According to rules of etiquette, one should refrain from discussing potentially contentious topics in polite conversation. Think politics, religion, or even sports. In my opinion, the question of where you can get the best pizza should be added to this list. As a born and bred New Yorker, I used to be ready to defend the superiority of a typical Big Apple slice to the death. Until, that is, I moved to the Midwest, started to travel more, and discovered that you can find truly excellent pizza almost anywhere.
If you do decide to venture into best-of territory, you’ll inevitably find yourself breaking the list of pizzas down by type. Surprisingly, there are quite a few. But most of us would probably start by separating them into two categories: regular pizza and Sicilian pizza. So, what’s the difference between the two? We turned to the experts to find out.
The Origin of the Pan Pizza
According to Pizza Today Editor-in-Chief Jeremy White, what we think of as pizza is often credited to the Italians, but it actually originated with flatbreads made by the Egyptians thousands of years ago. Pizza has certainly evolved since then, but the version most Americans think of started with the bakery pie. This was a dish created by Italian immigrants living in New York City in the early 1900s. Bakery pie emulated what their ancestors made back in Italy, where it was called Pizza in Teglia or, specifically by Sicilians, sfincione.
As you might imagine, unlike a typical round pie, pan pizzas (including Sicilian) take on the rectangular shape of the pan they’re made in. The dough used for regular versus Sicilian pizza is also vastly different. The latter uses more oil (or butter, shortening, or lard). Sicilian pizza also looks fluffy and heavy, like a brick, and it is often baked in a seasoned pan. “Technically, the bottom gets fried,” White explains.
Pan Pizzas are Making a Comeback
Years ago at the International Pizza Expo, chef, restaurateur, and author Tony Gemignani predicted that pan pizzas would make a comeback. “What’s old is new again,” he says. “It’s going through a renaissance now.” White agrees, stating, “Sicilian is starting to explode in popularity and gain traction.” While it used be that you would only find it in the Northeast, pan pizzas are now showing up on menus in more and more places across the country.
When it comes to pan pizza, Sicilian is just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a rundown of the most common varieties:
- Sicilian pizza is all about the rectangle when it comes to the pan it’s made in and the way it’s sliced. According to White, Sicilian-expert Chris Decker of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas says the goal is to make it look like a brick but feel light as a feather when you pick it up.
- Grandma pizza, which originated on Long Island, is more square, thin and slightly more fried that Sicilian. “It’s what your Italian grandmother would make for you,” Gemignani says. But he also insists it’s all about the sauce, which is more robust and truly stands out.
- Detroit-style pizza, which originated in the Motor City in the late 1940s – early 1950s, got its name from being baked on blue square pans used in the automotive industry. “The sauce always goes on top of the cheese,” says White. According to Gemignani, the dough is made with shortening or butter, rather than oil, and the cheese—he prefers using a brick cheese from Wisconsin—gets pushed out to the edge and caramelized.
- Roman-style pizza comes in more than one style. “One has a pretty complex dough formulation that contains rice flour,” White explains. “The dough is super-hydrated,” says Gemignani, which creates giant pockets in the structure so it looks like swiss cheese when you cut it. Another type of Roman-style is served pizza alla palla on an oval wooden peel one meter in length. It might have uniform toppings or get cut into thirds with different toppings, such as arugula and cheese for an appetizer, meats and vegetables for the main, and figs and balsamic for a sweet finish.
- Chicago-style pizza is the only pan pizza cooked in a round pan, but unlike deep dish, the toppings aren’t layered.
- Bakery-style pizza, like the kind they made in the early 20th century in New York City, is made on a full sheet pan and comes out softer and breadier, like focaccia. Sometimes it’s topped simply with tomato sauce and some grated Romano.
- Old Forge-style pizza was invented in Old Forge, Penn., which Gemignani describes as the pizza capital of the country and possibly the world. It’s more bready, less crispy than Sicilian or Grandma, and softer to the bite. It’s often topped with American, white cheddar and/or brick cheese, and may even be made with peanut oil instead of olive oil.
If you’re feeling adventurous and would like to try your hand at making your own pan pizza at home, Gemignani’s advice is to look for a high-gluten, high-protein flour that will cook better in a hot oven, use a cooking steel or cast iron pan rather than aluminum, and use a browning agent, such as honey, powdered malt or sugar, in your dough. “If it’s done right,” he encourages, “it’s awesome.”
Related Video: American Pizzas That Aren’t from New York or Chicago
Header images courtesy of Shutterstock and Brown Eyed Baker.