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A Pizza My Mind: In Defense of Buffalo Chicken Pizza
Editor's note: In honor of National Pizza Month (aka October), the Serious Eats editors, staff, and Slice writers will top off our regular content with their deepest thoughts on all things cheesy, saucy, and crusty.
There's the fancy pizza we talk about on Slice—your DOP Neopolitan, your black truffle-Parmagiano Reggiano pies—and then there's "gourmet" pizza, slices piled high with everything from eggplant parm to shrimp scampi. These are easy to make fun of, and usually not very good, but there's one I'll defend against anybody: the buffalo chicken slice.
Where I went to high school on the North Shore of Long Island, stacked "gourmet" pizzas were the norm for us kids. "Yeah lemme get one chicken parm and one penna vodka." "And what will your girlfriend have?" "Caeser salad slice and a diet coke." This was hearty, satisfying, and exotic stuff for us kids when we were sober; lifesaving godsend when we weren't.
As far as I'm concerned, buffalo chicken is the best of these weighty toppings by a long shot: there's textural contrast, sharp balanced heat, and enough distance from your average pizza to keep that you could almost consider it as a separate food group. There's something daring and brazen about it, a gonzo bastardized pizza that's just so wrong it's right.
Some buffalo slices are much better than others, and the optimist in me believes that if more people had a buffalo chicken pizza that does justice to the form, the naysayers would be far more accepting of something that's more than good drunk food—an occasional oddball slice of pizza-like object well worth an order from time to time. If we as a country can accept heaps of spicy sausage on our pizza, or roasted red peppers, or canned olives, I see no reason why we can't embrace the tangy heat of sauce-drenched fried chicken as a topping as well.
So what makes for a good buffalo chicken slice? Kenji's covered the fancy pants Neapolitan buffalo slice at San Marzano in NYC, and while it looks quite good, it's a little more upper crust than I'm going for when I seek out buffalo chicken pizza. Here are my proposed ground rules, all based on treating the slice as a literal interpretation of buffalo chicken wings, not some half-wing, half-pizza hybrid:
- The chicken should be fried: It doesn't need to be wings specifically, but if it's not fried, you're just eating chicken with hot sauce, not buffalo chicken.
- No tomato sauce: The worst buffalo chicken pizzas just stick chicken and hot sauce on a plain pie. The tomato sauce on this kind of pie is distracting and best discarded. Instead, the buffalo sauce should have a hint of sweetness for contrast.
- Cheese: Who needs mozzarella? The best buffalo chicken slices I've enjoyed eschew the stuff altogether. Blue cheese is a much more appropriate accompaniment.
The best buffalo chicken pizza I've ever had comes from Joanne's Gourmet Pizza in Roslyn, Long Island, a place that so epitomizes "gourmet" slices that Ed's friend Brian Koppelman included it in his essay defending the gourmet pizza tradition as part of Ed's pizza tome, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven. The crust here is thick and sturdy, baked well enough to support the weight of a full bed of chicken, but still tender enough to yield a little give and chew. The chicken itself is lightly flour-dredged and fried until firm, then coated with ample hot sauce that has some sweet depth beyond the chili burn. You get a little cup or two of cool, creamy blue cheese dressing on the side to do with as you will. I slather; others dip. Is this the kind of bastardization that drives pizza snobs crazy? Yup, but bastardization never tasted so good.
Any other "gourmet" pizza fans out there? What are your favorite slices?