Where’s the Pizza?
It appears pizza is as old as Italy. Almost, but its history here is not that long. One claim is that Roman soldiers carried around sourdough that they would flatten, top with whatever was at hand, and bake in stone-lined pits. The modern pizza originated in Naples in the sixteenth century. Well into the latter half of the twentieth century, it remained a regional specialty in Italy, often sold cold by the slice at bakeries. What changed all that was American tourists and their demand, “Where’s the pizza?” Ironically, much of the pizza served in Europe today has its roots in this country.
Italian immigrants definitely brought pizza with them to America. By the late nineteenth century, these new arrivals in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were enjoying this Old World treat. However, it didn’t become a culinary crossover until after World War II. American G.I.s in Italy hankering for something more interesting that C rations discovered pizza and liked it. Seeking it out at Italian restaurants here, they were often dismayed not to find it on the menu, asking, “Where’s the pizza?” Often the response was, “What’s pizza?” What followed was a description to a cook who would subsequently concoct it using ingredients thought to be essentially Italian—red sauce, garlic, oregano and parmesan cheese.
Restaurants run by Italian Americans fueled its popularity, adding it to their bill of fare next to the more familiar spaghetti and meatballs. In various communities different styles of pizza evolved and all have their ardent fans. In New York it’s big, thin and crispy. New Haven spun off its own rendition, made without tomato sauce and dubbed a white pizza. Chicago is synonymous with a thick crust, deep-dish pizza baked in a pan. Detroit’s version is very similar but must be square rather than round. Milwaukee has a predilection for cutting round pies into square pieces. California abandoned all Italian pretense in favor of multiculturalism: The ‘za of zen inspired by tacos and barbecue, topped with pineapple and Thai peanut sauce, and even garnished with sprouts.
Growing up in Madison in the late ’50s, I only remember a handful of restaurants—Paisan’s, The Varsity Bar, and Jimmy Schiavo’s—where I went to eat pizza, plus Pizza Pit that delivered. I’m sure there were others, but wherever I went, it was all pretty much the same: a thin crust topped with tomato sauce, sausage or pepperoni and, of course, mozzarella. With the passage of time more places begin serving pizza—the same kind of pizza—until Rocky Rocco opened in 1974 and introduced the sort long favored in nearby Chicago.
The next decade experienced a revolution in American taste, instigated by advances in transportation and communication and the subsequent globalization of food. In 1976, a new kind of restaurant came to town, L’Etoile. It was styled as classically French at first, but Odessa Piper who had long been interested in organic food, soon took advantage of the farmers’ market right outside her door. She became at the forefront of a movement for more urbane cuisine that was locally-sourced as well.
In 1987, Nancy Christy and Andrea Craig opened the Wilson Street Grill with specialties that were always fresh, often local, and that appealed to newly sophisticated palates. On the menu were intriguing individual pizzas topped with combination of ingredients heretofore not found here.
By 1997 when Glass Nickel opened, even delivered pizza was no longer boxed in by a choice of thick or thin crust and traditional Italian-inspired toppings. Instead, fanciful creations like the Thai Pie with peanut sauce, veggies and chicken; the Cordon Blue with honey-mustard sauce, chicken, ham and Swiss; and a breakfast pizza with scrambled eggs and sausage found new fans. Ian’s has gone on to build upon the success of unorthodoxy with the likes of what is now its bestseller, mac ‘n’ cheese pizza.
Even pizza at the Italian restaurant got a makeover with Patrick O’Halloran and Marcia Castro’s reincarnation of Lombardino’s. The place was as old as the Tuscan Hills and so was the food, but modern Italian cooking—including imaginative pizzas that didn’t rely on tomato sauce and globs of gooey cheese—transformed it into one of the Madison’s most venerated dining destination.
Of course, many pizzerias continue to make the perennially popular traditional-style pie, but the market now demands variety and quality. Even dough is scrutinized—how it’s made, shaped and baked. At the Greenbush Bar, Anna Alberici concocts a classic thin-crust pizza that’s baked in a brick oven and as good as any of its genre.
Today, Madison restaurants dispense virtually every cuisine known under the sun. At some, chefs use their creativity in an effort to keep up with the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for something new and different—pizza included. Where’s the pizza? Everywhere! And, however you like your crust, whatever you like on top, and whether you are timid or adventurous; your options are now infinite.
Recipe: Mongolian-Style Chicken Pizza
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1 tbsp Chinese chili paste with garlic
2 tsp teriyaki sauce
1/2 tsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 boneless chicken breast halves with skin
1 1/2 cups grated whole milk mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
2 tbsp grated fresh Parmesan
1 cup red, green and yellow bell peppers, cut into julienne strips
2 large shiitake mushrooms, stemmed cut into julienne strips
Pizza dough for a 15-inch round pizza
Mix together the hoisin sauce, Chinese chili sauce, soy sauce, grated ginger and minced garlic.
(This can be done a day ahead of time. Store, covered in the refrigerator.)
Preheat oven 400 degrees.
Oil a 15-inch round pizza pan and sprinkle with corn meal. Roll out the pizza dough as thinly as possible and use it to line the pan, trimming the edge. Brush the remaining hoisin sauce mixture evenly over the dough and sprinkle with half the cheese mixture. Arrange the pepper, mushroom and chicken strips over the cheese. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.
Bake the pizza in the preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Black and white sesame seeds
Pickled red and pink ginger
Cut the pizza into pieces and sprinkle with sesame seeds, slices of pickled ginger and sprouts.
Serves 4 as an appetizer.
This post is a longer version of “Madison’s Pizza Revolution,” which appeared in the story in the February 2014 issue of Madison Magazine.