PIZZA By S. John Ross, Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2013 -- Version 3.3


Culinary Historians have difficulty pinpointing the time when pizza entered the world, but I for one have difficulty imagining us without it. We could speak of flavored flatbreads found in all parts of the world - even ancient Egypt had them. The Chinese, of course, had an equivalent (they tried everything once).

But flavored flatbreads - even the early ones baked by the Etruscans and eaten in what is today Italy - aren't pizzas. Not yet. The Etruscan flatbreads evolved into what are now called foccacia, which are traditionally given most of their flavor as they come out of the oven. It was up to the Greek influences on early italy to bake the flavor right in to the foccacia. This novel innovation was picked up by the Romans, and by 200 BC, fun round food was happening on the trendy level in Rome.

But that wasn't pizza, either. And wouldn't be for a very long time. Flatbread flavored with olive oil and herbs, yes. And honey! Not pizza.

Jump ahead to the 16th century. 1522, by most accounts. The tomato comes to Italy, and is believed by most to be poisonous. A decorative plant, the tomato is grown by everybody who is anybody but eaten only by the nobodies. In Naples, the folks are very poor, and they'll eat damn near anything. Including tomatoes 

The crazy fools put it in their flatbread. Tomatoes! Poison! Baked right in.

But not on top. No pizza, yet.

We're still in Naples, now, but now it's 1830. A lot has happened. More stuff on top of the flatbread, with just as many yummy things baked in. Proto-pizza. But something new is added: a pizzeria. Now, the pizzaioli, peasant men known for making and vending pizzas, had been around for a century already. But in 1830, the first establishment dedicated to the dish was opened. It lacked checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns, though, and it lacked piped-in music and raffia-wrapped bottles. It had the little fat guys with aprons, or some version of them, but again, it wasn't quite there. And, outside of Naples, pizza was still nonexistent. Out-of-towners regarded it as a curious novelty. 

In 1889, the event that pizza historians (well, legendarians, since it probably didn't literally happen this way) still joke about as the world's first pizza delivery happened (ish. Play along). King Umberto I and his queen, the food-loving Margherita, were curious about this whole pizza thing, so they ordered in from the Pietro il Pizzaiolo, despite "delivery" not being an option on the menu. It's good to be the king.

Raffaele Esposito made the pizzas and brought them before royalty. There were three kinds, but Margherita fancied a favorite: One made with strips of fresh tomato, plenty of fresh basil, and strewn about with mozzarella cheese (very different from the rubbery, flavorless kind we get here, but you have to understand that these people were primitives and didn't know any better). And, you know the way these things go - royalty sets the trends, and suddenly "pizza margherita" was a hit, and spread across Italy.

By the turn of the century, streetside stalls were everywhere, and the pizzas were baked in big ovens. Contrary to some modern reports, these early pizzas were in fact baked on metal pans. It wasn't until later that bakers started treating them like loaves of bread, sliding them onto naked stone. Pizza as junk food had its real beginnings, and it was primed to evolve into what we have here in America, now.

That evolution would come in less than a hundred years. The foundations were laid by Italian immigrants, who created the first truly American pizzas by adapting the old recipes to the new ingredients. The tomatoes in America were completely different, with milder flavor, so seasoned tomato sauces replaced fresh vegetables. But what to season it with? In those days, you couldn't GET oregano in the States, so marjoram was used. The flour was different, softer and more pliable, which meant that the stiffer, heartier Italian crust could be replaced by a heavenly, flexible stuff that you could fold into your mouth in front of the TV set (TV wasn't invented yet, but these were canny immigrants who thought ahead). And the cheese? None of that robust, flavorful buffalo-milk mozzarella, nossir. The same techniques applied to cow's milk created an entirely different cheese: Less flavor, but oh, the texture! It streams and it stretches and it catches on your chin. Surely, the Italians thought, we have come to a land of promise and goodness, where the cheese is FUN.

New York, as one might imagine, is home to the first pizzeria in the States, which opened in 1905. By the 1920s and 1930s, they became sit-down restaurants, and served more varied fare, and they were in major cities across the country. But, they still weren't part of the American landscape, not really. Pizza made in those shops was very much a product of American ingredients and American influences applied to the pride of Naples, but it remained an ethnic curiosity.

Then, World War II came along. American solidiers streamed into Europe from the wilds of Kansas and Nebraska, not just New York and Chicago. And they went to Italy. And they ate Pizza. By now, Pizza wasn't just a neapolitan issue; every town in Italy had its own specialties, and Italian pizza was already being influenced by the pizzas of America! The GI found sensual pleasure at tables in Italy that would rival any kind of fun that later generations would find in brothels in Saigon. Pizza. And when they went home, they wanted it to come with them. It did.

After World War II, real American Pizza existed. Pizza took it's place next to hot dogs and hamburgers and french fries. You could buy it by the slice. You could buy mixes for making it at home. By 1957, you could buy it frozen. "Deep Dish" or "Pan" pizza had been introduced in Chicago in 1948, and that spread across the American continent with the same kind of enthusiasm that Queen Margherita had inspired so long before.

The Modern[ish] State of Things

Here, half a century later, pizza hasn't stopped evolving. The food trends of the 1980s saw a return to more "authentic" styles of pizza - pizza margherita and it's cousins began appearing in restaurants in the big cities, baked on stone for a fresh-bread taste that differs greatly from the almost fried flavor of deep dish Chicago pizza, or orange-and-floppy New York pizza. The traditional pizzas enjoyed a popularity that isn't gone yet, not by a long shot. California got into the pizza act, too, bringing it's own powerful (if often disturbing) style to the pizza, giving us White Pizza and other such oddities (White Chili was the sequel, and it's all pretty ironic considering the White Food trend came directly on the heels of the Blackened Food trend). People started putting arugula on the damned things. It got funky. [Note from many years later: then the funky got mundane, infesting every suburban retail cluster. It's neo-bagels all over again.]

Amid this circular chaos of pizza, however, there exists a kind of Core Pizza - a mental prototype burned into our genetic makeup at the beginning of time, perhaps, and only developed fully in the wake of World War. And that's what kind of pizza we'll be exploring here. For authentic Italian pizza, I refer you to the writings of Marcella Hazan and others (she's also good reading for food history, and writes the best Italian cookbooks available in our vulgar language). For White Pizza or things with arugula, I refer you to your nearest college town [... or the dullest shopping mall you can find, where the college kids of '98 are now milling around, buying designer tie-clips or whatever it is they do]

For the very best Chicago Deep Dish and New York pizzas, wait for my sequel article [15 years; still waiting]. For now, we'll delve into the Core Pizza, the ultimate pie. Pizza Sjohn. Spread the word. [recipe still works, so I added photos; hi!]



  • 2 cups of all-purpose or unbleached flour
  • 2/3 cup of very warm water
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • herbs and black pepper to taste

The grunt-work of mixing the dough is best done by a machine: a food processor, a bread machine on "dough" cycle, or (best of all) a KitchenAid Mixer, the holy grail of appliances. If none of these are available, roll up your sleeves and mix them in a large bowl by hand. Do the initial mix with the tail-end of a wooden spoon, or with a sturdy case knife. Then turn it out onto a floured board and knead until satiny smooth. In either case, allow one rising, then punch the dough down.

Once you have the dough punched, shape it into a pizza crust. Whether to bake on a stone or a lightly-oiled pan or baking sheet is a personal choice that I tend to take both sides on. Each have their charms; experiment and find which you enjoy most. Another decision: should the baking surface (the pan or stone) be preheated along with the oven, with the pizza slid onto it only as baking begins? Another matter of taste; neither answer is wrong. A preheated baking stone or metal pan will give you a crisper, more well-defined crust. 

When shaping the crust, work the dough outward from the center. Optionally, you can make a circle of dough two inches wider than you actually want the pizza to be. Then, fold the outer rim under the pizza, taking up that slack inch around the edge. This "rolling" of the crust will give you a nice, breadlike crust that holds flavors well. Later on, we'll talk about seasoning it.

Notes: This recipe creates dough sufficient for a single pizza with a finished diameter of 12-13 inches. If you want a larger or smaller pie, multiply the desired diameter by itself, and divide the result by 72. That's the cups of flour you need (everything else scales proportionately). Thus, for a gigantic 20-inch pizza, you'd want about 5-1/2 cups of flour! I like to double the recipe given, and make two pizzas - one to eat, and one to slice up and freeze for bag lunches and so on later on.

[image of pizza dough ready to be topped]


  • A few tablespoons of canned, crushed tomatoes
  • A sprinkling of whole or crushed fennel seed
  • herbs and pepper and salt

The sauce that I like best is a good deal more "New York style" than it is "Core America." The Core American sauce is a simmered sauce with lots of flavor, and is provided below as Sauce Version II. This sauce is the kind that you'll find on the best pizzas in my Native Homeland - which is to say, the grey-skied stretch of coastal states known as the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, in the corridor of towns stretching from Richmond to Boston. There, in little Greek and Italian pizzerias, you'll find the good stuff, and part of the secret is the sauce.

And the secret is that it's no "sauce" at all - simply crushed tomatoes from a can, spooned onto the crust directly and then sprinkled with fennel, a few herbs, and salt and pepper, to taste. Before sprinkling, spread the tomatoes evenly around the circle of dough with a wooden spoon, your fingers, a spatula, or (for the avant-garde) a live gerbil (wear gloves; they scratch). This sauce is light and full of bright, tomato flavor. It can be put on thin or thick, as you like it.

That's it. That's the whole sauce, honest. Move on.

Note: Canned tomatoes? Very definitely. In addition to being an economic necessity in the pizzerias that made this sauce famous, canned plum tomatoes are simply the best for sauces. The tomato varieties available fresh (in the United States, any way) aren't great "sauce tomatoes," although they make excellent additions, as a topping. That's the way Queen Margherita had her pizza "sauced," after all - with fresh tomatoes only. But we can have the best of both worlds. To use fresh tomatoes as a topping, chop or slice them and place them directly on the sauce, before any other ingredients.


  • 1 small (6 oz) can of tomato paste
  • olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped or pressed
  • 1 tsp fennel seed
  • herbs and pepper and salt
  • fluid (see below)

This sauce is a rich and flavorful example of a "Core American" sauce, and it's another favorite. Every now and then, I get in the mood for this, instead of the lighter New York sauce. Note that this recipe makes enough sauce for leftovers, unless you like a very strongly sauced pizza! It is a very bold sauce and should not be overused. "Paint" the crust with it; don't drown it. The rest can be frozen for later use. Here's how to make it:

Saute the garlic and onion together until the onions are well cooked. Add the fennel, tossing quickly over the heat, then add tomato paste. Add herbs, pepper, and salt to taste.

What you'll have at this point is a rather thick glop. It must be thinned with some kind of fluid. Another point of personal choice is upon us. A bold red wine is one way to go; this makes a sauce that is likewise very agressive and flavorful and truly memorable. Some find the flavor a bit too strong, however, so you may wish to experiment with a bit of water or milk along with the wine. Milk can be used entirely, in fact, and a very yummy, much milder sauce results. If you have a heavy hand with the herbs, milk is a good choice. I've been known to toss in a bit of vinaigrette to confuse people, too. It adds nicely to the flavor. Optionally, a bit of honey or sugar can be used to cut the acid of the tomato flavor.

Note that, when you use wine, cooking out the alchohol is optional!


The toppings are up to you. The Core Pizza at the heart of the American psyche probably is topped with onions, mushrooms, green peppers, pepperoni, ham, things like that. Maybe skip the green peppers for the prissy, or add black olives for the completist. Me? I love anchovies, but I don't expect you to. I love bacon and I love pineapple and I love hot peppers and just about everything else.

There are a few rules to be observed, though: Don't weigh down your pizza. It's often a temptation for newcomers to do so - to pile the thing up with huge handfuls of everything, to end up with a multicolored pitcher's mound on the countertop. That's great until you try to pick up a slice and it ends up in your lap. Pizza is eaten by hand; don't make one that requires a fork and a knife. If you have lots of toppings and a big appetite, make two pizzas. Yeast-leavened dough keeps well in both the fridge and the freezer (in the fridge, it continues to rise slowly). A good rule of thumb: one ounce of toppings (not counting cheese) per inch of diameter as the limit, so a 12-13 inch pizza can handle 12-13 ounces of meat and veggies.

Another important rule that many restaurants ignore at their peril: Understand that the flavor of thin slices of meat are awakened by allowing the meat to caramelize, to darken and crisp. On pizza, this applies to pepperoni, to thin slices of bacon, Canadian bacon (back bacon), and ham. It applies to a lesser extent to ground beef and sausage. 

What this means is: put those meats on top. Don't bury them under cheese. Pepperoni underneath cheese becomes limp and soggy. Pepperoni on top of cheese crisps and caremelizes, and becomes tantalizing and sinfully pleasant. A thin sprinkling of cheese for appearances is fine, but leave plenty of naked edges on the thin meats to crisp.

The best bet, I've found, is to put down the main cheese layer, then the veggies, then a sprinkle of cheese, then the meats and a final (very light) sprinkle of cheese. Save any parmesan for after the pie emerges from the oven; stick to the gooey fun stuff on the raw pie.

For the finishing touches, dust the whole pie with black pepper and herbs. Marjoram, plenty of it, plus a lot of basil, is my favorite. I also find that seasoning the rim of the crust is nice: brush it lightly with olive oil using a pastry brush, then sprinkle as above, plus a little salt.

[image of finished pizza]

At this point, you may wish to let the pizza stand in a warm place to give a final rise to the crust. This will make a thicker, more pillowy crust which many find pleasant; it's a matter of taste; get in touch with your own vision of the Core Pizza and see what it cries out to you. In any case, about 30 minutes is more than sufficient.

The oven should be hot: 450o F. Bake the pizza for 8-15 minutes, carefully watching for a very deep gold in the crust and bubbly cheese in the center of the pie (ovens vary; so watch very carefully the first time you bake a pizza, and make a note of how long it takes for later reference). Remove from the oven, brush the crust lightly with olive oil, and let stand for about three minutes before slicing and serving. Fold it front of the TV set. Because you can.

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