Like much of the food people eat in the United States today, pizza arrived on American shores via immigration patterns.
In the second half of the 19th century, famine, job shortages and poverty forced people to leave their homelands for America, which was perceived as the land of economic opportunity at the time. One of those groups were Italians, mostly from impoverished southern Italy. Between 1880 and the early 1920s, more than four million Italians had come through Ellis Island.
In addition to bringing their cultural customs, these Italians carried their own food recipes with them. One of which was for this cheese-and-tomato-sauce baked bread called “pizza.” The first pizzeria in the country opened in 1905; Lombardi’s, still located in Manhattan’s Little Italy, churned out thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas that were mostly eaten by homesick Italian immigrants.
It wasn’t until after World War II that pizza began to go mainstream. That’s when two things happened: American GIs who’d been stationed in Italy, came back with a craving for more pizza and Italian-Americans began moving up into the middle class and relocating to the suburbs, bringing their pizza with them and introducing this “ethnic food” it to a whole new hungry and curious audience of eaters.
Today, pizza is popular with pretty much everyone in the United States. According to a 2014 United States Department of Agriculture study, there are over 70,000 pizzerias (that’s 17% of all restaurants) in America today and 13% of Americans eat pizza daily, consuming three billion pizzas per year. And if you travel around the United States looking for pizza, there are various regional styles that have evolved and developed as Italian-Americans began settling outside of the big East Coast cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Here are some of those unique regional American pizza styles.
California's rule-breaking pizzas
In the first half of the 1980s, actor Gary Coleman was regularly uttering “Whatchutalkin’bout, Willis?” Prince was prophesizing Armageddon by the year 1999 and California put barbecued chicken on pizza. Leave it to the Golden State to break the rules. Most food historians credit Alice Waters and her legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse for pioneering the California-style pizza in the early 1980s, but Chef Ed LaDou is the name most associated with it. While working at Prego in San Francisco in 1980, he began experimenting by topping pizzas with things like duck breast and hoisin sauce, stretching the boundaries of the definition of pizza.
One night, acclaimed chef Wolfgang Puck was eating at Prego and LaDou sent out a pizza topped with paté, mustard, red pepper and ricotta. Puck was so impressed, he offered LaDou a job as the pizza chef at his acclaimed, upscale Beverly Hills eatery Spago. After that, LaDou went on to develop the first menu for would-be national chain California Pizza Kitchen.
And with that California-style pizza was officially a thing, as pizzerias from San Diego to Santa Monica to Santa Cruz were liberally sprinkling their oven-baked pies with grass-fed feta cheese, free-range duck breast, organic kale and whatever else was seasonal, organic, and farm-to-table at the time. It's heresy to a pizza purist but then again, this is the state that gave us the Barbie Doll, Taco Bell and Sammy Hagar. And we even got through the year 1999 without Armageddon.
Where to eat it: Chez Panisse often has pizza on its ever-changing cafe menu. At Spago in Beverly Hills, you can get pizza with black truffles or house-cured smoked Scottish salmon. And, of course, at your nearest California Pizza Kitchen.
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Chicago's signature deep dish
“Deep-dish pizza is not only not better than New York pizza,” said Jon Stewart on an episode of The Daily Show in 2013. “It’s not pizza. It’s [expletive] casserole.” Saying such things on the streets of the Windy City is risking a black eye, as deep-dish pizza is as part of the fabric of Chicago as “da Bears.”
Perhaps the most controversial and divisive regional American style pizza, deep dish shouldn’t even be compared to, say, New York-style pizza. This pie is its own edible beast. It feels like it was almost designed to be divisive as if it’s an edible passive-aggressive nod to pizza snobs everywhere.
Like a lot of iconic dishes, the origins of Chicago deep dish are murky, though many food historians point to the year 1943 when Ric Ricardo and Ike Sewell, two Chicagoans intent on creating an Italian-American version of pizza, opened up Pizzeria Uno in the city’s River North neighborhood.
Set in a round deep, cake-like olive-oil-coated pan (that eventually gives the dough a golden crispiness), the pizza is layered with mozzarella and then heaps of tomatoes, Italian sausage and whatever else is nearby, and then topped with a layer of sweet tomato sauce. (That’s right, the cheese is on the bottom layer.) Ricardo and Sewell’s goal of creating a unique pizza was achieved. Uno Pizzeria & Grill, as it is now called, went on to become a national restaurant chain.
If you side with Jon Stewart about deep-dish pizza, Chicago also has a lesser-known thin-crust variety as well. Chicago tavern-style pizza, rarely seen outside of the Windy City, is round, thin, ultra-crispy and cut in in square pieces instead of triangular shapes. As the name suggests, it’s served in bars, so patrons have something to fill the tummy with all that beer and booze.
Where to eat it: Uno Pizzeria & Grill has locations all over the United States, including the original Chicago location at 29 E. Ohio St. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria is a rival to Uno, as Lou worked at the original Uno location in the early days and went on to found a mini-chain serving deep-dish pizza. For tavern-style pizza in Chicago, try Marie’s Pizza & Liquors. In New York City’s Greenwich Village, you can try Chicago deep-dish pizza at Emmett’s or tavern-style pie at sister restaurant Emmett’s on Grove.
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Detroit's rectangle pizza
One of the chief characteristics of Detroit-style pizza is its thick, rectangular shape. And fittingly enough, that’s because the pie is cooked in a pan that was originally meant to be an automotive drip pan. The year was 1946. Gus Guerra who owned and ran a dive bar called Buddy’s Rendezvous wanted to add pizza to the bar menu, so he recruited his wife Anna to help. As the story goes, she got a dough recipe from her Sicilian mother and went about making pizza with it. The nearest “pan” was a two-inch thick automotive drip pan. Anna shrugged and added the dough to the pan. She then topped the dough with the remaining ingredients in reverse order. First, she pressed pepperoni slices down into the dough to maximize the flavor. Then, sticking to their Midwestern roots, she eschewed mozzarella for a blend of Wisconsin brick cheese before layering on three big stripes of tomato sauce. The result was a super-crispy pizza with a distinctive focaccia-like crust.
And with that, Detroit-style pizza was born. It became such a huge hit that Gus and Anna changed the name of the bar to Buddy’s Pizza. And soon after, pizzerias in the Motor City began popping up serving Detroit-style pie.
The style largely remained in Detroit, but in 2012 something interesting happened: a local Detroit pizzamaker named Shawn Randazzo was awarded the top prize at the Las Vegas International Pizza Expo for his Detroit-style pan pizza. It set the pizza world on fire and within a few years, there were Detroit-style pizza spots firing up their ovens in nearly every major American city.
Where to eat it: Buddy’s Pizza now has locations all over Michigan. Gus and Anna Guerra sold Buddy’s in 1953 and went on to open Cloverleaf Bar & Restaurant in Eastpointe, MI. It’s still open and still serving great pizza.
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New Haven's chewier, cheese-less pizza
At the beginning of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants, particularly from Naples, settled in New Haven, CT. They specifically rooted down around Wooster Street. As is their proclivity, these Italian immigrants wanted pizza, or as they said it in the Neapolitan dialect, “apizza,” pronounced, “ah-beetz.”
Frank Pepe answered the call. He began by delivering pies in the early 1920s to Italian workers in the city’s rubber factories. In 1925, he opened up his eponymous restaurant in New Haven’s Little Italy and is credited with the creation of New Haven-style pizza, as well as the city’s famed white clam pie.
New Haven-style pizza begins by letting the dough ferment longer than usual, generally overnight, which gives the finished product a chewier texture. What also makes New Haven pies unique is that they traditionally come with just tomato sauce. If you want mozzarella, or as it’s called in the local parlance, “mootz,” you have to request it. After the dough is topped, it’s placed in a large coal-burning brick oven until the pie is charred. The pizza is presented at the table on a large tray and is usually oblong-shaped.
Where to eat it: Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana is still charring pies on Wooster Street, but expect a line any time of the day. Modern Apizza, which opened in 1934, and Sally’s Appiza, open since 1938, along with Pepe’s, make up the Big Three of New Haven’s famed Little Italy pizzerias.
New York's crispy, foldable pies
In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi fired up his coal oven in Manhattan’s Little Italy for the first time and pizza was born in America. And so was a new style of pizza. Meet New York-style pie, which has a few unique characteristics that separated it from Neapolitan pizza, arguably the original pizza.
One is that it’s cooked in coal or gas ovens, rendering a crispy bottom complete with leopard-like spots. Secondly, New York pizzamakers use liberal amounts of mozzarella. Third, the oversized slice should be foldable, like when you’re making a paper airplane, rendering it easier to eat and keeping the grease and sauce from dripping anywhere but your mouth, where it belongs.
Where to eat it: Lombardi’s coal-fired pizza oven is still burning, 117 years after it was first fired up. Joe’s Pizza in Greenwich Village is the best slice around. Just around the corner, John’s of Bleecker Street is also excellent and, famously, only serves whole pies, not slices.
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Ohio Valley's slow-cook pizza
Ohio Valley-style pizza, or sometimes called Steubenville-style pizza, is a product of World War II. In 1945, one Primo DiCarlo returned home in Steubenville from being stationed in Italy during the war. He told his parents, both bakers, about this delicious baked cheese bread he’d eaten in Italy. “They call it pizza,” he said. And so, the family went about trying to recreate this pizza that primo had eaten. They started with a square pan and thick dough which they then topped with a tomato sauce that’s been slow-cooking for four hours and then cooked in a gas-fired oven. Halfway through, the pie is pulled out, where more sauce is applied and lightly sprinkled with provolone cheese. When it’s fully crispy, they take the pizza out, add grated provolone cheese and other toppings like pepperoni, black olives and green peppers. And it’s done.
No one knows why they added the toppings after, but one might conclude that Primo DiCarlo didn’t have the best memory and the family had to improvise and experiment. That same year, 1945, the family began selling this “pizza” at their bakery and eventually opened up pizzerias—Original DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza Shop— just to sell what is now Ohio Valley-style pizza.
Where to eat it: When in Steubenville and hungry, go to the source: Original DiCarlo’s Famous Pizza Shop is still slinging Ohio Valley-style pizzas.
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Quad Cities malty, cheesy pizza
In 1952 one Tony Maniscalco Sr. moved from Calumet City, IL to the Quad Cities and the region was forever changed. At least if you like pizza. This butcher and son of two Sicilian immigrants arrived with the idea to create a new style of pizza. And that he did.
Straddling the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois, the Quad Cities is home to the tractor company John Deere. It’s also the home of a very unique style of pizza. No one is really sure who actually created the pizza that would be known as Quad Cities-style pizza pie—only that Mr. Maniscalco brought it with him from Calumet City.
Whatever the case, it’s quite unique, starting with the dough which has a heavy dose of malt in it, giving it a darker appearance and a nuttier taste. The red sauce is applied conservatively. Fennel-laced pork sausage is added. And then, the last step before going in the gas-fired oven, is an abundant layer of mozzarella on top. When the pizza is done, it’s cut into strips with scissors. A 16-inch Quad Cities-style pizza should have 14 strips.
Where to eat it: Harris Pizza has four locations in and around Quad City and is one of the most famous purveyors of this style of pie. The other is Frank’s Pizzeria.
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Rhode Island's take on what a pizza can be
Question: is a pizza not a pizza if it lacks one of the big three ingredients, dough, red sauce and cheese? Don’t even ask this question in Rhode Island where “bakery pizza,” or Rhode Island-style pizza, is ubiquitous but impossible to find outside of this diminutive northeastern state.
Referred to by most locals as “red strips,” because, like Quad Cities-style pie, it’s cut into strips with scissors, pizza from the Ocean State is just soft dough and tangy tomato sauce—sometimes sprinkled with olive oil. No cheese necessary here.
The origins of Rhode Island-style pie are a mystery—though some have floated the theory that it is derived from cudduruni, a type of tomato-sauce-topped focaccia bread from Sicily.
Where to eat it: DePetrillo’s Pizza & Bakery has locations all over Rhode Island. D. Palmieri’s Bakery is also well known for its red strips.
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St. Louis and its cracker-like crust pizza
In 1945, tenor/handyman/used car salesman Amadeo Fiore opened up a restaurant in St. Louis called Melrose Cafe—later he changed it to Melrose Pizzeria. Amadeo, originally from Chicago and the son of Italian immigrants, realized there was no place to get pizza in St. Louis. So, he bought a pizza oven and went about introducing the city to this edible wonder that would one day win the hearts (and taste buds) of nearly every human on the planet. How in the world he ended up with what is known as St. Louis-style pizza is a mystery.
St. Louis-style pie is characterized by the use of unleavened crispy, cracker-like crust—so much so if you try to fold a piece, it will break apart. In fact, the crust is so sturdy that it allows for the other chief feature of this regional pizza style: it’s loaded with so many toppings that pizza critics often jokingly refer to St. Louis-style pizza as “nachos.”
The cheese, which is put on last, also makes this pizza unique. They eschew mozzarella for something called Provel, a Wisconsin-made, only-in-St.-Louis-eaten processed blend of cheddar, provolone and Swiss cheese that has a low melting point and is dumped on the pie, smothering the entire thing. The round pizza is then cut into squares, also known as the “party cut.”
Let’s just say Amadeo Fiore’s Naples-born parents would hardly recognize his creation, St. Louis-style pizza, as pizza.
Where to eat it: Since 1964, iconic Imo’s has excellent St. Louis-style pizza with several locations in and around the city. Frank & Helen’s has been making this regional style of pie since 1956.