Pizza in America Is Better Than Ever

Pizza in America Is Better Than Ever

Marisol Doyle wasn’t bothered by the frozen dough and canned mushrooms common in the pizzas she ate as a kid growing up in Sonora, Mexico. It was comfort food.

“But as an adult,” she said, “I wanted something better.”

Ms. Doyle’s first experience with better pizza came in 2006 at Pizzeria Bianco, in Phoenix, and it was probably a lot like yours. Mozzarella that melts into pools. Crust that invites comparisons to fresh bakery bread. These are qualities found in the Neapolitan-style pies served at the wood-fire-oven pizzerias that are now fixtures of urban America.

In recent years, they’ve become fixtures outside cities, too, drawing diners to the types of small communities — from southern Illinois and coastal New England to rural Wisconsin and Oregon — whose restaurant cultures are often dominated by national chains. All those fussed-over pies, with their blistered crusts, basil sprigs and hot honey drizzles, taught Americans they could ask more from a dish routinely eaten from a cardboard box — and consumed by about one in eight people on any given day, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research.

That broad appeal, coupled with the relatively low cost of opening pizzerias and the ease of acquiring the information to master high-quality pizza-making, has made the dish a uniquely effective vehicle for chefs to find a voice while also making a living. Until recently, chefs looking to make sublime Neapolitan pizzas would have few options beyond traveling to Italy, said Chris Bianco, who opened Pizzeria Bianco in 1988.

“Today you just swipe and study and you can bring great pizza to any town, anyplace,” said Mr. Bianco, who is arguably the country’s most influential pizzaiolo.

The ensuing renaissance has done more than make pizza in the United States better than it has ever been. It has also made the country home to the world’s best pizza — or, at least, in Mr. Bianco’s estimation, “the most hyper-focused and style-diverse” collection of pizzerias.

There is no question that American pizza is better than ever virtually everywhere. That includes Cleveland, Miss., where Ms. Doyle opened Leña Pizza + Bagels last year.

The pizzeria is part of a rare culinary phenomenon: a restaurant trend born of big-city chef culture that doesn’t peter out at the inner suburbs. Leña resembles any number of smart urban trattorias, except that it’s located in a small-town storefront, on a street called Cotton Row.

Leña’s spiritual kin includes an astonishingly diverse array of restaurants in all corners of the country, including Pizzeria Sei, the Tokyo-influenced, neo-Neapolitan pizzeria in Los Angeles; Short & Main, a pizzeria-oyster bar in Gloucester, Mass.; Yellow, a Levantine bakery-pizzeria in Washington, D.C.; and Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

While the character and food of these restaurants vary widely, nearly all feature a cross-cultural blend of dishes whose common denominator is a supple, flavorful crust.

At Leña, there are the expected, crowd-pleasing pizzas, like margherita and pepperoni (named pepperrory, after Ms. Doyle’s husband and business partner, Rory), but also pies highlighting seasonal produce and Ms. Doyle’s Mexican heritage, including the Sonoran, which replaces tomato sauce with refried beans and is topped with housemade roasted jalapeño salsa.

Leña has become a destination in the rural Mississippi Delta. It was a hit even before it opened, as a frequent pop-up restaurant. Ms. Doyle recalls posting her plans for Leña after returning home from Naples, Italy, where she studied pizza-making at Scuola di Pizzaioli and the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

“People would come up to me in Walmart to ask me when the restaurant was going to open,” Ms. Doyle said.

Fancy pizzas are nothing new in the United States. They’ve been on the menus at Chez Panisse Café, Spago, Beverly Hills and Al Forno in Providence, R.I., since the early 1980s. In 2003, Mr. Bianco became the first pizzaiolo to win a regional chef award from the James Beard Foundation.

But the first glimmer of the current pizza boom didn’t flicker until the 2000s, with the opening of pizzerias that were also well-rounded, erudite neighborhood restaurants, like A16 in San Francisco, 2 Amys in Washington, D.C., and Franny’s in Brooklyn. Tandy Wilson was cooking in California at this time, including at Tra Vigne, a celebrated Napa Valley restaurant with a wood-burning oven that served pizza at lunch and, occasionally, dinner.

Mr. Wilson returned to his native Nashville believing pizza could be a medium for creativity, and made it a central feature of his restaurant, City House, a regional Italian restaurant with a Southern accent that opened in 2007. He also thought pizza would attract a broader array of diners.

“Pizza was this way of opening the playing field a little bit and bringing more people to the table,” Mr. Wilson said.

The chef-driven pizzeria was suddenly a thing. Restaurants like Roberta’s, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Gjelina, in Venice, Calif., attracted the sort of praise historically reserved for restaurants with white tablecloths. In a 2011 New York Times review, Sam Sifton called Roberta’s, which opened in 2008 with no heat or liquor license, “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States.”

John Hall, like many other chefs working in traditional high-end restaurants, watched with interest as acclaim flowed to this new strain of pizzeria. He was attracted to the restaurant style as an affordable means to transition from hospitality employee to owner. The chef, who worked for 10 years in some of New York City’s most heralded restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Per Se, wanted to own his own business and home.

Mr. Hall finally concluded that those things wouldn’t happen in New York after hearing that one of the city’s best-known chefs had to borrow money from his father-in-law in order to buy an apartment. He left to open Post Office Pies in his hometown, Birmingham, Ala., in 2014.

“I didn’t have to have fine glassware and plateware and linen and all of the expenses that go along with opening a high-end restaurant,” Mr. Hall said of the wood-fire pizzeria, which he and his partners, Mike Wilson and Brandon Cain, opened without outside investors. “That gave me the opportunity to really be my own boss.”

Since pizza-making, as many home cooks have discovered, can be mastered without going to cooking school or even working in a restaurant kitchen, the dish has provided an alternative pathway for more people to become chefs and restaurant owners.

Ann Kim had never even worked in a restaurant when she opened Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis with her husband and business partner, Conrad Leifur, in 2010. Ms. Kim is now an acclaimed chef, having opened a series of well-regarded restaurants, including the genre-bending Young Joni, a pizzeria that showcases the flavors of her native South Korea.

“I make the kind of pizza I want to eat,” Ms. Kim told The New York Times in a 2019 interview. “No one ever told me you can’t do that because you’re Korean.”

The restaurant is part of a growing cohort of pizzerias inspired by the food of countries other than Italy, including the Mexican American San Lucas Pizzeria, in South Philadelphia; the Asian-inspired Hapa Pizza, in Portland, Ore.; and the Argentine mini-chain Boludo, in Minneapolis.

Not all of the compelling, new-generation pizzerias rely on wood-fire ovens. Khurshed Ahmed opened Amar Pizza, in Hamtramck, Mich., after working mainly in chain restaurants, including Domino’s. Amar features both thin and Detroit-style pies, baked in a gas oven, with ingredients from Bangladesh, where Mr. Ahmed was born. The sauce for one of the signature pizzas is a chutney commonly found on Bangladeshi dinner tables, made with dried shrimp, anchovies, roasted garlic and cilantro.

It is far from the only Bengali influence on Amar’s menu. “A lot of pizzerias offer pasta,” Mr. Ahmed said. “I figured us being a Bangladeshi pizzeria, we could have biryani.”

Some of the best pizzas found in rural America come from multipurpose businesses. Bakeries like Tinder Hearth in Brooksville, Maine; Flour & Flower in St. Joseph, Minn.; and White Salmon Baking Co. in White Salmon, Wash., are renowned for pizzas served on select evenings.

Scratch Brewing Company, in Ava, Ill., becomes a pizzeria on weekends. One of its more memorable pies is spread with pesto made from wild garlic, basil and other herbs, foraged in a nearby forest by the owners, Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon. The pizza is finished with chevre from Baetje Farms, melted in Scratch’s handmade brick oven.

When Jesse Sauerbrei first started as a waiter at Lincoln Wine Bar, outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his main job was to demystify wine for the customers. “The wine, even today, can be scary for folks,” he said. Pizza made in Lincoln’s wood-fire oven helps put people at ease, he said.

Mr. Sauerbrei has continued to focus on local ingredients since buying the business in 2014. Spring is particularly busy, when local morel mushrooms are abundant. They’re followed by local asparagus, which he serves on a white pizza with guanciale and Calabrian chiles.

It’s one of a number of pies centered on local produce favored by customers who, when they first started coming to the restaurant, ordered only sausage or pepperoni.

“Pizza is a really great way to get people to try new things,” Mr. Sauerbrei said. “There’s nothing intimidating about pizza.”

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