2012 November: Man on the Street

Extra cheese. These two words were once the equivalent of hot fudge and a cherry on top of a banana split. It was the ultimate sign of decadence, escalating an already exciting situation to a higher level. But unlike bonus goodies atop an ice cream sundae, the meaning of gooey excess on pizza has faded for me. Am I maturing? Is my palate becoming more refined?

I think it has more to do with a growing appreciation for delicate flavor over a brutal assault on my taste buds and current trends in the pizza industry seem to agree. My changing habits reflect an overall shift in new pizza restaurants’ migrating focus from quantity to quality in their topping application.

I watch people eat pizza every day while leading tours of New York pizzerias and I’ll never get tired of their reaction when I feed them a simple pizza Margherita. The initial visual response is that there isn’t enough cheese. Bingo –– that’s exactly what I want them to say because the next comment is that they can taste the sauce more so than on other slices they’ve had. It quickly becomes clear that these two comments are related, as a limited hand with cheese allows for a stronger flavor impact by sauce. A thick blanket of shredded low-moisture cheese has a tendency to soak up the sauce content, rendering the two components indistinguishable, while a well-balanced pizza Margherita demonstrates the benefit of minimalism on the pizza’s surface.

Another common reaction comes from pizza that uses uncooked, unseasoned tomato in place of a stewed herb-y sauce. “It tastes so fresh, just like a tomato!” It’s a funny response to a sauce whose base component is usually forgotten amid a flurry of seasonings. After the Second World War, an increasingly crowded pizza marketplace coupled with a young domestic tomato industry influenced pizza makers to employ herb warfare in an effort to stand out from the noise. With pizza sauce volume at a fever pitch, the gentle timbre of a quality tomato has become a welcome repose for the weary palate.

It makes plenty of sense that pizzerias are turning to the “less is more” mentality. It’s an easy way to trim calories in an increasingly health-conscious world. Less cheese means less grease and your customers always notice that. But it’s not just about quantity; it’s also about quality. Plenty of pizzerias are keeping topping portions down to compensate for higher ingredient prices. I’m happy to get less on my pie if I’m trading in topping weight for a bump in the flavor department.

As dramatic as these trends may seem, we’re really just returning to the humble origins of pizza as a peasant food. In the early 19th century, overloading dough with meats and cheeses would have been out of financial reach for the dish’s main customer base. Somehow the minimal use of high quality ingredients is being interpreted as upscale, but the growth of wood- and coal-fired pizzerias across the country is evidence that people are welcoming the trend with open arms (and mouths).

Scott Wiener owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City.

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