Pizza Goes Back to Its Roots

After 100 years of pizza in America, the pie is returning to its origins, and that means thin and crispy crust is back. A visit to the New York Pizza Show highlights the latest trends. NPR's Robert Smith takes a look at the evolution of this culinary staple.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

In 1905, an Italian immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzeria in America on Spring Street in New York City. By all accounts the pizza was a thin, charred pie with just tomatoes, but it launched an industry. Now after a hundred years of thick and thin, pizzeria owners from around the world visited New York this past week and discovered that the newest trend is a return to the old style. NPR's Robert Smith has more.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Chef Bruno isn't just cooking a pizza, he's coddling it. The pie is carefully turned and shuffled around the oven until the crust is just right.

(Soundbite of clanging noise)

Chef BRUNO: I got one coming out. OK, get out of the way now.

SMITH: The pizza's being made here at the Javits Convention Center alongside the latest in high-tech ovens and dough machines, but pizza pioneers like Lombardi would have recognized it immediately. It's brown, bubbly and thin.

Chef BRUNO: A lot of people are going back to thin and crispy, and that's the old way. Now you see that pizza just came out? Hold on, Joe. Now cut that crust.

(Soundbite of crust being cut)

Chef BRUNO: All right. When you hear that, then you know you got a nice, solid foundation here.

SMITH: A culinary revolution was built on that solid foundation. From New York style to Chicago's deep dish, from the rise of delivery and chain stores in the 1960s and '70s, to Wolfgang Puck and gourmet toppings in the '80s and '90s, everyone has added their own twist to pizza. But here at the New York Pizza Show...

Mr. PETER REINHART (Author, "American Pie"): Crust is back.

SMITH: Peter Reinhart is the author of "American Pie," the story of his quest for the perfect pizza. He says the pizza industry is experiencing the same transformation as beer and bread manufacturers, a move toward authentic, hand-crafted food.

Mr. REINHART: The great pizzamakers that are coming up again, it's kind of like re-creating what happened a hundred years ago. It starts from the crust and then the toppings, you know, are important, but if they're not on a great crust, then it's really not gonna be a great or memorable pizza.

SMITH: This back-to-basics movement is everywhere at the New York Pizza Show, as flour manufacturers debate the right amount of gluten and Italian oven manufacturers compete for the highest temperature. At booths on the convention floor, every vendor pitches a flavor perfection.

Unidentified Man #1: You want a fresh tomato that has no citric acid so you're tasting the full sweetness of the tomato.

Unidentified Man #2: A really good cheese should melt in your mouth and not chew like bubble gum.

Unidentified Man #3: A Spanish olive gives you a great eye appeal, great texture. It's a very mild flavor so when it's cooked it comes through.

SMITH: After decades of pizza chains competing on the lowest price, the biggest size, the quickest delivery, the focus on quality is helping the independent stores. Steve Green, the publisher of Pizza Marketing Quarterly, says that the pendulum is swinging back.

Mr. STEVE GREEN (Pizza Marketing Quarterly): Over the last five years it used to be that the chains were winning the war. Now the independents are making a move. The chains are having a hard time coming in, and part of that is because of the back-to-basics, high-intensity labor. The chain guys can't really do that very well.

SMITH: Sean Wakeland(ph), a chef from New Zealand, is getting ready to slice his award-winning pie in front of an audience of pizzeria owners.

Mr. SEAN WAKELAND (Chef): OK, I'm gonna top this off now with a piece of avocado. Once again, I believe in having hot with the cold, sending your mouth into a bit of a confused state.

SMITH: In the crowd is Joe Carsage(ph), who owns a few pizzerias in New Jersey. He admires the new craftsmanship in pizza, but says the bottom line is challenging. When he makes a regular pizza, his food costs are at around 8 percent. At his upscale stores, the cost of ingredients can be three times that. The fancier the pizza, the less money you make.

Mr. JOE CARSAGE (Pizzeria Owner): Pizza was a cheap item that you could feed the whole family for 10 or $12, and it's gonna get higher. There's gonna be less profit, so that's gonna put a lot of people out of business that don't know cost and don't know quality and stuff like that.

SMITH: Unless, of course, they adapt. After a couple of incarnations, Lombardi's Pizza is still open in Little Italy after 100 years, usually with a long line snaking out the door. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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