The article set forth below in connection with the History Channel’s program tonight on pizza appeared today on the NY Times website, at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/29/arts/television/29eats.html
. The title of the article is ‘American Eats’ Offers the True American (Pizza) Pie. The writer is Virginia Heffernan.
American pie is no longer apple, if it ever was. Or so goes the argument of the History Channel tonight, when stateside pizza is the focus of the channel's buoyant, intelligent and cuisine-ecumenical series "American Eats."
The migration of pizza westward — from southern Italy to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles — is the story of mutation, innovation, perversion. And in spite of the documentary's wonderfully nonjudgmental narration, viewers will find it hard not to take sides.
Midwestern deep-dish types tend to see coastal pies as too wan or too fancy. Californians like their Spago-era artworks all fusioned and deluxe; I imagine they silently believe that other kinds of pizza are only for fat people. New Yorkers, who are fundamentally right on this subject, know they have the real thing.
Or almost. One thing this documentary does well is show how importation is always transformation: even when Gennaro Lombardi, the founding father of American pizza, opened his shop on Spring Street in SoHo a century ago, he was tampering with tradition. He had to use local tomatoes, explains the voice-over, "instead of San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius." And atop the local tomato sauce he melted ordinary cow cheese, instead of the distinctive Italian mozzarella made from water-buffalo milk.
But Lombardi's real contribution, let's face it, was droopiness. Neapolitan pizza tends to be crisp; its slices stay horizontal when you eat them. New York pizza droops. This dubious, if cherished, effect comes from the coal ovens.
The pizza chef at Lombardi's today, John Brescio, is a childhood friend of the grandson of the original Lombardi. With his Bada Bing swagger and major dialect, Mr. Brescio is far and away the star of this "American Eats" episode, which doubles as an ad for his venerable pizzeria. His deadly serious explanation of the coal oven makes a dandy aria.
"I want to show youse the fire," he says to the audience, beckoning viewers inside.
"Right now, where the coals are burning, it's 2,200 degrees. That heat transfers over to the floor of the oven, where the pies are cooking, and it goes down to about 850 to 900 degrees. And it takes three and a half minutes. With a coal oven you get a smoky, crusty flavor on the outside, and a light, airy — if your dough is made right — a light, airy, with nook and crannies all inside. So it's like biting into heaven."
The documentary also supplies a brief but zingy pre-American history of pizza, from its obscure origins in Rome or Phoenicia, no one knows for sure. This much is offered as fact: beginning in 1522, when the Spanish conquistadors found tomatoes in the Andes and brought them back to Europe, Italian peasants cooked with them, shrugging the anxieties of their social betters who worried that the red fruit, which is related to nightshade, might be poisonous. But when the indigent tomatophiles didn't die, others took their chances and by 1700 tomatoes were being profitably grafted onto focaccia in Naples.
In the History Channel's telling of pizza's rise to fame, near the close of the 19th century, Italy's queen, Margherita, asked on a whim to taste the vulgar dish that delighted the lower orders. A pizzaioli named Raffaele Esposito prepared three pies: pork fat, cheese and basil; tomato, garlic and olive oil; and one made to look like the Italian flag, with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil leaves. Guess which one she loved.
(On some anniversary or another Spago or California Pizza Kitchen, the restaurants where Ed LaDou invented and then popularized eclectic pizza, should offer all three in a tasting menu, especially the pork fat one, which sounds delicious.)
After covering Italy and New York but before California, the program makes a detour through New Haven, where Frank Pepe, who was allergic to cheese and tomato, first put white clams on a pizza. In the 20th century it seems that every chef and franchiser wanted to try his hand at pizza, and the documentary entertainingly and respectfully chronicles the contributions of Pizzeria Uno, Domino's and even DiGiorno's frozen pizza.
But in all this hat tipping the History Channel is especially indulgent with Chicago, which got into the pizza trade during and after World War II, when soldiers came home hungering for Italian fare. Ike Sewell and Rick Ricardo, two non-Italians, decided that Italian and New York pizza wasn't brawny enough for real American guys; they bulked up the crust, thickened the cheese and added meat enough for a meal. This is deep-dish pizza, and it takes about 40 minutes to bake.
Mr. Brescio is again unsmiling.
"Chicago, for me, is too thick," he says, offering with that "for me" a courteous nod to culinary relativism. "You eat one slice, you're full already. And most of it is dough."
The History Channel, tonight at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.