable. New York pizza starts with a hand tossed crust, then a light to medium layer of sauce, followed by the toppings. The pizza is usually sold in large, flexible slices and frequently enjoyed by the slice as a snack or meal on the go. Since the norm is an 18” pizza cut into eight slices, so with a bit of 2πr and some division, we have slices that are roughly 7×9 triangles. With the size and thinness of the slices, it’s no surprise that people often fold to eat it; anything else might be unwieldy.
Chicago style is defined by its deep dish nature. Cooked in a deep pan, Chicago pizza exchanges width for depth. Assembling the pizza starts with a well-oiled pan to give the crust it’s fried texture. Next goes the dough. Despite the thickness of the pizza as a whole, the crust is actually only a medium thickness. After the crust, things start to take a different order than one’s typical pizza. The depth of Chicago style pizza necessitates a longer cooking time, a problem that would normally result in burning. The solution – the pizza is layered cheese (usually sliced mozzarella), then toppings, and finally the sauce on top, which is chunky and more akin to crushed tomatoes than a tomato puree. Even if one’s still holding out for toppings being the defining element of pizza, Chicago style pizza shows that pizza can be delicious no matter what order you pile on the ingredients.
Popular in New England, Greek pizza can be found topped with feta and olives, but is equally Greek (in pizza terms) even when topped with Canadian bacon or barbeque chicken. The name comes from the Greek immigrants who ran the pizzerias where this style pizza could be found. Greek pizza is cooked in a heavily oiled pan, both thinner and oilier than that of the Chicago style. This results in a chewy, puffy, oily crust that is somewhat reminiscent of focaccia bread. The sauce leans more toward paste than crushed tomatoes, resulting in a thick, tangy sauce with the taste of oregano. Anything on top of the sauce is pretty much up to you.
The last up in today’s pizza exploration is Sicilian style pizza. Popular across Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregano, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and amongst Papa Spud’s employees who work on Mondays, Sicilian pizza builds on a thick, square crust. In the US, Sicilian pizza is adapted from the Italian sfinciuni, a rectangular pizza that uses more cheese, sauce, and dough than the more common Neapolitan pizza. Sicilian style pizza in the US has a crunchy base, airy interior, and dough over an inch thick.
As I started on this informational pizza exploration, I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d end up. I don’t know where this imaginary pizza journey has taken you, but I’ve arrived back at the beginning. At the foundation, the crust, the dough. For a long time, I thought it was all about what you put on the pizza, but now I see that what you build a pizza on is just as important. If like me, you want to explore new possibilities the next time you make pizza and you start from Stick Boy’s pizza dough, you’re in luck. Since it’s still a ball of dough, it’s not predefined and still full of potential. Sure, you can’t change the make-up of the dough, but the rest is up to you. Hand tossed or pan, thick or thin, puffy or crispy are just some of the options waiting to be explored. Sure, with every kitchen experiment there’s potential for a flop, but you could find yourself discovering North Carolina’s own style of pizza.