I don’t care if you’re doing haute cuisine or burgers and pizza, just do it right

Grant Achatz

I once spent an entire morning stuck in the never-ending YouTube rabbit hole of watching pizza related videos, the way we all do, or so I’m guessing. A complete 12 stages of pizza envy engulfed me when I witnessed Alex Delaney in one such video profile the best-sliced pizza in New York; I remember that sliced pizza, it fed me and it cost just a few dollars.  

More videos appeared, more time spent looking at my bank account in between loading – trying to figure out when I could afford an Ooni portable oven for my bare and sparce backyard. It continued, for 5 more hours. Variations of pizza, skillfully designed videos, from making it, to the strangest concoctions. My interest peaked at “5 year old makes pizza better than you.”

He did as well. It was a tough morning.

So much internet real estate is dedicated to the dish that I can no longer keep track of it. From the New York Times showcasing the latest trends to hit the streets of the city that never sleeps to BuzzFeed analytically proving that my pizza choice makes me perfect partner material with a caveat – in the Manson family. There is a slew of articles, nearly daily, on serious cooking websites to purpose written and highly intricate publications telling me where I should or shouldn’t eat. It’s hard to keep ahead of the game, it’s hard to understand if I’m “doing pizza right.”  

And for all the acquired knowledge of pizza eating I’ve had over the years, it feels like I’m failing my people, my people being a select few Italians with strong Northern British accents. I can’t escape the angst, the animosity, nor the friendships created because of a mutual opinion shared about something which is, at its heart, very simple. “It’s just pizza, what’s the point?” I think to myself – quietly – to which I follow it up with, “since when did you become so boring?”

Because it’s not “just pizza” there is at least a century, going on a century and a half of tradition in this, and in that time it has managed to cause more cultural guffaw than Jeremy Kyle. Jezza – the only person I know who has taken the human form of a hotel room carpet stain.

Pizza has been there for me when I needed it most, and possibly when it didn’t need it at all, but it was there. It was a constant, it was something I could understand without taking too much time to mull over, unlike picking something from a Chinese menu or the somehow zen-like knowledge required to pick the correct, ramen. I don’t have those skills; my tastes are tied in classic Italian cooking and European dishes – even then, I’m wondering if there is a way to make them sound less… twatish. But that’s me and my issue with food impatience, and anything sounding like it required a surgeon and not a chef to make.

Pizza isn’t about any of that, it shouldn’t be anyway. The rules always, almost are the same, a dough, topping and cheese or tomato, or both. There is variation, there is a difference but it is pretty much there. It doesn’t require any of us to know a complex lexicon of flavour profiles, preparations etc. We can tell from first sight what we’re roughly getting, we know if it’s going to be any good just by a smell, a touch, a glimpse of the crust.

Pizza is pizza, it can be good, it can be bad – but pizza is also community.

Whether it is a Dominos or a local restaurant, an artisan bread maker or your store-bought fridge variety, what pizza has managed to do is really cement us into a different way of thinking about communal food. Communal in how it brings together ingredients, producers and people, communal in how it can bring about change in communities by just being present, communal by the example of what a fire in an oven can do to make us all sit around and take note like our very earliest ancestors.

It’s important to understand quality as well because the quality is important but that’s true of everything else, and like everything else it’s subjective. I could rate a Papa John’s the way I rate a Dua Lipa track – generally unnecessary and overvalued – but then again, someone may like Dua Lipa. And of course, if I was going to be picky, any guide to pizza that keeps putting Naples as the top may be shocked to learn that I don’t think the city has the best. Look to the mountain top villages in Caserta, Nola, Benevento and Avellino to find pizza makers that challenge tradition and push pizza into new culinary realms.

Stories rise from Italy to Argentina, West Coast America to Tokyo about pizza makers doing things differently. What would once get me into a state of chronic cringe is now just a nod to them trying to build something better, different and unique. This is where quality has a purpose and a sense of belonging; I am no one to judge your topping, in that you are no one to judge my internet search history writing this piece…

Community, in its own unique way, has always been what pizza is about. Whether it was the immigrants to America recreating a sense of home or small villages having a local bakery that did everything (and are returning to do so!). From restaurant to take away it has found a place in our communal lexicon of “food for the masses” and yet it does it without absurd proclamations. We know its comfort, but it can be gourmet and ultimately we don’t care because “it’s pizza.” It means something more than just; food. That’s why it matters.  

A night with friends, a night in front of the TV, a meal elsewhere or the best from the rest at a 3 am car stop from an all-night Gregg’s/Sbarro/Spizzico. “Let us break bread” they used to say; make mine with sauce, cheese and a drizzle of oil; pizza is a community – old and new – let’s at least celebrate that.