The Pizza Problem

In 1986, a girl fell through the skylight of a building at Carnegie-Mellon. She had been drinking on the roof with her friends, and lost her balance. On the way down she straddled a water pipe, which broke her fall and probably saved her life. She hit the ground pretty hard, and was knocked out.

When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics started to move her, she regained consciousness. She opened her eyes and said, very groggily, “Are you from Capri Pizza? You must be, because you’re slow and stupid.”

I never heard what happened to the girl after that — I like to think that she perished in a freak eyeliner accident — but the incident stuck in my head because it reminds me that anyone will eat lousy pizza, if it’s cheap enough and the pizza place delivers

Most people have never had great pizza. Most people like pizza that sucks. So I’m going to give you a brief guide to great pizza, what makes it great, and how to find it. Typically when a foodie talks about pizza, they’ll rant about Napoli, and how the pizza there is transcendent and delicate, “totally unlike anything you’ve had before.” These are damnable lies. Pizza, as everyone intelligent knows, was invented in New York. Pizza in Napoli is a different thing entirely. Napoli is a fascinating city. It is crowded, filthy, beautiful, dangerous, and decadent. Apparently as some sort of apology for that whole Pompeii thing, the Gods have blessed Napoli with the best soil in the entire universe. The produce from the area around Napoli is better than anything you have ever tasted in your life, especially if you’re used to anemic California vegetables.

In Napoli, you can go to the dingiest vegetable stall in the city, pick up a tomato, and eat it like an apple. They’re that good.

So when people try to make Napoli-style pizza here, they usually fail. Because we’re not in Napoli, and we don’t have those damn tomatoes. So let’s be clear: good pizza in the States is a different sort of thing.

There are two attributes that make up a good pizza: texture and taste. Here are two simple tests to help describe what they should be like:

Texture — You should be able to pick up a slice, folded, in one hand, without the entire thing breaking and pointing downwards. Only the first bite is allowed to droop.

Taste — truly great pizza doesn’t need any toppings beyond cheese and sauce.

That second point is key. Take a moment the next time you’re about to order a pizza. Ask yourself “How would I feel if instead of getting a pepperoni- mushroom pizza, I just got a plain cheese pizza?” If you feel excited, happy, or at least OK with the idea, you may be ordering from a good pizza place. If you feel vaguely disappointed and sad, you should hang up the phone and find a different place. You might think this is a matter of taste, but it actually isn’t; your body has tiny structures called Langerhans cells that emit certain chemicals when they anticipate contact with bad pizza. By meditating on the primordial cheese pizza you are allowing your subconcious to open up to the messages these cells are sending. Listen to your subconcious. Stop eating bad pizza.

I’m not saying, by the way, that you should never eat pizza with things on it. I’m just saying that if a place doesn’t make good cheese pizza, they don’t make good pizza-with-other-stuff-on-it, either. Just make sure you don’t put so many toppings on the pizza that you cause it to violate the texture rule. Pizza shouldn’t be eaten with a fork. You have to be able to one-hand it.

My description of the proper texture, above, is intended to be a rule of thumb. There’s a special case, however, that is worthy of attention. I call it the Detachable Cheese problem, and it’s a guaranteed detector of bad pizza. Great pizza has the three elements (bread, cheese, and sauce) in perfect harmony. When cooked correctly it all merges, along with the toppings, and sticks together until you bite into it. Bad pizza has too much sauce and too much cheese. What happens to these pizzas is the sauce forms into a little lake, and the cheese seals it in. The overall effect is that the cheese is floating on the sauce like a duck on a pond, so you take one bite of the pizza and the entire inch-thick solid layer of cheese slides off the slice like a hockey puck. It’s a true tragedy.

You can also divine a little bit about a place from their topping selection, although this is closer to phrenology, and not always reliable. My two guidelines that I feel comfortable sharing are: good pizza places have anchovies, and good pizza places don’t use breakfast sausage on their sausage pizzas.

Pizza in Pittsburgh

Turning to our local market, we can apply these principles to find the best pizza in town. My personal favorite is Sorrento’s on Atwood Street (currently in the process of a rename to “Pizza Roma Sorrento’s”, apparently — but it’s the same owner). Sorrento’s is the ideal pizza in nearly every way. The crust is thin. The bread tastes good. The sauce is yummy. They don’t use too much cheese. It’s inexpensive. You can one hand it. And their plain cheese pizza is great. They have a nice selection of toppings. Their sausage is especially interesting; they cut it like pepperoni instead of crumbling it chopped-meat style, and it’s quite good. If you can only get pizza from one place in town, get it from Sorrento’s.

Squirrel Hill has a few pizza places with cult followings, for reasons I’ve never been able to discern. Most people’s favorite is Mineo’s, which is more proof that people have no taste, because Mineo’s is terrible. I’ve never had a pie from Mineo’s that didn’t suffer from the Detachable Cheese problem. If I’m in Squirrel Hill and need a slice, I’ll usually go to Napoli’s. They’re not actually great, but they get the texture right, they’re consistent and somewhat reliable, and I like their red sauce, which goes a long way.

If you’re in the Strip district, stop by Piccolo Forno next to La Prima. This is the perfect compromise between “authentic Napoli pizza” and the New York style we know and love; ask for one with spicy green olives on it, and you’re in heaven. Other people rave about Regina Margherita, but they suffer from the Not Actually In Napoli problem I outlined above. His technique may be flawless, but the end product just doesn’t gel.

The Thing About The Vinnie Pie

The other local pizza tradition is to crow about Vincent’s Pizza, home of the fabled “Vinnie Pie.” This is a monstrosity born of hell. A Vinnie pie is approximately the size of a small fawn, and has the consistency of gloopy beef stew on the inside, but makes up for it by being nicely burnt on the outside. A typical Vinnie pie is a structural mess, with several cups of grease pooled in the middle, eating through the box and the table underneath. Vinnie himself is a local legend, 300 pounds of heart disease and moustache, giving rise to the claim that the pizza tastes better when Vinnie accidentally drops some cigar ashes into the pie.

Here’s the thing about the Vinnie pie: it isn’t good pizza. Here’s the other thing about the Vinnie pie: it’s actually a pretty good whatever-it-actually- is. So enjoy it without guilt. Just make sure you have your health insurance is paid up, and don’t tell me it’s the “best pizza in town.”