NOTE: This article contains images from the US patent archive. Links to the complete patents are linked in the caption following each photo.
In the world of food gadgetry, no piece of gear is more iconic than the pizza slicer. The mere sight of a circular blade cradled in a handle holds no mystery as to its use, however the story of its evolution is far more layered. The concept of serving pizza by the slice is fairly new (post-WWII) but the genetic material for the contemporary circular pizza blade can be found scattered across the past three centuries.
Our journey begins with the invention of the mezzaluna (half moon) by Silvio Pacitti in 1708. There's not much information floating around about this fellow, but we can safely assume he was born and lived on the Italian peninsula, the southern region of which birthed our beloved pizza. He was the Ron Popeil of his time, having invented something extremely simple to make food preparation easier. While most standard knives cut by dragging across their subject, the mezzaluna has a rounded blade that impacts its target with a downward motion as it rolls across. This creates a clean incision without disrupting the material being cut.
Originally available in small sizes with either a single or double blade, the mezzaluna was initially intended for vegetable and herb chopping. Pizzerias in the Midwest now employ larger versions to cut both thick and cracker-thin pizzas quickly and evenly. While it may not be as popular as its wheeled counterpart, the mezzaluna certainly predates it. The image above shows a modern version of the mezzaluna used for cutting deep dish pizza, a style which didn't emerge until the 1940s. The task of splitting such a thick product is obviously a job smaller tools aren't cut out for.
The development of the pizza wheel is much more schizophrenic than its larger counterpart, but the principle is identical. The wheel uses the same perpendicular impact method to puncture its prey but does so with a circular blade rather than the more cumbersome long blade of the mezzaluna. As previously mentioned, there was no need to quickly dice up a pizza into even units until slice culture rolled around in the middle of the 20th century. At that time, simple table knives were used to divide pies (ie Delorenzo's Tomato Pies in Trenton) but powerful alternatives lurked within unrelated industries. In the case of the pizza wheel, it all starts with wallpaper.
Look familiar? It's essentially the modern pizza wheel at a time when pizza was barely a blip on the country's culinary radar. The inventor, David S. Morgan of Asheville, North Carolina, probably never saw a pizza in his life. But that's irrelevant because he invented a "roller-knife for trimming wall-paper," not a pizza slicer. Prior to this patent, wallpaper trimmers were bulky two-handed affairs. While they did contain a rotary blade, Morgan's improvement allowed for easier use with a single hand and that factor lends the device perfectly to the use by pizzerias.
As with most pizza-related paraphernalia (ie the pizza box), slicing technology has its most direct crossover from the baking industry. It emerges in the form of a "cake cutter," registered by Carl A. Frahm of Canton, Ohio in 1922, to introduce a durable, inexpensive and easy to clean tool for dividing dough before baking. It's just another variation of the handheld cutter, this time with a culinary application.
So now we have rotary blades in the food world, but steamy-hot pizza is a different animal than the raw dough targeted by Carl Frahm's cake cutter. The first circular blade slicers used for pizza were designed with small blades. But as time passed, increasing proportions of cheese and other toppings led to the increase of blade size. Not only was the larger blade better able to divide a pizza without dislodging toppings, it also kept the user's hand further from the hot cheese. Both sizes are currently in use and their selection is usually based on the product they are intended to cut. Al Santillo of Santillo's in Elizabeth, NJ uses the small wheel to fit into the corners of his rectangular Sicilian pizza pans while he prefers the larger wheel for round pies.
While the functional engineering of the pizza slicer has more or less met its peak, we've seen plenty of novelty cutters on the market over the past few years. Of course there's the Pizza Boss, which looks like a circular saw. Plenty of shark-shaped slicers have become available. And who among us hasn't seen, purchased or been gifted a USS Enterprise pizza slicer?
But of course there are those who see fault in the basic pizza wheel design. One double-bladed unit claims to save the user multiple passes with a slicer by aligning a second wheel behind the first. And who could forget the Pizza Scissors, for those who prefer to combine their cutting device and spatula. One that actually gets used in high-volume pizza operations promises even slices by stamping a pizza with a series of center-oriented blades. Believe it or not, this one actually has its base in a food cutter patented in the 1920s!
Fad gadgets have their place, but longevity usually hitches a ride with simplicity. The elegance of a curved blade, whether it be loose or cradled by an extension of a handle, will likely remain steadfast in the hands and in the hearts of those who require their pizza to be sliced. In the meantime, I'm sure we'll all be looking forward to the latest pizza slicer variations, even if they are identical to a 120 year old wallpaper trimmer.
About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour