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17 november 2011

I ate pizza for the first time when I was ten years old, in South Jersey. That's a little old for first pizza. Most kids today eat their first slice at the age of two at one of those suburban birthday-party parlors that encourage kids to gorge on pizza and then jump around in ballpits. But pizza wasn't on our family menu when I was a kid, even though we lived in Chicago, one of the great pizza cities. Take-out food wasn't on our menu much when I was growing up in the 1960s. We ate at home, and there were no pizza ovens in prewar Chicago apartment buildings.

I rarely eat pizza now. It's a food I associate with three epochs in my life: high school, college, and my son's childhood, by which years (the 1990s) pizza was everywhere. and pretty much mandatory for school-age kids. (At one point, the nearest shopping center included three pizzerias.) I've had good pizza in my life, and no really bad pizza experiences; it's just not something I seek out. Often I'll eat some because a group is getting it. Pizza, in the American suburbs in the 2010s, is the great common-denominator food item. It is impossible to get a group of any size to reject pizza. Particularly since – to the chagrin of those who have to take pizza orders over the phone – pizza is customizable to a fiendish degree, allowing those who abhor anchovies and those who can't abide mushrooms to eat the same meal out of the same box.

Carol Helstosky, in Pizza: A Global History, doesn't get hung up on definitions. Pizza is "flatbread scattered with various ingredients" (107). There are points of contact between pizza and pancake, but Helstosky isn't interested in policing any boundaries. Turkish lahmacun and Japanese okonomiyaki appear in Pizza not in order to include or exclude them, but to show how pizza attracts other culinary traditions into its orbit.

Unlike pancakes or pies, pizza has a recent, historical point of origin. Pizza is a Neapolitan thing, emerging in Naples in the early 18th century in very much its current form: street food sold by the slice. Helstosky comments wryly on pizza purism. Pizzerias can apply for the coveted VPN designation if they uphold certain traditional Neapolitan recipes and cookery standards. But traditional Neapolitan pizza is among the simplest, cheapest, and most ephemeral of foods. You can buy Italian wine with the designation DOCG and cellar it for years. But even the most authentic VPN pizza is going to be nasty tomorrow for breakfast.

Much of Pizza is taken up with the two great diasporas of pizza history. Neapolitan immigrants, in the 19th century, took pizza not just to America and northern Europe, but indeed to the north of Italy itself, a region long resistant to the charms of this meridional staple. And then, in the late 20th century, huge American chains took pizza global. The universal standard pizza coexists with local mom-&-pops, and with regional/national variations on pizza that top the basic bread-cheese-and-tomato with the specialities of India, Poland, or California.

I confess a weakness for the overloaded middle-American pizza, one that I almost never indulge. One of my most testy phone conversations ever was with a Domino's employee, presumably rather new on the job, who mocked my order for a large "Bacon Cheeseburger" with the revelation that Domino's makes pizzas, not bacon cheeseburgers. But for sheer indulgence, you have to visit Renaldi's in Chicago and work your way through a very deep dish of assorted delights. Far from Naples, and far from my own Chicago roots, but one of the highlights of pizza's global history.

Helstosky, Carol. Pizza: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2008.