I recall a created holiday we celebrated in Elementary school aptly entitled, “America Day.” We had games outside and learned facts about the 50 states and the presidents but when it came time for lunch we switched gears. I was only seven-years-old but I remember so vividly confronting my teachers to address a sneaking suspicion I had.
“Ms. (drawing a blank…)? Today is America day, but we’re having pizza. Isn’t pizza Italian?”
I had obviously made my teacher uncomfortable. She stammered out a contrived answer along the lines of, “Well David, originally pizza was Italian, but pizza as we know it here is American.”
I wasn’t satisfied with that answer and I still think we should have had popcorn, barbecued ribs and peanut butter—real New World, North American foods—to celebrate America day—unless of course we were celebrating America day including South America and Central America, but it was clearly USA day.
So this brings us to the question that is begging to be asked: What exactly is pizza? What is American pizza vs. Italian pizza? What do we have in Richmond in terms of pizza? What’s the best? Most authentic? Authentic in what way—American or Italian or other?! It’s a dizzying topic when you delve deep into it.
I have been lucky enough to taste my way around the pizza landmarks of the world. I spent four-months studying in Italy last year, during which I was even more lucky to have the chance to visit Pizzeria Brandi in Naples, Italy—the birthplace of the Margarita pizza. I’m also fortunate enough to have family in Brooklyn, New York where I’ve had the chance to try some of the most famous, archetypal American pizzas from Grimaldi’s and Totonno’s. On a visit to Chicago, I ate at the legendary Gino’s East—a Chicago landmark for deep dish pizza. And being up until recently a college student, I’ve have had the not-so-fortunate opportunity to eat my fair share of cheap, truly American pizzas.
Pizza, loosely defined, is a flatbread, cooked in an oven and topped with something. Who makes the best pizza is completely up for interpretation and personal taste but I will tell you some differences. The single element that sets true Italian pizzas apart from anything on this side of the ocean and the one characteristic that makes any Italian food really taste Italian is freshness of ingredients. While the one single element that sets aside New York pizzas from Richmond pizza is coal fired, 1000°F ovens. With these exceptions, Richmond does have some pretty decent pizza to offer.
The majority of pizza places in Cap-City, VA attempt the New York variety, halted from what I see as further progression up the pizza heirarchy by the lack of supply of fresh “mozzarella di bufala” and tomatoes grown in Neapolitan volcanic soil only days before being mashed into fresh sauce. Some favorites and honorable mentions for New York style pizza in Richmond are Mary Angela’s in Carytown, Arianna’s Grill in the museum district, 8 ½ in the Fan and Tarrant’s—the back section of which was once Tarrantino’s—in Monroe Ward. All of these, and many others in the area have thin crispy crusts and good red or white sauces and decent mozzarella cheese. They vary in some ways like 8 ½ pours on the garlic heavily and Tarrant’s sauce is sweeter, but they are all similar New York style pizzas.
Of course Uno’s is a large chain now out of Chicago and deep dish is available across the country including in the Richmond area. Several restaurants however are going a slightly different route to make more authentically Italian pizzas. Among those are Sette in Church Hill and Stuzzi coming soon in Carytown. The difference between these and the other pizzerias is cooking techniques. Sette roasts pizzas over a wood fire while Stuzzi will have a certified Neapolitan pizza oven. While this will surely make a positive difference, there is no substitute for fresh Italian tomatoes.
Richmond specific pizza? Bottom’s Up in Shockoe bottom makes thick crust, but not deep dish pizzas piled high with interesting combinations like, my favorite, the Karen: spinach, ricotta, Italian sausage and onions. Every several minutes, a train full of coal, perfectly good coal that could go into a pizza oven but instead goes to a power plant runs overhead giving a down low atmosphere that could substitute for the rumbling of subways underneath Brooklyn.
As an aside, I find it ironic that coal fired pizza ovens have been outlawed due to environmental issues and that the remaining coal fired ovens were grandfathered in while at the same time we continue to use coal in massive quantities to power the grid to heat out insufficient ovens. Why not skip the middleman? Just a thought.
While Richmond is certainly no capital of pizza like Chicago, New York or Naples, we definitely hold our own. We can keep up with any other city outside important pizza cities. I’ll say it like this. I’ve had better pizza in Richmond than I’ve had in some places in both Italy and New York.
As for pizza for America day? What food really is truly American? Cultures have always shared foods. That’s why a gyro, a shawarma and a döner kabab are all basically the same thing. We are just lucky enough to live in the one country in the world that gets to borrow from everyone else and make our own cuisine from the whole world and not just our neighbors. Maybe pizza, as it was served to us on America day is the most American food there is. What could represent what our country is more that a traditional poor food from Europe disassembled and reassembled with the only continuity being the basic shape and ingredients? Isn’t that exactly what American culture is on the whole?
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