A Slice of Heaven: In Defense of Gourmet Pizza

Editor's note: My friend and neighbor Brian Koppelman (writer of Ocean's 13, among others) loves pizza with designer toppings, for which he gives an impassioned defense here. It's an excerpt from my book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceWords by Brian Koppelman | MY FATHER, WHO FIRST INTRODUCED ME TO PIZZA, IS A PURIST. To him, a pie isn't legit unless it's built like the ones he ate during his high school years in Far Rockaway, Queens. Out there, among the row houses by the Atlantic Ocean, the neighborhood joints served it straight up: crisp crust, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella. Maybe a sprinkle of Parmesan. That's all. No pesto. No goat cheese. Definitely no pineapple. That's how my oId man liked it. He's still a no-nonsense guy. I, however, am a fop hooked on "gourmet" pizza.

Give me a pie like the ones they make at Joanne's on route 25A in Manhasset, Long Island—either dotted with pieces of sweet honey-Dijon chicken, or chunks of chicken wings, with the whole pizza slathered in hot sauce and blue cheese, or even stacked high with bread-crumbed baked clams and roasted garlic or one like Mark Strausman's white pizza drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar at Fred's at Barney's on Madison Avenue in Manhattan—and you won't hear another word from me until the entire thing is gone.

It's not only my father who looks down on the rococo pies I dig so much, but also people of taste throughout the food world. It's as if I were professing a love for jazz-fusion, or the art of Thomas Kinkade, or line dancing. There's even a moniker for this funky pizza, an in-the-know word used by foodies to classify and mock: designer. "Designer pizza isn't pizza," they say, "it's casserole." In Italy, the legislative body has even proposed a law to codify that which can be called pizza, relegating all nonconforming pies to the gray market, I suppose, where dealers will skirt the law and slip you a shrimp-scampi slice at their own risk of prosecution.

That's fine with me. Let Italy protect Old World tradition. The way I see it, gourmet pizza hews to a particularly American ethos: Take a classic and make it better by adding, taking away, adapting it to the times.

This is not to say that I don't like the original. I understand the need for pizza that shows its terroir, its ecological pedigree. A well-prepared slice of basic pizza is an example of perfect simplicity, the sauce, cheese, and crust as satisfying as great three-chord rock and roll. But just as much as recent-vintage, three-chord rock has lost the spark of the original and now sounds redundant, imitative and boring, much of the pizza that you will find being sold in street-corner parlors is served stale, with fake cheese and watery tomato sauce, crust either brittle and overcooked or reheated and soggy.

If, however, you walk into Giorgio's on Second Avenue in Manhattan, where the awning advertises "gourmet pizza by the slice," you will find pizza good enough to stand up to the contempt of the pizza police. They serve one slice in particular—the Giorgio roasted garlic, spinach, and ricotta slice—that epitomizes all that I find compelling about gourmet pizza.

The crust at Giorgio's is thin but substantial, and always crisp without being flaky. They use a sweeter sauce than is traditional, and that tastes not merely of sugar, but also of tomatoes picked at the very height of flavor. The mellow roasted garlic, along with the ricotta and slightly bitter spinach, cut the sweetness of the sauce, enhancing the richness and depth of the slice. All of the ingredients used in this slice are, taken separately, fairly common in Italian restaurants and pizzerias, but when combined in this distinctive manner, they truly rise to the ideal of the gourmet.

It is this notion, that there can be gourmet, not merely designer pizza, that I find animating. Why should this most egalitarian food be limited by any constraints? Why shouldn't innovation, imagination, and creativity be encouraged, rewarded? Yes, many of the attempts to make brilliant, new pizza have failed. For every wonderfully exciting pie, there are 12 that should have been thrown out the moment they came out of the oven (starting with the Tandori Chicken pie at California Pizza Kitchen). Still, I look forward to discovering my next gourmet pizza obsession. Will it be a cheeseburger-and-bacon slice with jalapeños in Boston or an heirloom-tomato-and-Stilton combination outside of London, or a sea-urchin-and-wasabi slice with rice-infused crust right here in New York? I don't know, but I can't wait to find out.

Pizzerias Mentioned
Fred's at Barney's, 660 Madison Avenue, New York NY; 212-833-2220
Giorgio's, 1343 Second Avenue, New York NY; 212-628-8419
Joanne's, 1067 Northern Boulevard, Roslyn NY; 516-869-8686