You could say that something is “as American as pizza pie,” despite the popular dish’s Italian origins.
In fact, in a 2017 survey, 98% of Americans said they liked pizza.
My mom didn’t start making the cheesy, crusty treat at home until I was older. But, I still grew up eating pizza, thanks to the lunchroom at my school, where we were served square pieces with inch-thick crusts, tomato paste and some melted cheese. Those slices weren’t great, but they were sturdy. One day, in junior high, someone threw a piece up in the air and it stuck to the lunchroom ceiling; it was still there, weeks later!
Credit: AJC FILE
Credit: AJC FILE
Pizza became more a part of my life in high school. The big date-night restaurant in my hometown of Athens was Gigi’s, a nice Italian place with a jazz-pop trio in the lounge. After the ROTC Ball, a bunch of us — still dressed in our uniforms, and our dates in their formal gowns — went there for pizza.
By the time I was across town at the University of Georgia, the local Pizza Hut was a major draw. Then, suddenly, it seemed like there was a pizza joint located every block or so, either chain or homegrown. A price war broke out, and The Red & Black, the UGA student paper, was full of ads with coupons. Unfortunately, a lot of those restaurants never bothered to pay for the ads, which ended up putting the paper in a big financial hole by the time I was on the staff.
After college, when I moved to Atlanta, my future wife, Leslie, and I used to go to a place in the original Underground Atlanta called Jocko’s. The pizza there was so buttery that, when you took a bite, it dripped off your chin. Not exactly health food, but … we were young.
The most popular style of pizza among my age group in those days was served at Everybody’s, located near Emory University for 41 years before closing in 2013. The pizzas there had chewy, thick crusts (you had to request thin crust if you wanted it).
Credit: Rodney Ho
Credit: Rodney Ho
That became how I liked my pizza crusts in general: chewy and thick, but not tough. The crust isn’t paramount for me, though. I always have been amused by folks who go on and on about the “char” on those prized brick oven-baked pies. I don’t eat pizza for the charred places on the bottom; I’m not sure why anyone would. (Nowadays, to cut back on carbs, I don’t even eat the crust.)
As the years went by, pizza trends came and went. For a while, deep-dish was all the rage. Then, it was stuffed-crust pizzas, followed by California-style, and Neapolitan. Nowadays, you can get French bread, Mexican and Buffalo chicken pizzas. We’ve also tried Greek pizza, but I’m not a big fan of feta.
A few years ago, my family decided to try a variety of pizzerias near us. Among them were Blaze Pizza and Mod Pizza, a couple of trendy counter-serve chain outlets known for quick, build-your-own pies. We weren’t impressed.
Credit: CHRIS HUNT
Credit: CHRIS HUNT
We’d rather go to my daughter’s favorite, Mellow Mushroom, which got its start in Atlanta in 1974 as a hippie-ish joint, and since has opened more than 200 locations across the U.S. It’s no longer for hippies; the pies there have high-quality ingredients and please just about everyone in the family.
My friend Minla Shields and I used to enjoy lunch at the since-closed Toco Hill outlet of Shorty’s Pizza (there’s still one in Tucker). The gimmick was pies named for musicians. Minla, who avoids meat, would order the Dwight Yoakam, which had a light red sauce, sliced tomatoes and runny fried eggs — she had them hold the bacon. I usually went for the Sid Vicious, topped with sausage, ground beef, Black Forest ham, salami and pepperoni.
But, to this day, Pizza Hut still will do for me in a pinch. There’s something to be said for consistency.
Plus, I credit the Hut with helping me avoid slices of shared pies loaded up with toppings I don’t like, thanks to its best-known menu item back in the day — the personal pan pizza.
Going back to my college days, I remember that a unifying sentiment around a pizzeria table usually was “no anchovies,” but a lot of folks loved things like olives and red onions on pizza. I preferred to stick with ground beef, sausage, pepperoni and maybe mushrooms or some thin slices of zucchini (plus, always, extra cheese). I still do.
Sorry, but I don’t want to share a pie with folks who ask for things like tuna and barbecue chicken and artichoke hearts on their pies.
Probably the most wrongheaded pizza topping I ever encountered was on one of our trips to London, where they think putting kernels of sweet corn on top of a pie is acceptable. Believe me, it’s an abomination — ranking right down there with pineapple on pizza, which Hawaii inflicted on us via California Pizza Kitchen back in the mid-1980s.
Interestingly, the pizzas we had during a 2009 trip to the Lake District of northern Italy were much simpler than American pies — just cheese and tomatoes on top, or perhaps some ham or mushrooms and fresh basil.
Really, pizza as Americans know it originated in New York City (the thinner crust variety) and Chicago (known for its deep-dish pies).
I’ve enjoyed both, but one of the most memorable pizza experiences I’ve had involved a New York pie I didn’t get to taste.
My son and I were visiting the Big Apple, and a couple of friends, Al Sussman and Tom Frangione, offered to take us around the city.
After we’d hit up some stores in the West Village, Tom suggested we strike out for the “best slice in the city.” (In the Big Apple, they don’t talk about pizzas as pies; it’s all about the slice, preferably the type you easily can fold.)
We set out for Lombardi’s, in Little Italy. Established in 1905, it is billed as “America’s first pizzeria.”
The only problem was, Tom wasn’t sure how to get to Lombardi’s, so we walked for about an hour.
Finally, when we got there, the line was wrapped around the corner. So, we just pointed to a nearby, unheralded pizza joint, and said, “Let’s get that.”
We never did get to taste New York City’s “best” slice, but the substitute wasn’t bad at all. It was a fun outing with friends.
And, really, I think that’s what enjoying pizza is all about, anyway.
Bill King is a retired writer-editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC