In an article about the perfect pizza, a student is trying a slice of pizza with four different boxes in front of him containing four different types of pizzas.
Illustration by Emily Seltzer, Skidmore College
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In an article about the perfect pizza, a student is trying a slice of pizza with four different boxes in front of him containing four different types of pizzas.
Illustration by Emily Seltzer, Skidmore College

A guide to the history and significance of the delicate balance between crust, sauce and cheese.

Flatbreads have been consumed for centuries by Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, but the modern birthplace of pizza is located in the Italian city of Naples in the Campania region. Naples was a Greek settlement founded in 600 B.C., and by the 1700s, it was a bustling waterfront city with a population dominated by working-class citizens. Many lived in small homes with little more than one room, tightly packed to fit the dense population of the city. Because the citys residents were working long hours for little pay, they needed food that was inexpensive and easy to consume. Street vendors responded to this demand for quick, inexpensive meals by selling flatbreads with different toppings like cheese, tomatoes and garlic. In 1889, after the unification of Italy, the king and queen of Italy visited Naples and requested a variety of pizzas from a traditional pizzeria. Supposedly, Queen Margherita favored the flatbread made with mozzarella, tomato and basil, which came to be known as Margherita pizza.

Pizza was primarily confined to Italy until World War II, when an influx of European immigrants headed to the United States for factory jobs. These immigrants recreated the flatbreads of Naples for a taste of home. The first documented pizzeria in the United States was G. Lombardis in Manhattan in 1905, which still stands today but has been moved from its original location. Italian Americans continued to disperse across the United States into smaller cities and suburbs. As this food became an American staple, regional styles of the dish began to pop up, like Californias gourmet, Chicagos deep-dish and St. Louis-style.

Although there are many varieties to choose from — from thin to thick crust, sweet to tangy sauce, square to triangle slices — every pizza is comprised of three elements: crust, sauce and cheese.

There are notably 8 different types of pizza based on crust. The four thin-crust styles are Neapolitan style, New York style, St. Louis style and California style. Neapolitan pizza is hand-kneaded and tossed before being baked in a wood-fired oven for a slightly crispy finish. In New York, pizzas are much larger than their Naples counterparts, with a thin, pliable crust for folding. NYCs pizza crust is made with the same mineral-filled water that gives its bagels their signature flavor. St. Louis-style pizza is made with a yeast-less cracker crust that is cut into squares rather than traditional slices. California style is thin, and its crust resembles that of NYC, but it is fired in a wood-fired oven similar to that of the Neapolitan style.

Thick crust varieties are designed to hold heavy loads of sauce and toppings. Detroit-style, Chicagos deep dish, Greek pizza and Grandma pizza fall into the category of thick crust pizzas. Detroit-style pizza is about a 1/2thick and is cut into rectangles. The texture is similar to that of light focaccia, and its origins are seemingly tied to pizza from Sicily, Italy. Chicago-style features a thick, crispy crust shaped like a traditional American pie or tart, with a bottom and walls designed to contain the toppings. Greek pizza, although recognized more for its unique toppings than for its crust, is made with thick, pan-cooked crust that is fluffy and chewy. Grandma-style pizza is cooked similarly to Chicagos deep-dish pizza, as the crust climbs up the walls of the baking sheet, but it is not quite as thick or deep as the classic Midwestern dish. Its an ode to cooking traditional pizza from scratch at home.

Obviously, a person’s choice in crust revolves around their personal preference, geographic location and available resources, but after examining the various options for pizza crust, it becomes evident that the ideal pizza bridges the gap between thin and thick crust. The crust should be leavened and hand-tossed. When wood-fired, the pizza maintains a bit of doughiness and chewiness while the outside has a level of crispiness that is unachievable in a regular oven. This is the ideal texture for the perfect pizza crust.

Sauce, which is the second step to finding or making the perfect pizza, is arguably the most crucial element. Too much or too little sauce can make or break the entire balance of the meal. A sauce thats too sweet or not sweet enough can leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths. The internet is riddled with homemade pizza sauce recipes, like these from Allrecipes, Serious Eats and Taste of Home. Each recipe varies in the types of tomatoes and spices it requires. Sauce can be more difficult to replicate and perfect than pizza crust. The oldest recipes have likely been passed down orally, so the recipes on the internet are new adaptations or attempts at classic flavors. Because the crust should have a yeasty, doughy flavor and the cheese is salty, the sauce needs a hint of sweetness and tanginess, which can be achieved with a spoonful of sugar and the inclusion of a heavy dose of fresh aromatic ingredients, like garlic or onions.

After the crust and the sauce comes the cheese. Cheese selection is crucial for not throwing off the achieved balance between the crust and sauce. Some cheeses may become oily or stringy when baked. Fresh mozzarella is the most traditional choice, with a mild salty and creamy flavor. Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano are both good options if you prefer a salty, caramelized flavor palette. These two types of cheeses are the go-tos for a traditional cheese pizza. The addition of less traditional cheeses may be beneficial when incorporating new toppings. Food and Drink’s12 Best Cheeses for Making Pizzais a great resource for optimizing combinations of toppings and cheeses.

The balance between the crust, the sauce and the cheese is critical in the construction of a perfect pizza. The three of them must flow together and complement each other rather than work as three separate parts. After this balance has been achieved, adding new toppings may affect the flavor and texture of the pie as well. Pizza is one of the most widely debated food categories, especially around the United States: which city has the best pizza, what toppings belong or dont belong, how it should be sliced and consumed, etc. These questions have existed since the popularization of pizza in the United States, and they will continue to be debated because, in the end, pizza taste revolves around personal preference and cultural background.


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