Having grown up in New York City, food critic Daniel Young has viewed pizza as a way of life. For his new foodie guide, Where to Eat Pizza: The Last Word on the Slice, Young curated 956 pizza informants from around the world to gauge the best pizzerias serving a diverse crop of pies, and compiled 1,705 of their selections from 48 countries into a 576-page pizza lover’s bible.
Now, Young speaks to EW about the process of managing an army of food experts from his desk in London, the history of “the fold,” and how he hopes to open the eyes of both New York traditionalists and casual diners to new pizza options — like the cheesy layers of Buenos Aires pies or crispy New Haven dough — from all corners of the earth’s crust.
What attracted you to writing a book about pizza? Why this particular food at this particular time?
Everyone grows up on pizza. It was my first love and my greatest love of food. It’s also a food that’s come into its own in the social media era. I like to say that food is the new rock and roll. It has to be food you can hum, food that has a hook that you don’t have to figure out, like great popular music. You just love it like a classic song. I think pizza needs no explanation. We all love it; we all have a very emotional reaction. It’s our comfort food, our happy food.
Why do you think people are so passionate about their pizza?
Immigrants brought pizza from Italy all over the world, but everywhere people went it kind of took on a local variation, and if you grow up on that variation, that’s the pizza you know. You get a very strong attachment to that pizza; that’s authentic pizza to you. It might not be authentic pizza to someone in Naples, but if you grew up in Pittsburgh or in Northeast Pennsylvania, which is huge for pizza, or Philadelphia or Buenos Aires, Argentina, you get an attachment to that pizza.
It’s very hard to open yourself up to new styles, although you do see that happen—you see Neapolitan-style pizza showing up in Pittsburgh or San Francisco, but we all have a voyage or a personal journey to forget. I’m hoping this book will help people open up to other styles of pizza that have their own beauty. If you grew up in Des Moines, it might not be the same, but we can have other lovers. Monogamy is fine for relationships—it’s a virtue and it’s great to have one love, but for pizza, we don’t win any virtue points for sticking with one pizza. We can have many loves.
What pizza trends are you noticing, at least geographically?
I think New Haven, Connecticut is very passionate about their local style of pizza, which is thin and crisp, normally cooked in a coal oven. The people of Buenos Aires, Argentina love their pan pizza, which is thicker-crusted and it’s cheesy like you can’t imagine. Naples likes a soft-crusted pizza, which is done in a wood-fired oven. Detroit has this thick crust, their own deep-dish pizza. They call it the Detroit Square.
One of the wonderful trends now in the U.S. is that regional styles, you can now find great examples of them outside their home regions. So, you can find New York-style pizza in San Francisco, you can find Detroit pizza in Austin, you can find New Haven pizza in Boston. So, it is a smaller world for pizza.
When specific pizzas are often associated with particular regions, why do you think those particular tastes evolved in those specific areas?
Influential immigrants… People [go] to these regions — immigrants, pioneers — and adapt their own foods. Immigrants who cook the food adapt it according to local taste and availability of products, and this happens in pizza [history] until the U.S. giants, the chains — Pizza Hut, Domino’s — created an international idea of what pizza is. American chain pizza became the pizza style of the world. It’s only the millennials who brought regional pizza. It’s not necessarily Italians who are opening the new pizza shops in the U.S. It’s not just in New York or San Francisco, but also in Asheville, North Carolina, or Flagstaff, Arizona. These are millennial geeks who love food, love baking, lock themselves up in a basement with the dough with instructions, do a thousand tests, travel to gurus [around the world] and perfect it. It’s really craft pizza.
A lot of people do “the fold,” but do you know where and why it started?
Undoubtedly the fold started in Naples. Pizza was a street food before there were pizzerias. So, there were peddlers who would hold these small pizzerias in a big holder to keep them warm, and people would eat them on the street, and the way you would eat them on the street is you folded them twice in half, because if you were walking with it, it was the only way to keep the toppings from spilling out all over or getting on your hands. In Naples, they called it “pizza portafoglio.” That means, “pizza wallet style.” I think New York brought a different kind of fold, and that was for the slice shop. If you don’t have a knife and fork and you have a triangular slice and the toppings are very oozy and wet, you’re going to do it by hand, and you want to collect the toppings, you need to fold that triangle and contain the toppings in the middle.
New Yorkers are arrogant sometimes about their pizza, and other people just don’t want to be dictated to outside New York, that you have to eat it this way. St. Louis pizza is very crisp and thin-crusted. You don’t need to fold it. There are many people who don’t have a problem with using a knife and fork. Technically it’s more hygienic, so I think folding or not folding is a personal choice. It’s part of the pizza war. It becomes a judgmental thing. So, in New York, if you don’t fold your pizza, you’re treated like a tourist. That’s wrong. You should eat it the way you like to eat it. Pizza is a strong thing. It’s a passion; it evokes very strong emotions—some good, and a few maybe not so good.