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Say cheese! Pizza from four American regions

Say cheese! Pizza from four American regions


New York pizza isn’t Chicago pizza, which isn’t California pizza, which isn’t Detroit pizza.

Each region has its own signature style, its own unique way of making pizza. It can be hard to believe they’re all variations on the same theme.

And none of the styles is precisely what you’d get in Italy, the ancestral home of pizza and a land full of its own proud regional styles. Yet the residents of New York and Chicago and California and Detroit all swear that their method is the only true way to make real pizza.

Of course, we all know that St. Louis pizza is the one true pizza. But for this story, I didn't bother with St. Louis pizza, because we already know what it is.

Pizza is crust, sauce and cheese, and in each style these essential elements are as different as New York is from California, as Chicago is from Detroit — and all of them from St. Louis.

As with most ethnic foods, pizza first made its way to this country through New York, so it is there that I decided to begin a recent culinary journey across the United States.

New York pizza is simple and unfussy; it is meant to be eaten on the go. It’s often sold by the slice at take-out joints that sometimes don’t even have chairs; you eat it while standing at a counter after you’ve just stopped in for a quick bite of something, oh, totally delicious.

The crust of a New York pizza is thin and pliable. It is meant to be folded in half lengthwise before it is eaten, doubling your pizza pleasure with every bite. But even though it is defiantly plain, the crust dough does benefit by rising at least one day in the refrigerator to allow its familiar flavor to fully develop.

The sauce, too, is simple and straightforward; it is merely crushed or pureed tomatoes mixed with just a few other herbs (oregano) and spices (garlic) for a little extra flavor. The sauce is so easy to make that it doesn’t even have to be cooked before it is used. The ingredients that require heat to release their flavor (oregano, garlic) get enough from the brief cooking time in a very hot oven.

Chicago pizza is probably this country’s next most famous variety, but only because it is so amazingly, spectacularly good.

There are actually two styles native to the Windy City, and the lesser known one is by far my favorite. Stuffed pizza begins with a buttery, thin, light crust on the bottom topped with gobs and gobs of melted cheese and your favorite topping (spinach is amazing), topped by another thin crust — so it’s like a pie — and then the whole thing is spread with a thin layer of oregano-heavy tomato sauce.

It is divine, and when I lived in Chicago, I ate it all the time. But I was young then, and these days I don’t need all those calories. No one needs all those calories.

So I made the more popular version of a Chicago pizza, deep dish pizza — which isn’t on anybody’s diet plan, either.

The most significant part of a deep dish pizza is the crust, which bakes up thick and full of air bubbles, but has more bite and is chewier than the others. A layer of sliced mozzarella cheese goes on top of it to act as buffer that keeps the sauce from infiltrating that perfect crust.

Your choice of toppings goes next, and I tend to use a light hand with these. One popular Chicago pizzeria supposedly uses two pounds of sausage on their deep-dish pizzas, which to my way of thinking turns the dish into a sausage sandwich. I prefer the path of moderation, which allows the sauce, cheese and crust to blend with the toppings in harmony.

Like the New York pizza, the sauce on a deep dish is simple and deliciously understated. You simply take a can of top-quality tomatoes and crush them with your hands. Drain them through a strainer so they lose their excess moisture (this step is crucial) and then mix in the familiar garlic and oregano, along with salt and pepper.

California pizza is harder to define. Invented or at least popularized by Wolfgang Puck and, yes, California Pizza Kitchen, it is characterized by a host of unusual toppings on a light and airy crust, often without a sauce.

The most famous versions of California pizza are Puck’s iconic pizza with crème fraiche, smoked salmon and caviar, and the one that put California Pizza Kitchen on the map, barbecue chicken pizza.

I didn’t want to make those. I wanted to make my own, which at least highlights the flexibility of the California pizza style.

I kind of accidentally chose to go vegan, by caramelizing onions with fennel and a hint of garlic and thyme. I roasted a red pepper and added strips of it, adding lovely pops of flavor to the subtlety and the sweetness of the onions and fennel.

It was a delight: unexpected, healthful and very Californian.

Meanwhile, Detroit pizza is enjoying a current moment in the pizza pantheon. The Motor City marvel is instantly recognizable by its rectangular shape, its crust that resembles a thick slice of artisanal bread, its liberal use of cheese and its sweet sauce.

The pizza’s distinctive shape is directly related to its city of origin: the rectangular baking pans were originally created to serve as automotive drip pans or as trays to hold tools and parts.

Detroit pizza is also notable for its cheese; it doesn’t just use mozzarella, it uses a mix of mozzarella and brick cheese. Brick cheese is a mild cheese, but not as mild as mozzarella, that comes from Wisconsin. I happily stumbled upon it at an Italian grocery, but it can be hard to find; if you can’t locate it, muenster or Monterey Jack will do.

Detroit pizza is so singular that it is the source of one of those raging, ongoing debates that can split a city in two: Who has the best Detroit pizza, Buddy’s or Shield’s?

I can categorically state that the answer is Shield’s, based on precise scientific reasoning: It is the only one I have been to.​

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