Welcome to Actually, a safe space for us to share our deeply-held but likely-unpopular opinions about food and drinks.
If 2018 taught me anything, it’s that humans will never stop attempting to improve pizza, only to ruin it (see also: the interface of every social media platform). Sometimes, it’s the size of the slice. Other times, it’s the shape of the pie. Most of the time, it’s the ridiculous mix of toppings that would be better served on a tasting menu than on a stretched-out ball of dough. Individually, those “innovations” are mostly just annoying, harmless tactics designed to help pizzerias develop their brand identity, but the collective movement to embrace these practices in an effort to reach Peak Pizza Pleasure is ruining the cuisine for future generations. If you really want to honor the tradition of pizza and enjoy the best version money can buy, don’t be afraid to be basic and order the simplest option (which for our purposes means either a plain cheese pizza or a pizza Margherita, depending on where you’re dining.)
Like most comfort food, part of the appeal of pizza is the familiarity, which comes from sticking with what works. While what works best is, admittedly, often a matter of personal taste, I’d wager that everyone who likes pizza enjoys warm dough topped with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella cheese. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s as good as it gets. Plain pizza is perfect. It’s what you craved as a kid, it’s the best way to tell if your pizza place is serving up quality pies, and it allows you to maximize your pizza budget (financial and caloric).
Add in toppings, and you’re not only assuming a new risk, you’re also more likely to wind up eating a bad pizza whose flaws have been masked behind flashy accoutrements. A house with a brand new roof but a cracked foundation is a terrible investment, and even the best toppings can’t fix dry dough, watery sauce, or flavorless cheese. Much like going to a new bar and ordering an old-fashioned to test the bartender’s competency, a plain pie is a barometer to find out whether or not a pizzeria knows what they’re doing. The reality is, if you don’t like a joint’s simplest pizza, the more complex pies aren’t going to be any better, even if the toppings themselves are fine or even interesting. Simply put: You shouldn’t be wasting your time chasing trendy toppings when you could be focusing on finding quality versions of those basic building blocks.
Even when pizzerias are using the kind of ingredients created by local farmers whose livelihoods depend on your purchase, a toppings-forward pie always leaves me feeling like I just paid more to eat a heavier piece of pizza that’s no more delicious nor satisfying nor memorable than plain would have been. Yes, eating a slice slathered in hot honey, or topped with fresh clams in a lemon cream sauce, or experiencing a pastrami sandwich in the form of a pizza is unique, and all those extra ingredients should cost more than a plain slice—but that’s precisely why the classic is the best bang for your buck. You get to eat pizza, leave happy, and not pay extra for forgettable toppings. Besides, every single ingredient piled on top of a pie is a diva that demands attention. They can never seem to get their shit together long enough to stay on the same slice. A great piece of pizza works best when it can be picked up, slightly folded, and devoured neatly while sitting down, standing up, or walking down a street.
As we see from the graphic above, as the novelty of toppings increases, my tolerance for their taste decreases. What this matrix doesn’t reflect is that growing up, I used to think pizzerias could do no worse than pineapple, but boy was I wrong! As chefs and pizzaiolos embrace unconventional toppings, the adverse effect has been business owners that are willing to put damn near anything on top of a pizza, regardless of whether it will taste good, in an effort to distinguish their shop and gain notoriety. Now, pizza is being transformed from the artful, self-contained meal it once was to the point where it’s just an edible plate upon which to showcase an entirely different dish. What started with an innocent piece of pepperoni has now grown into a one-upping contest where piles of pasta, buffalo chicken, and now entire hamburgers compromise not just the structural integrity of a single pie, but the whole concept of pizza itself. Like so many upsetting trends in food, this is a result of establishments trying to tap into a culture where the key currency for staying relevant is viral visuals or newsworthy gimmicks. So sure, maybe a pepperoni pie is fine, but just remember that the toppings you love begat this monstrosity:
I understand why places have to concern themselves with combinations that look pretty in photos or haven’t been done before—it's good for business—but the real sign of a great pizzeria is that they’re able to master the classics and deliver them consistently to customers. And as a guest, I would always rather order a pizza that offers me a constant feeling of comfort than the kind that leaves me saying, “Well, at least I tried that.”