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Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Pizza, Life, and Me

On February 12, 2009, I started writing and publishing The Rochester, NY Pizza Blog, with a stated mission to conduct "[a]n exploration of pizza in and around Rochester, NY, one pizzeria at a time." Some six years, and hundreds of blog posts later, I'm still at it.

My goal is, eventually, to try and report on every pizzeria in the Rochester region. Like one of those curves in geometry that gets closer and closer to a line but never touches it, I am nearing that goal, but I suspect that I'll never quite reach it.

When I tell people about my blog, one of the most common responses I get is "Why?" A reasonable enough question, although I'm never quite certain how to take it–does it indicate intrigued curiosity, or just a suspicion that I must be a little weird to pursue such a strange hobby? Maybe it's better not to know.

But it's a question for which I still don't have a good answer, or at least not a complete answer. And perhaps the most difficult aspect of the question is, why blog about pizza? Why focus on just one food, and why pizza in particular? So as I write this essay, I'm not only explaining myself, I'm searching for an answer to that question.

Part of it, I guess, has to do with my personality. I'm goal-oriented, sometimes to a fault, and trying every one of the pizzerias in our area (which, depending on how you define a pizzeria, number in the low hundreds) seemed like a reasonably attainable goal. I don't think I'd be doing this if I lived in New York City; I’d feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of pizzerias. And that's why I don't write about Rochester restaurants in general:  too many places, too open-ended a quest.

But still–why pizza? Why not something else?

It starts, I suppose, as with many things in life, in childhood. Food memories are often among our most vivid and long-lasting, and I have indelible memories of pizza, going back to a very early age. And I don't even come from an Italian family.

Friday nights–or was it Saturday?–we’d make homemade pizza. Pillsbury dough mix, Contadina sauce, squares of sliced Muenster cheese, and hand-sliced pepperoni, baked on a battered, blackened aluminum cookie sheet.  By any objective standard, it was not very good. If I bought it today, I'd probably give it a D. But at the time, I loved it.

And then there were the places we used to get pizza from, most of which exist now only in memory:  Chit Chat, Roxy's, Dixon's, Warner's. It's been decades, but I can remember what each of their pizzas looked, smelled, and tasted like, as if I'd eaten them yesterday. Again, they weren't all great, objectively, but they were distinctive, and I miss them for reasons that transcend their outward qualities.

I simply don't feel quite that way about any other food. Sure, I love lots of foods:  junk food, fast food, ethnic food, haute cuisine ... I like food. I couldn't live without it. But for me, no other food has quite the romance, or holds quite the fascination, that pizza does.

And so there remains that fundamental why.  In the end, a lot of it, I think, has to do not just with the pizza itself, but with the people who make it, and with whom I share it.

As I was writing this essay, I began thinking about the other foods that collectively comprise our cultural culinary currency, from chicken wings to barbeque to hamburgers and hot dogs, and about why, even though I love them all, I lack the passion for those foods that I feel for pizza. I could, I’m sure, write an entire other essay on that topic.

But my purpose here is not to put down any other foods, or even to argue that pizza is somehow intrinsically better than any other food. All I’ll say is that I consider pizza unique in its combination of cultural and personal significance. My personal associations with it aside, no other food that I can think of, in this country, combines such widespread popularity and commercial availability with so much history and such an emphasis on family and friends.

Over the past six years of writing The Rochester NY Pizza Blog, I've talked to the proprietors of several of what I consider to be Rochester's best pizzerias, and I can safely assert two generalities about them:  they have a passion for pizza, and they have a pizza history, usually a family history, that goes back a long way. Some are from Italy, where they learned their craft as an organic part of their early lives. Others are second- or third-generation Italian Americans who grew up eating pizza prepared by their immigrant parents or grandparents. And then there are those who have no direct family history, but nevertheless can trace their pizza careers back to some past-generation progenitors. One pizzeria owner I spoke with recently told me that he got into the business almost by happenstance, getting a job with a local pizzeria, but once he was in, he was in for good. "If you weren't a member of the family when you started," he said, "you'd be one before long."

It's no coincidence, then, that individual, independent pizzerias turn out such unique products. Their pizzas sometimes bear a resemblance to one another, as they may be descended from the same pizza forebear, but they are not clones of each other, any more than are you and your siblings or cousins.

That's all the more amazing considering the limited palette that pizzaioli have to work with, and the hundreds of pizzerias in our area. "Specialty" pizzas and exotic toppings aside, most pizzas comprise just a few basic elements:  dough, sauce, cheese, and typically one or two toppings, more often than not pepperoni. And yet within that minimalist framework, each pizzeria–the best ones, at least–manage to create something truly distinctive and memorable.

Which brings us to the subject of chains. I've been accused of having a prejudice against chain pizzerias. Up to a point, it's a fair criticism. On those relatively rare occasions when I review a chain pizza, I try to judge it on its merits, without any preconceptions. But no, in general I don't like chain pizza, for a couple of reasons.

By their very nature, chain restaurants, pizza or otherwise, are designed to foster uniformity. The pizza you get in Rochester should, in theory, be indistinguishable from the pizza you get from the same chain in Phoenix or Tallahassee.

That just doesn't sit right with me. Undeniably the concept has some merit, in a purely economic sense; there’s a reason, after all, why chains succeed.

But to me, one of the best qualities of good pizza is that it's memorable, and there’s nothing memorable about cookie-cutter pizza. Thick or thin, red or white, each pizza can and should achieve its own perfection, according to its own measure.

I might feel differently about chain pizza if I found it to be very good. But it seems to me that there is in fact a perverse, inverse relationship between the size and success of a chain and the quality of its pizza. The bigger the chain, the worse the pizza. In general.

I suspect that has a lot to do with cost, predictability, and convenience.  All too many people would rather get a mediocre, but reliable pizza for ten bucks, delivered in under thirty minutes, than take a chance by spending fifteen or more dollars on a pizza from a local independent shop, that might be anywhere from great to awful, and that might or might not show up in under an hour.

That's a challenge for independent pizzerias, to be sure, and frankly not all of them meet it. Some of the worst pizza I've had has come from independent shops. But unless I've had significant problems with a place in the past, I'll take that chance every time. More often than not, the pizza is better than what one would get from a chain, and every now and then it's outstanding. I've never hit the jackpot that way with chain pizza.

And so it is that over the years, I’ve become visually attuned to finding pizza shops, everywhere I go. It’s easy enough to spot the chains’ large, iconic signs, but the smaller places are tougher. Over time, though, I’ve become remarkably adept at picking out from the visual landscape a double "Z," especially in red neon.

In fact, while as far as my blogging activities are concerned, nothing beats eating good pizza, a close second, for sheer enjoyment, is simply finding new places. I get genuinely excited–OK, so maybe I am a little weird–when I run across a pizzeria that I had never known existed. Not only does that carry with it the possibility of discovering, and letting my readers know about, some great pizza, but also the promise of unearthing another story. And that brings us back to the human side of the equation.

A lot of the pizza that I consume, for the blog especially, I eat alone. Crisscrossing the local pizza landscape, to keep the blog going on something like a regular basis, is an often solitary activity. But while pizza certainly lends itself to solo eating–witness the classic one-handed fold perfected by New Yorkers, as they walk down the street while chowing down on a slice–it’s also one of our most communal foods.

Think about it:  when a group of people (at work, say, or having gathered together to watch a game on TV) decide to order food, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Sure, wings or some other sides may be in the mix, but pizza is the default option.

And when it arrives, how is it eaten? Order sandwiches from a deli, and each person gets his or her separate bag, the contents of which are to be eaten individually ("Let’s see, you had the roast beef, you've got the tuna, I have the turkey").

Not so pizza. One or more pies or sheets are shared. You reach in, you take a slice, and your companions do the same.

Essentially, you are breaking bread–a ritual symbol of community that goes back thousands of years. In some parts of the world, it’s still a feature of everyday life.

In our own atomistic society, where we’ve got hundreds of online “friends” that we’ve never physically met, pizza is something that still brings us together, in a direct way that, I would submit, taps into something deeply ingrained within us. Something that modern technology hasn’t yet erased from our neural impulses. Something that, deep down, we know is real, and valuable, and good, and uniquely human.

Look, I don’t mean to go all philosophical here. When all is said and done, I know that pizza is just food. You eat it, hopefully you enjoy it, and a few hours later you'll be hungry again.

But as I said at the outset, I’m searching for an answer to the question, of all the things to write about, why did I choose pizza? And I guess that for me, eating pizza involves more than just eating food. Pizza has created lasting, powerful memories, of people, places, and times:  my own memory, and the individual and collective memories of others, that they’ve shared with me. And that, more than just the food itself, is why I love, and write about, pizza.


  1. well put. was worried at the beginning, as the first paragraph felt like a setup for you to declare "mission accomplished" and announce that you were done blogging! i was very relieved to read on and realize thats not the case. this was a fun read, and i look forward to continuing to enjoy your blog in the future!

    1. Thank you. I'll confess, there have been times lately when I felt like calling it quits, and I even thought of holding this essay for just that occasion. But if people still enjoy reading the blog, I'll keep going.

  2. This is the finest and most useful blog in the Rochester region, all City newspaper and D&C awards aside! You provide a most valuable critical service that is all too rare in the region, and you definitely know your pizza! You should be an extension of Serious Eats!

  3. Here's a vote for continuing this effort. If it grows a bit tiresome you can always scale back but please don't quit.

    I understand the love for pizza - I had it three times in the last two days including some home made stuff that came out very good. I was sitting in Joe's yesterday enjoying one of the best plain cheese slices I've ever had and thought "ya know, pizza really is the perfect food". So maybe that explains your obsession - pursuing perfection?

    1. That's about as good an explanation as any I've come up with.

  4. If you are ever in Niagara Falls, NY, try La Hacienda on Pine Avenue near Hyde Park Blvd. It's amazingly good and the recipe hasn't changed for over 60 years. My brothers and I go there once or twice a year just for the pizza.

  5. Good stuff! Thanks for posting this!

  6. Well done, PG. Been a while since my last visit!

  7. You do a great job with this blog. I've been a reader since not long after you started and I've always enjoyed your fair, thoughtful approach.

  8. You do a great job with this blog. I've been a reader since not long after you started and I've always enjoyed your fair, thoughtful approach.