In New York City pizza, coal is king. That's what statistics consultant Jared Lander found when he rigorously applied the science to user-generated reviews of the city's pizzerias in a quest to find "the best."
Lander conducted the stats-based search to satisfy the thesis requirement in earning his master's degree in statistics at Columbia University. The paper, "New York Pizza: How to Find the Best" (PDF), found that users of MenuPages.com tended to rate coal-oven pizzerias the highest. From the abstract:
While pizza was initially invented in Italy, it got propelled to its current status in the streets of New York. As such, New York is often seen as the pizza capital of the world. Here we try to discern what makes a pizzeria more or less favorable to the non-expert pizza eating community based on user reviews at menupages.com. We have information regarding the location, relative price, type of fuel used in the oven, number of reviews and average rating for over 600 pizza-serving establishments in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn....
- Location doesn't seem to matter in terms of quality—except if you're in Midtown. There, the non-expert pizza-eating community deems the pizza of lesser quality
- "An Uptown location adds to a pizzeria's observed popularity (based on number of reviews), while high prices are not necessarily a detriment"
- "... a coal oven is a big draw. This could be due to their rarity, historic nature or the general affinity the pizza cognoscenti have for charred pies"
I love that last one, especially given the discussions we've had around here lately about charring vs. burning.
From the conclusion:
The numerous variables and factors have very little affect on the average ratings attributed to pizzerias. For the most part, all the pizzerias were rated on a fairly level playing field, hence using the mean as a simple model. This could indicate, as is the case with wine, that people in general do not have a sophisticated enough palate to fully appreciate the many facets of pizza.
Popularity and quality are not always equivalent. It is likely that we may have just proved the old adage about pizza: "Even when it's bad, it's still good."