Around the World in 200 Pizzas
By Beverly Stephen
Two hundred! That’s how many pizzas Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya ate as their 100,000 miles of travel took them through a good swath of the U.S. and to far flung destinations from Italy to Argentina to Japan for their book Modernist Pizza. The three volumes tell everything you want to know about pizza, how professionals make it and how to make it yourself but the travel chapter is particularly useful for aspiring pizza tourists. One surprising fact: they found the best New York style pizza in Portland, Oregon!
The travel chapter is organized according to the 17 cities included and each pizzeria visited gets a short review. Key takeaways for each city neatly summarize what one might expect to find there. Let’s hit the highlights in Naples, Portland, New York, and Chicago.
Myhrvold was the chief technology officer for Microsoft before retiring and turning to food for a second career. Migoya is the head chef at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle.
It took a full time staff of 25 four years to produce the three-volume Modernist Pizza. Science truly meets art in this encyclopedic work. Remember Myhrvold, who has a PhD in mathematical physics, even did a post doc with Stephen Hawking on the quantum theory of gravitation (whatever that is), so it’s not surprising he cares about minute details such as the percentage of hydration in the dough. The rest of us are likely more concerned with the thinness or thickness of the crust and the freshness of the Mozzarella. We’re also concerned with the friendliness of the proprietors and ambience of the pizzeria. The Modernist team found the majority of the pizzaiolos to be friendly and generous with sharing their recipes and techniques. If we find ourselves in any of the cities covered, chances are good we’ll be happy with a couple of their top choices.
To get to the source, one must make the pilgrimage to Naples. Pizza was born here and pizzaiolos are respected professionals, similar to a celebrity chef. Even here not all the pizzas were great and some were not even Neapolitan which the authors say are usually characterized “by a soft pliable crust that is charred in spots.” The team visited 16 pizzerias in Naples and each has an interesting proprietor and produces a delicious looking pizza. If I could only visit three, I would choose 50 Kalo, one of their favorites known for its obsession with the dough; Carlo Sammarco Pizzeria 2.0 famous for its puffy rim pizza called canotto; and La Masardona for fried pizza which was traditionally a popular street food because it was made in a kettle of oil and didn’t demand an oven. But I wouldn’t want to miss the Carnevale pizza at Pizzeria da Attilio where Attilio Bachetti spoons ricotta on six different spots around the rim, then pinches the dough shut into little points so that the finished pizza looks like a six pointed star. Yum! The possibilities in Naples and throughout Italy are endless.
But back in the USA let’s see what won the raves in Portland. The authors speculate that being so far removed geographically from tradition-bound pizza enclaves like New York and Chicago might have given Portland the unbridled freedom to create fantastic pizza. There’s also the obsession with quality local ingredients that drives the food scene there in general. They credit two former bakers: Ken Forkish and Brian Spangler with igniting the Portland pizza scene. Ken’s Artisan Pizza’s “take on Neapolitan is soft but a little crisper than in Naples… The ingredients are refined down to the fresh house-made Mozzarella.” The authors were also taken with the Portland décor—Douglas fir beams, tables made from recycled wood from a demolished roller coaster, and parking spaces for 24 bicycles.
Brian Spangler shines at Apizza Scholls. He’s fascinated by dough and uses fresh yeast rather than dried and favors an electric pizza oven. His Sausage & Mama pizza, made with homemade sausage and Mama Lil’s peppers was dubbed “one of the 12 wonders of Portland food” by a local paper.
Can’t wait to get back to Portland and try the pizza! Personally, the best pizza I ever ate so far was in Texas Hill Country at Pizzeria Sorellina where the crust is made with freshly milled flour from nearby Barton Springs Mill.
One tends to think of New York City as the domestic epicenter of pizza and indeed the authors visited 28 pizzerias in the Big Apple. Scott’s Pizza Tours could be a good way to get a handle on New York pizzas. He offers a variety of walking and bus tours in different New York neighborhoods.
Or if you want to do it on your own, follow a few of the Modernist suggestions. They found some “very good pizzerias in New York—mostly in Brooklyn. And— gasp!—New Jersey. Actually, Razza, in Jersey City, served the best pizza we tasted.”
Oddly Razza serves a first course of bread and homemade cultured butter. At first, the team couldn’t imagine why anyone would want bread before pizza but was soon won over by its deliciousness. And the pizza hit it out of the park. The “wood-oven pizza is also astoundingly good. It’s crispy and brown with carefully selected toppings. We tried one with burrata, tomato sauce, garlic, and fresh basil on a levain-raised crust, and a margherita with handmade fresh mozzarella on a yeast-raised crust.” They were also impressed with “the meticulous attention to detail that was unmatched in all of the other pizzerias we visited,” they wrote. If you’re in Manhattan, just jump on the Path train to get to Jersey City.
Another surprise. “The best pizza in New York wasn’t New York–style pizza,” they write. “We found some great Neapolitan style (Kesté, Una Pizza Napoletana), artisan (Razza, Lucali, Ops, L’Industrie Pizzeria), Detroit style (Emmy Squared, which was better than any pizza we had in Detroit), and one complete outlier, the ultra-thin-crust pizza at Marta. What we didn’t find in abundance was strikingly good New York– style pizza.”
Keste, which started in Greenwich Village, makes Neapolitan style pizza that the authors say compares favorably with that of Naples. This should be a definite go-to spot. Located in the financial distriuct, they now have pizza classes every Friday night.
Marta, part of the uber restaurateur Danny Meyer’s empire, serves pizza with an ultra-thin cracker like crust. It’s billed as a Roman pizza but the authors say it’s not like anything they found in Rome. Detroit-style pizza at Emmy Squared was better than any pizza they had in Detroit.
Chicago is also a quintessential pizza city. It’s famous for its deep dish pizzas and one thing Chicago pizzas have in common is sausage—flavored with garlic not fennel. And yet, at the end of the team’s pizza-tasting tour, “we agreed the best pizzas we ate in Chicago were not native to the city: Neapolitan at Spacca Napoli, Detroit style at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, and al taglio style at Bonci Pizzeria.” The actual Chicago style deep dish pizza was born at Pizzeria Uno in the 1940s. The crusts, they found, are either a short, pie crust like dough pressed into a pan or a pillowy white sandwich bread type crust.
Chicago thin crust pizza is also lauded but the Modernist team didn’t find the crusts were all that thin.
A topping uniquely popular in Chicago is a pickled-vegetable giardiniera, made with some combination of pickled jalapeños, carrots, and cauliflower.
An efficient way to explore the various pizzas styles here is to hop on a Chicago Pizza Tour bus or walking tour run by Jonathan Porter or Steve Dolinsky’s Pizza City USA tours.
Of course, the Modernist team had to head out West to make a pilgrimage to Spago, the birthplace of California pizza or what we now call artisan. Wolfgang Puck hired a pizza man Ed LaDou and they put extravagant toppings on their pizzas—the most famous was smoked salmon, dill, crème fraiche and salmon roe. “If you’re looking for the original chefy pizza, this was it,” they write. Forty years later, they felt it still holds up.
What fun to sample pizza in all its evolutions. The travel chapter can serve as a reliable guide for any gourmet tourist looking to incorporate pizza into their travels. One style of pizza is not necessarily any better or worse than another but any style can be executed more perfectly and the quality of the ingredients matters. It has truly become the most popular global food and has become as American as, well, apple pie. It’s the snack universally appreciated by even the pickiest of American toddlers. Once when my son was grade schooler, I suggested trying a new Greek restaurant and he pleaded, “Why can’t we be like a normal American family and go to an Italian restaurant!”
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.