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A Pizza Snob's Approach To Toppings

"Whatever is added to my pizza must be more flavorful than the last thing I put on it, and no single topping shall be so strongly flavored that it masks the flavor of those that come before it."

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A margherita from pizzaiolo [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As a writer for the people, I often try and suppress my inner pizza snob. I try and pretend that all pies are created equal, and that there is goodness to everything on a crust. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself. After all, if tens of thousands of people enjoy eating buffalo chicken pizza, there's got to be something good about it that I'm missing, right?

Well today, I'm letting diplomacy take a little breather and laying out a few of my hard and fast ground rules about pizza toppings.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I took the BART out to Oakland to try out Pizzaiolo. Much like Adam did, I found the pizza there to be pretty unremarkable, though I understand it's got its share of boosters in the area.

But I'm not here to talk about that. What I'd rather blab a bit about is the philosophy of toppings. What you decide to put on top of your pizza can say a lot about you as a person as well as a pizza eater, and there was a pie at Pizzaiolo that really drove this home to me.

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Squash pizza from Pizzaiolo

When I first saw the summer squash special pie on the menu, I thought it sounded great. I love zucchini and summer squash, zucchini flowers are one of my favorite seasonal summertime treats, and it is, after all, the height of summer squash season and we're in goddamn California, how could this pizza help but be great?

But it came, and it wasn't. See, as much as I like squash, it's got a pretty mild flavor. Stick it on a crust and add some cheese and a drizzle of pesto to it, and all it really does is water down everything else. As pretty as the pie looked when it came out, I've got to say that it was downright bland.

Much as many people like to take a kitchen sink approach to adding toppings to pizza (this seems to be particularly prevalent in California), I've come up with a rule for my own topping choices, and it's this: Whatever is added to my pizza must be more flavorful than the last thing I put on it, and no single topping shall be so strongly flavored that it masks the flavor of those that come before it.

Ok, I admit, it's hardly an empirical measure and one that's still largely based on personal taste, but let's take a look at a few of the implications.

Case Studies

First off, many raw vegetables go right out the window. As we've already seen watery zucchini and squash only serve to make good cheese and crust watery and bland. All but the very best raw tomatoes will do the same. Sliced avocado? No thanks—sure it adds creaminess, but we've already got that from the cheese, and hot avocado is just... icky. I've been to some pizza joints—like Anna Maria in Williamsburg—that throw chopped romaine on their pies and call it Caesar Salad pizza. I call it salad on a pizza. Two things that are far better enjoyed separately.

If you want to do it right, you've got to pick a green that is powerful enough to stand up on its own. The Red, White, and Greenberg from Paulie Gee's in Green Point, for example, uses peppery arugula to stand up to the sharp pickled red onions and creamy fior di latte base.

The Parma D'or

The Red, White, and Greenberg from Paulie Gee's [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Of course, some bland vegetables can be saved. Par-cooking zuchinni, say, on a grill will get rid of some moisture, intensify its sweetness, and add some smoky char—all welcome additions to a pie. Same goes for eggplant or summer squash. Peppers can work if sliced thinly enough to caramelize and sweeten a bit, but I prefer them pre-roasted. Caramelized onions are fantastic, and raw onions can work, but again, they've gotta be done right. Thin sliced sweet red onions on the Rosa from Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix for example (which I've never tried at the source, but have been floored by even when reheated the next day). They add just enough flavor without getting that icky wet steamed onion texture that thicker slices would get.

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Click me bigger! The Rosa from Pizzeria Bianco [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Pickling can do wonders, adding sweetness, bite, and complex spicy notes to any vegetable, though it works best with firm, crisp ones, like the fennel and onion atop the pickled vegetable slice at Best Pizza in Williamsburg.

Here Comes the Veg

Pickled vegetable pie from Best Pizza [Photograph: Erin Mosbaugh]

Some vegetables are flavorful enough to use on their own—I'd eat shaved asparagus or brussels sprouts leaves on any pizza—but become even better under the intense heat of a wood-fired oven, like with the crazy-good Brussels Sprouts Pie from Motorino in the East Village, or the Shaved Asparagus Pizza from Jim Lahey's Co.

Motorino, brussels sprouts pizza

The brussels sprout and pancetta pizza at Motorino. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Personally, I love adding raw radicchio or kale to my pies. They go from being bitter and sharp to sweet and charred as the crust bakes. It's a pretty magical transformation.

Other vegetables are so strongly flavored that they almost need another equally strongly flavored topping to go along with them. I mean, where would bitter broccoli rabe be without some spicy and sweet Italian sausage to go along with it? (In chunks please, not slices).

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A broccoli rabe and sausage pizza with some (extraneous) red onions at Pizzaiolo in Oakland.

This brings us to another issue...

What About Meats?

Yeah, what about 'em? I mean, I like meat of all kinds, I like pizza, shouldn't I like all kinds of meat on my pizza?

Absolutely not!

As with vegetables, some meats add to a pie, others detract, and in general, the line can be pretty strictly drawn down cured vs. uncured, fermented vs. fresh lines. Thinly sliced steak or ground beef on a pizza is to me just as much of a sin as adding bland vegetables: all they do is dilute the flavor of the sauce and a well-made crust.

Indeed, despite numerous attempts from every fast food pizza chain on the planet, has anybody here ever had a cheeseburger pizza worth eating? Even our very own Adam Kuban tried (and failed!) at this seemingly impossible endeavor.

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Then of course, we get to the ultimate figurative line in the sand when it comes to toppings: Chicken. There are those who love it. Even our very own Ed seems to have been convinced by his son that it is not something that need necessarily be shunned. To you, Ed, I say hold fast! I understand the cognitive dissonance of wanting to simultaneously support your son despite his transgressions in the realm of good taste, but I beg of you—don't let love of your own blood, your own kin obfuscate love of good pizza! The latter is a far more rewarding (and tasty) relationship.

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A chicken Parm slice from NY Pizza Suprema, something which I will not be ordering. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Chicken, whether by its breeding or its genetics, is bland. It doesn't add much to a slice of pizza that it wouldn't add just as well if served on the side, see what I mean? There's no cosmic synergy in a chicken pizza, no greater-than-the-sum-of-its-partsness. (Don't even get me started on pasta-on-pizza... the horror!)

Sure, pizza and chicken cook in the same oven, but they remain largely unrelated to each other. Pepperoni, soppresata, or a good chunk of sausage, on the other hand, cooks not just on top of the pizza, but with the pizza. They release salty, flavorful fat that mingles with the melted cheese, drips into the sauce, and flavors the whole pie. They crisp up on the edges, adding salty, crisp bits of texture to match the crunch of the crust underneath.

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A bar pie from the Star Tavern in Orange, NJ [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

The very best pepperoni or soppresata should curl up as it cooks so you get contrast between the crisp fried edges, the meaty bottom, and the melted fat pooled in the center (what Adam aptly calls the "pepperoni chalice").

Of course, some people seem to have come to the realization that chicken on its own is not the ideal pizza topping, which is where we enter the world of the three chicken-dish-pizza-hybrids. Namely, Buffalo Chicken Pizza, Chicken Ranch Pizza, and Barbecue Chicken Pizza.

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Amherst College kids LOVE Antonio's Chicken Ranch. It's a bestseller! [Photograph: Meredith Smith]

These are pizza variants that you see commonly in college towns and in Middle America. Indeed, a pizza joint that didn't offer chicken ranch (or at the very least the option to sub tomato sauce for ranch dressing) in Michigan would seem downright odd. But at the risk of sounding like a total pizza snob (as if I haven't already done so already), I'm going to say this: buffalo, ranch, and barbecue chicken pizza were created only to cover up poor pizza. That is, it was created in places where the basics—crust, good sauce, good cheese—were not understood or executed well enough, and thus needed an additional dish of food spread on top of it to add flavor.

That's not to say that all sauce-and-chicken pizza these days is made on inferior crust—the combo has become popular enough that you can now find it at all sorts of pizza joints from great to piss poor. I guess that's what happens when a collective flavor memory reaches critical mass?

To sum up: cured meats, like pepperoni, sausage, ham, guanciale, lardo, soppresata, capicola, pancetta, heck, even anchovies = all good. Fresh meats like steak, ground meat, chicken, pork, seared tuna = leave it on the side, thanks.

Total Whack-job Pizza

Finally, we come to the totally, utterly, completely whacked-out, wtf-were-the-creators-on? pizzas.

Yeah, I'm talking about those creations—almost invariably from Asia—that combine utterly incongruous ingredients (sweet corn, shrimp, and mayonnaise seem to be favorites) or feature interactive, edible hybrid crust structures.

Think: Whole Shrimp Cheese Bite Pizza from Pizza Huts in Japan and South Korea where the entire outer crust edge of a pie is replaced with whole shrimp wrapped in cheesy dough puffs.

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Or how about the Triple Cheese Pizza from Domino's in South Korea? That would be three thin crust pizzas stacked on top of each other with a layer of cheese in between each and on the top; cheddar, camembert, and emmenthaler respectively.

I try not to pass judgment on something until I've actually tasted it, but I have no compunction about breaking out the big fat "NO" stamp on these monstrosities even before I travel half way around the globe to taste them.

The Best And The Worst

And I'll finish with a few of my favorite pizza topping combinations, along with a few of my least favorite:

Favorites

Least Favorite

Yeah yeah, I know—I'm being close minded, but this isn't some trifling issue like politics or global warming or evolution. This is pizza, goddammit! Just think of what's at stake!

Ok, blab over. Your turn: do you have any hard and fast rules when it comes to toppings? Anything you just can't get yourself to enjoy no matter how many times you try it?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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