Comparing Pizza in Italy and the United States

You could call this the sixth in a series on Lombardy, Italy- though it’s a bit more of a general topic.

Pizza in a wood-fired oven in Milan
Pizza in a wood oven in Milan

Experiencing Pizza in Italy is a bit of a paradigm shift after growing up with the product of its evolution on the other side of the Atlantic.  In general, my impression is that American pizzas are larger, more expensive, slower to make, and often have a thicker crust than Italian ones.  There are other differences as well, such as the tendency in Italy to eat with a knife and fork rather than slices by hand.  Italian pizzas seem to come in one size- larger than a typical American individual or small pizza but smaller than an American medium or large.

Although it already had a foothold in places with immigrant populations, pizza’s popularity in the United States exploded after World War II, ostensibly due to GIs returning home from Italy with a taste for it.  In the sliding scale of pizza evolution on the far side of the Atlantic, New York pizza seems somewhat similar to the original Italian creation while Chicago-style (deep dish) is rather different.

French fry (!) and sausage pizza in Naples.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2013
French fry (!) and sausage pizza in Naples. Please excuse the reflection from the window.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

Among the interesting toppings I’ve encountered in Italy but rarely in the United States include water buffalo mozzarella (delicious- and apparently mandatory if it’s going to be authentic Neapolitan!), pesto (because pesto is amazing on everything- I’m convinced pesto, not just Italian cooking in general is why I always gain a pound or two in Italy despite walking about 10 miles a day), and french fries/sausage (ok, I know you guys invented pizza, but seriously- just because you can put something on pizza doesn’t mean you should).  The only places in North America I’ve had really Italian-style pizza are specialty shops like the Wood Fired Pizza Shop in Newark, Delaware and the Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria in Jasper, Alberta, Canada.

Who knew they could fold pizza like that?  Lowell Silverman photography, 2013
Who knew they could fold pizza like that? Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

It’s one of my biggest regrets that during my first visit to Naples in 2013, I didn’t leave myself time to find some really great pizza.  Trenitalita’s “Supereconomy” train tickets offer substantial savings when available (typically far in advance) at the price of locking in your itinerary.  Finishing a day trip from Rome to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Naples’s Archeological Museum, I worried that I didn’t have enough time for a sit-down meal before catching my train (though pizza is made fast in Italy…I probably could have squeezed it in).  One silver lining was that stopping in the small shop across the square from Napoli Centrale showed me that pizza really could be made into take-out food!  I had no idea it was possible to fold a pizza in a way that the cheese wouldn’t just stick together in a nasty mess.

Slice of pizza on a plank served in Florence.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2013
Slice of pizza on a plank served in Florence. Lowell Silverman photography, 2013

Our last night in Italy in 2015, we ate at a local restaurant in a Milan neighborhood named The Eatery.  Despite its English name, the menu is only in Italian, which I’ve always found is a good sign.  At least because of the pervasiveness of Italian cooking terms being loaned into English, deciphering an Italian menu is considerably easier than in other countries where I don’t speak the language.  The Eatery has twin wood-fired ovens.  We were the first guests to arrive when The Eatery opened at 7pm- it seems Italians eat dinner late, as plenty of people arrived later. We decided to be shameless tourists and watch the pizza being made.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, but that guy would put the typical Pizza Hut employee to shame.  Even when there was only one or two pizzas in the queue, this guy moved like lightning, spreading the dough, raining toppings down, and shoving the pizza in the oven.  I was shocked that a pizza with few toppings like the Margherita would only go in the oven very briefly, like 30 seconds to a minute.  The pizzas with more toppings stayed in longer, like two minutes.  It is my impression, although I don’t have stopwatch data to back it up, that wood oven pizza is considerably faster than the not-so-classy conveyer belt ovens common in America’s chain pizza places.

So which is better- Italian pizza or the Americanized-product?  Well, I hate to use the old cop out- “It depends.”  It’s hard to generalize since the quality varies widely by the place in each country.  Some places we ate at in Italy had some great pizza.  I remember fondly the pizza from a shop in Monterosso that refueled me between hikes in Cinque Terre and admiring the proprietor for not gouging tourists used to paying higher pizza prices at home.  The Eatery in Milan had some good pizza as well; some other restaurants’ on that trip were less impressive.  As for American pizza, I’m not a big fan of most of the mass-produced pizza in the United States, though I have a soft spot for Papa John’s.  Some of the independents’ pizzas are quite good.  I’m sure every town in the US can list one or two local places that make great pizza.  (Except for Kalispell, Montana.  Sorry guys- love the beer at Moose’s Saloon, but their pizza tastes like cardboard.)  Regardless of the side of the Atlantic you’re on, the quality of the pizza relies on the same things- a good crust, flavorful ingredients (cheese, naturally, but also toppings like basil), and un certo non so che, a certain something.

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