Here’s the preface to my new book, Pizza Cultura: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Dish. The chapter is based on a Short Film About Pizza by Chris Monette.
Around the time I started this project I ran into my friend, Chris Monette, a Toronto-based filmmaker, and told him I was writing a book about pizza. His reaction was similar to a lot of people I’ve talked to during the project: A book about pizza? I love pizza!
In no time, we were taking an animated trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the good (“I still love Pizza Nova, it’s the sauce”), the bad (“Frank Vetere’s deep dish!”), and many variations in between (“remember those take-home glasses from Mother’s Pizza?”).
He told me about his recent cycling tour of Italy, where pizza was the staple food of his many stops across the peninsula. And about his 10-year-old pizza afficionado son who adores “real Italian pizza” (Pizzeria Libretto is his favourite) not the “fast food stuff like Pizza Hut.”
A short film about pizza
At a certain point we circled back to the question: what makes this food so popular? Why does everybody love pizza? Chris was so intrigued by the questions he decided to make a little exploratory film about it.
He interviewed experts like Sam and Domenic Primucci (owners of Pizza Nova), chefs Massimo Bruno and Luciano Schipano, and business owners like Alda Morais (Pizzaiolo Gourmet Pizza). He spoke with people at the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario, the agency that commissioned this book. And he talked to friends and family, lay people who simply have a passion for pizza (there was no shortage of volunteers).
Despite its popularity — or maybe because of it? — everybody had their own ideas about why people love pizza so much. There were many different perspectives but we were able to distinguish these four recurrent themes.
1. It makes you happy
People have a strong emotional attachment to pizza because of experiences they associate with it. It’s comfort food that reminds them of child- hood, family get-togethers, and birthday parties. It’s a social food; a treat for special occasions; an informal food you can eat with your hands. And because it’s always there with you over the years it has a certain nostalgia to it, like an old friend you can sit down and reminisce with about the old days.
2. It’s easy
Old friends—like pizza!—are also easy to be with. You can just relax, be yourself. People talked about moving days, late nights at work, end- of-the-week evenings when the fridge is empty. About times when you’re tired, and then you think about having a pizza, and suddenly everything’s going to be all right. It’ll come quickly, you don’t have to fuss with cutlery, and you can customize your order to everyone’s taste (“half pepperoni and cheese, half prosciutto with arugula… ”). Pizza is a whole meal in a single dish. And as one person put it, when you order pizza, it’s never going to go that bad: “it could be great, but worst case scenario, it’s just alright.”
3. It’s versatile
Of course some purists would never venture beyond a classic Pizza Margherita DOP, but for the other 99% there are few, if any, rules. You can get “three-for-one” slices up the street from my home in downtown Toronto for $5, or hop on a plane to New York City and order a $2,000 gold-plated pizza at Industry Kitchen. There are pizza bagels, pizza cones, pizza pops, pizza rolls and pizza pastries; cheese- and meat- stuffed pizzas; and pizzaghetti (a pizza topped with spaghetti). There’s every style of pizzeria imaginable, from Halal to Chicago deep dish to Roman pizza al taglio.
One person likened pizza’s diversity to Canada itself, a “melting pot” of global cultures. (Or is it a mosaic?). Others said there’s a pizza for everyone’s taste, or for every day of the week, or for different stages of your life (fun kid pizzas; serious adult pizzas). It seems that pizza is not one dish, but many.
4. It’s accessible
Because of everything said above, and the fact that it’s made from a few, simple, inexpensive ingredients, pizza is accessible to everyone, regardless of income level or cultural background. (One person said there are pizza-like products in every culture, like naan or la a or pita. Another called it “approachable.”) With a little time and know-how, it’s even fun and easy to make, an activity that family and friends can enjoy together.
No matter how successful the industry gets, pizza itself remains a sentimental favourite— the people’s dish, a perennial underdog—in the eyes of many. Maybe that’s why so many of us like to think of our favourite pizza as the most authentic one (verace, old school, the real deal). Or why Canadians (like Italians) tend to drink beer instead of wine with their pizza. (Inviting the guys over to watch the game over a pizza and some pinot grigio just doesn’t work, we were told.)
What is pizza cultura?
This idea about the “accessibility” of pizza reminds us of its origins in eighteenth century Naples, where it was the daily food of the lazzaroni, the city’s poorest inhabitants. It was typically sold and eaten on the street, without plates or cutlery, folded twice-over (al libretto) so the toppings wouldn’t fall to the ground.
That was the story of pizza, it was just another traditional, regional flatbread in Italy, until a mass wave of Southern Italian emigration brought it to America at the beginning of the twentieth century. There, similar to Naples, it remained an urban, ethnic street food of American “little Italies” until after World War II.
It was the post-war economic boom in both Italy and the US that drove pizza’s popularity within those countries and beyond, eventually becoming the global dish we know today. It was also during this period that pizza first arrived here in Ontario, via a New York City bakery called Vesuvio.
As its name suggests, this book is about the culture of pizza: the history, the varieties and the craft; the business of pizza, the people who make it, the ingredients they use. It’s a reflection on a global movement but filtered through our city’s local manifestations of it.
In fact, Toronto, the bustling, modern, multicultural urban centre with one of the largest Italian populations outside of Italy and its proximity to Northeastern USA, just might be the perfect place to observe pizza cultura in action.