When it comes to pizza just about everybody in America has strong feelings about who makes the best (well at least everybody in New York, where I grew up). Some people tend to get very passionate about this issue. Whenever our friend Jason tells my cousin Sal that he likes Frank Pepe’s Pizza in New Haven, CT better than Johnny’s Pizza in Mount Vernon, NY (our hometown) Sal gets a look in his eyes that kind of scares me. Personally I agree with Sal, although I don’t get quite that livid about it.
In the introduction to his new book American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Peter Reinhart relates a story about when he went back to his favorite hometown pizzeria and was disappointed with the pizza. His first thoughts are that they changed the pizza, and then he starts to wonder if maybe it was he that has changed and not the pizza. He speculates that maybe it was the best that was available to him in his youth and that it was really the memories that were associated with Mama’s that have kept the pizza there so well regarded in his mind all of these years. He feels that asking himself this question set the pizza quest that this book details in motion.
American Pie is split into two parts, the hunt and the recipes. Part one has us following the author on his quest for the best pizza in America. Actually, his journey begins in Italy. This is a smart move because if you are going to write about pizza it makes sense to go to where it all started to get the proper frame of reference. The Italy chapters are probably my favorite part of the book. He starts in Liguria and works his way through Florence and Rome to Naples, which is considered the birthplace of pizza. “When hearing about the pizza of Naples from a person who has just been there one can be easily convinced that real pizza doesn’t exist in the United States,” Mr. Reinhart says. “It was clear I had to go to Naples myself to find out if I too would become a pizza napoletana zealot.”
Suffice it to say that he is not disappointed with Neapolitan pizza and it becomes the standard by which he subsequently judges the pizza in America. After reading the chapters on Italy I found myself daydreaming for weeks about recreating this pilgrimage myself. Perhaps one day I will.
Next he hits America, working his way from New York to California. Some of the points that he hits in between are Providence, RI with its grilled pizza, New Haven, which he refers to as pizza mecca, and Chicago for it’s famous deep dish pizza. He also ends up in the unlikely spot of Phoenix Arizona to visit Pizzeria Bianco, which he ends up crowning the best pizza in America.
The passion for his subject and attention to detail come shining through as he crisscrosses the country trying different kinds of pizza. I almost enjoy these chapters as much as the Italy section. There are just two parts that lose me. The first is probably because of my own bias. The descriptions of California pizza just couldn’t get my mouth watering like the other locations. I am a pizza purist; I like a sauce and cheese pie. I rarely go for toppings so descriptions of vegan pizza and smoked salmon with crème fraiche pizza just do nothing for me. I don’t even really consider that stuff pizza.
The second part that loses me, quite surprisingly, is the New York section. For some strange reason he concentrates most of the New York section detailing his visits to every Ray’s Pizza in the city and gives just fleeting mention to some of the oldest and highest regarded pizzerias in the country. He wastes a lot of precious space in the book to come to a conclusion that any real New Yorker could have told him. Ray’s pizza is just not good. It’s just famous because there is one in just about every neighborhood and they are open late so you can stop and get a slice when you are leaving a bar or a club at 4:00am. I feel his time would have been better spent exploring some of the areas just outside the city where he might have found an obscure diamond in the rough. If you are going to write a book about pizza in America you can’t sell New York short, especially if you are going to pick a pizzeria in Phoenix, Arizona as the best.
The recipes section is a tremendous resource for anybody interested in making pizza at home. It includes recipes for every type of pizza and dough he encountered on his quest. The book goes into great detail on sauces, toppings and techniques. However the real stars are the dough recipes. Mr. Reinhart is a bread baker and feels, rightfully so, that the crust is the most important part of a pizza. He brings his bread baking expertise to the table and introduces us to techniques like slow cold fermentation of the dough, which result in extraordinary crusts. So far I have made both Napoletana and Neo-Neapolitan style pizzas and have been happy with the results. My only criticism of the recipes is with the baking times. In my home oven the crusts don’t even come close to being done in the times specified. It usually takes twice as long to get the crust to the texture he describes, so I ended up having to cover the pizzas with aluminum foil halfway through so that the top doesn’t burn while I wait for the crust to finish.
I would recommend American Pie to anybody who has a passion for pizza or is interested in baking pizza at home. Both parts of the book stand up on their own, the recipes are outstanding and the hunt is a great read. This has inspired me to go on a quest of my own. Who knows, maybe I will find out that it really is the memories that keep Johnny’s up on top of my pizza rankings. There are some great ones, like the time Sal and I went there five days in a row polishing off two large pies and a small each time. When we walked in on the fifth day Johnny looked at us, threw his arms up in anger and screamed, “Is that all you guys eat? Pizza!” I doubt this will be the case though; I may find one I like as much or a little better, but Johnny’s will always be up there. They really do make some great pizza.
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