Pizza may be one of the most universally beloved foods known to mankind. How many other dishes have inspired thousands of books, super weird music, entire clothing lines, and their very own museums?
So why is so much of the pizza out there just plain terrible? I'm talking crusts that run the gamut from soggy and undercooked to rock-hard and stale; sugary sweet, gloppy tomato sauce; and topping combinations that can only have been auto-generated by a maniacal computer algorithm in order to send our entire species into a spiral of madness and despair.
Of course, it's worth noting that pizza is an exceptionally diverse food, and every regional style out there, from Neapolitan to New York to St. Louis (excepting, perhaps Chicago deep dish which, though a delicious casserole, just isn't pizza), has its own set of ideals. These differences are part of what makes pizza such a uniquely fascinating and exciting world to begin with. But what all great pizzas share are great ingredients: good tomato sauce doesn't have to come from fresh tomatoes, but it should come from a high-quality canned source; a stellar dough recipe may rise and bake up chewy and tender or light and airy or crisp and crunchy, but it should still first and foremost taste fascinatingly delicious on its own; and so on and so forth. In other words, though pizza is indeed a dish greater than the sum of its parts, there shouldn't be a single one of those parts that you wouldn't relish all by its lonesome.
Before we get started, let's just get one more thing out of the way. Am I a snobby New Yorker, privileged to live and work within a stone's throw of some of the country's best pizzerias? Yup. Do I happen to work with folks who have made pizza the subject of fanatically enthusiastic scrutiny and study? Absolutely. So my standards are high, and yes, what you're about to read may not make you happy. In fact, you may LOVE your terrible pizza and despise me for my condescending Yankee ways.
So be it; go wallow in your pit of pizza mediocrity (or just fight with me in the comments). But I'll be out there eating some of the most tender-crisp crusted, thoughtfully topped, perfectly cooked pizza you can find on this side of the Atlantic, some of it from my very own kitchen. And to the hopeful souls who just want to know how to improve their pizza game? Home cooks should check out our essential tips for making better pizza. But for something a little more broad, here are our top tips when it comes to classic pizza, whether you're making it, ordering it, or just in the mood to get a little judgy.
Thou Shalt Not Buy Frozen Crusts or Pies
Ugh yes, I know, America hates me right now. But here's the thing: Frozen pizza is never, ever great pizza—the ingredients are almost always of the subpar canned variety and often come freezer-burned. Oh, and throwing your own toppings on a pre-made frozen crust definitely doesn't rescue you from the stigma of those greasy, crumbly, crunchy, take-it-or-leave-it excuses for pizza dough. You know what does? Freshly made pizza dough!
What's that? It's a week night and I just want something easy! Well it never hurts to buy a hot-from-the-oven slice if you have a good pizza joint in your vicinity. But even if you're not wowed by the quality of your local parlor's pies, it's worth finding out whether they'll sell you a hunk of dough—I can virtually guarantee that their dough (or even a refrigerated supermarket dough) will be worlds of improvement over the frozen stuff and all you'll need to do is follow one of our gazillion pizza recipes to transform it into a quick 'n' easy, totally delicious home-baked pie.
Still too much work? Fine. I accept that in some situations, frozen pizza has its place. But if you really must, then at least consider dressing it up—throwing on some fresh, flavor-packed ingredients can go a long way toward improving the overall experience. Or forgo the freezer aisle altogether and combine the powers of a cast iron pan and a store-bought tortilla for extra-crispy bar-style pizza in under 12 minutes—it's perfect even-when-you're-sober drunk food, and a totally ideal quick fix once you've accepted that products marketed as easy crusts really are too good to be true.
Thou Shalt Not Besmother With Cheese
Who doesn't love puddles of ooey gooey melted cheese? Oh right, no one except your lactose intolerant uncle, who's really just jealous. But as hard as it is for some of us connoisseurs to admit it, the place for those rivulets of cheese simply isn't on your pizza. "While more cheese may seem like a good thing, it throws the balance off the slice and weighs it down," explains Kenji. "Great pizza is about restraint." And I have to say I agree with him—pizza coated in a thick, solid layer of cheese winds up greasy and heavy, and tends to overpower the flavors of the crust, sauce, and other toppings. Of course, if the crust and tomato sauce suck, then that may not be the worst thing in the world. But we're here to talk excellent pizza, not "ways to make your sucky pizza slightly less sucky." Which brings us to...
Thou Shalt Not Stuff Thy Crust
It seems like someone's always trying to smuggle just a lil more cheese onto their pizza. But there's a good reason why this chain pizza practice hasn't caught on with highly acclaimed pizzerias: great pizza crusts are something you want to eat, not discard; crappy pizza crusts are something you want to discard but persuade yourself to eat if they're brimming with melted cheese. Unfortunately, the cheese that winds up in these crusts isn't exactly the kind of flavorful quality cheese you want to gorge yourself on—just take a look at what happens when you let it sit for just a little too long. At the risk of sounding repetitive, pizza should be all about simplicity and the synergy of excellent ingredients, not an exercise in what-wacky-thing-can-we-do-next.
Thou Shalt Not Douse With Weird Sauces
This one should really just speak for itself. Don't put truffle oil on your pizza. And definitely don't pour ranch dressing or barbecue sauce on it, either. These things simply do not belong, ever. And when you think they do, it's because they're masking even greater horrors that lie beneath.
Thou Shalt Not Overtop Thy Pie
Toppings are wily little suckers, always tempting you with their symphonies of deliciousness. Unfortunately, many folks tend to get a little too carried away; rather than picking toppings that complement each other and the rest of the pizza, you wind up with a muddied, confusing mess of flavors and a soggy weighed-down pie that looks more like a carnival curiosity than something you actually want to shovel into your mouth. Remember that thing about restraint? Yeah, it applies here too: keep your toppings on the minimal side, and focus on two or three flavors rather than a dozen—you want your pie to shine, not asphyxiate. If you're still skeptical, though, we have a whole manifesto on the subject.
Thou Shalt Add Said Toppings at the Appropriate Time
While we're on the subject of toppings, let's address one of my most common pizza peeves: raw toppings that should've been cooked, and cooked toppings added like raw ones. First off, skip the bland vegetables altogether unless you're salting and draining them first—a great way to reduce their moisture content and avoid watering down the pie—and pretty much always cook them on the pie. The same goes for basil and Brussels sprouts: it's exceedingly rare that I want a raw leaf on my pie in place of a slightly charred seasoning that has melded with the sauce and cheese as it cooks in the oven. The leaf rule also applies to meats: pepperoni, sopressata, sausage, and the like should all be cooked with the pie, where their flavorful, greasy juices (yes, I know, a disgusting if accurate sentence if there ever was one) can infuse the pie with flavor. It's all about the synergy, folks. And on that note...
Thou Shalt Attend to Thy Meats
Woe is the beautiful pizza topped with sad, dry sausage, floppy pepperoni, or, god forbid, sliced meatballs. We like our pepperoni crisped up and curled into a bowl primed for housing its delicious little puddle of meat grease. In fact, we like it so much that we went to great lengths to determine why it happens and how to maximize it. We must really have a thing for pizza meats, because we've also spent some serious time engineering the perfect moist, springy sausage and juicy, tender meatballs that could ever grace a pizza. If you're not makin' and just buying, then your takeaway is this: don't buy pizza with flat pepperoni, and make sure your sausage is added to your pie raw and cooked in the pizza oven—none of this pre-cooked, added-at-the-end mishegas, if you please.
Thou Shalt Not Reheat Willy Nilly
Put down your leftover pizza and back away from the toaster oven. We've put many a method to the test and, while we won't shirk a slice of next-day countertop pizza, the reheating game is all in the griddle. Reheated pizza inevitably loses moisture, but sticking them on a cold griddle, covering them, and cooking them to below the boiling point of water (212°F) minimizes that moisture loss more than any other reheat technique we've tried. Of course, if you're in a playful mood, a waffle iron reheat never hurt anybody, either.