The word "Tuscan" has been abused and misused on the menus of everyone from The Olive Garden to Subway and can generally be translated to mean "vaguely Italian and probably but not necessarily grilled and maybe it contains chicken but it definitely has some sort of dried herbs on it and melted cheese and doesn't this sound healthier than the other things on the menu because it's all mediterranean and stuff?"
Appealing Appalling, right?
But today marks a bold new day in the New York pizza scene. I have borne witness to not one, but two watershed moments that will, for better or for worse, forever alter my perception of what is true and right in the pizzascape.
For lunch today, Ed and I headed out to check out a new pizzeria a few blocks from the office. In the display case was a pie they called the "Tuscany." It was a white pie topped with chunks of fried chicken, bacon bits, basil, and ranch dressing.
Repeat: fried chicken, bacon bits, basil, and ranch.
In case it isn't obvious, none of these things are particularly associated with the cuisine of Tuscany, a central Italian region known more for its peasant soups (the home of minestrone), grilled steaks, and sand people.*
*strike that, that's Tusken
Now we could, perhaps give it the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are referring to a ranch out in Tuscany, Texas. Maybe the pizzaiolo's beloved but recently deceased chinchilla—who had an affinity for bacon, fried chicken, basil, and ranch dressing—happened to be named after the Italian region and the pizza was given his name as a tribute.
And maybe, just maybe, one can find ranches in Tuscany that serve a tangy blend of buttermilk and mayonnaise seasoned with black pepper, herbs, and spices that serves as a perfect complement to your Tuscan iceberg, Tuscan chicken nuggets, or even Tuscan pizza.
Maybe. But I doubt it.
To be honest, the Tuscany was the best of the four different slices of pizza we tried, which says more about the ability of ranch dressing to hide the deficiencies of mediocre-to-poor food than it does about the skills of the piemakers. In another watershed New York Pizza moment, I realized that despite seeing ranch pizza all over the midwest, this was the very first time I'd seen it as a default topping in the display case of a New York pizzeria. To be honest it made me feel a little sad.
It seems to me that for the last decade or so—ever since the dollar slice showed up on the scene—the difference in quality of the average New York slice has been widening. The worst these days—and there are plenty of places vying for that spot—are pretty deep in the hole, while the best continue to hold up the high standards of my youth.
If you want to step on the next rung down on the declining end of the New York by-the-slice pizza scene, by all means check out the new slice joint on Cleveland Place where the pizzas are cooked on screens, the underbellies are simultaneously deep brown and flaccid, the cheese adds nothing but fat, and the ranch dressing is Tuscan. But if you actually want good pizza in the Nolita neighborhood, you're better off walking the few blocks over to Prince Street Pizza whose square pies are as good as any New York has seen.
If I ever open a pizzeria or a second rate Italian-esque restaurant chain, we will have Tusken pizza on the menu, and our breadsticks will be served single file to hide their numbers.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer 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.