The Pizza Cognition Theory

When I wrote my book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, I asked Sam Sifton to talk about his Pizza Cognition Theory. I got to know Sam when he edited my food stories for the Dining section of the New York Times before he moved on to the paper's culture desk (he eventually moved back to the Dining section as restaurant critic, the title he holds now). Enough. Without futher ado, here's Sam's theory. —Ed Levine


Slice founder and editor Adam Kuban (in striped shirt) at his eighth birthday party—a make-your-own-pizza affair. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Pizza Cognition Theory

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Pizza naturally throws this theory into a tailspin. The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmmgoood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza. He relegates all subsequent slices, if they are different in some manner from that first triangle of dough and cheese and tomato and oil and herbs and spices, to a status that we can characterize as not pizza.

The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza.You cannot teach a child what pizza is, this explanation of pizza cognition asserts, by providing him with oppositional ingredients or styles. The love of pizza simply doesn't work that way. Invariably, if a child's first slice of pizza comes from a deep-dish Chicago pie or is a slick, chewy, pillow of Sicilian or half-hour-guaranteed-delivery cardboard Frisbee or a frozen French-bread travesty, semolina-dusted "Creole" or sweet pineapple and plastic ham "Hawaiian" pie, then, well, that is pizza to him. He will defend this interpretation to the end of his life.

Is this an unfair assertion? Perhaps. Learned behaviors and tastes can be, after all, unlearned. Thus are colts broken and prisoners released from jail. And, in any event, the question of what makes a slice of pizza "good" or "right" is so loaded with cultural baggage as to make it almost meaningless. One might as well ask: Which is the better painting, Picasso's Guernica or David's Marat? Who was the better baseball player, Reggie Jackson or Thurmon Munson? Good pizza is simply good pizza, in a hundred different ways, for thousands of different reasons. <!--

What Constitutes New York City Pizza

A brief definition in terms, then, so that you may understand waht pizza is in New York City: It is, in essence, Neapolitan, a thin-crust pie, lightly slathered with a tomato sauce that one might describe, depending on mood, as herb-infused, sprinkled with mozzarella, a fine mist of Parmesan. No more. Toppings — pepperoni, sausage, lardo, artichoke hearts, onion, roasted peppers, hunks of garlic — are optional. No bad pie is made good by the presence of toppings.

A pizza's crust should be ery close to pliant. Conversely, it should approach crackly; it should yield to the teeth with a dissolving crunch. The sauce should be neither salty nor overly sweet, and the presence of herbs in its flavor — oregano, basil, black pepper, let's say — should neither overwhelm nor be entirely absent. They should balance, a perfect triangle of salt, acidity, sweet. That is pizza in New York City. All else — however delicious, however redolent of wood smoke or sweet clams or new traditions or old — is not. -->