Unlike steak — which is famously hard to photograph — pizza looks good on film. All the elements we love are visible. You can tell the cheese’s consistency, make solid guesses about the flavor of the sauce, and get a sense of how the crust tastes. You can also learn about the texture. The savvy viewer can garner a pretty good idea, just by the way a pizza moves from hand to mouth, what it would be like to take a bite.
This is particularly easy when the pizza is seen wobbling through the air, flung by a meth cook who’s being stonewalled by his wife. Or being scraped off of the cook’s Heisenhouse a day later. I’m certain of this because I’ve watched the scene in question, from Breaking Bad, a half dozens of times. And I’m pretty sure that the pie we’re looking at is the best pizza in film and TV history.
I want to be clear that before making that claim I thought about it very seriously. Probably too seriously according to Uproxx‘s Brian Grubb and Alan Sepinwall, neither of whom were particularly intrigued by how the pizza tasted.
Still, I pushed on and did my due diligence. After all, people love to argue over film and TV and they love to argue about food. A writer can’t risk calling a shot this big and then be proven wrong by the first commenter. Especially with something as sacred as pizza.
Truth be told, there were some close also-rans. I think the pizzas that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ate always looked particularly appetizing, the pizza at Sal’s Famous in Do The Right Thing appeared pretty spot on, and I have a particular sweet spot for Spicoli’s slice in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But no one beats the roof pizza. The crust is speckled with cheese and char spots. The sauce is just the right red for me to deduce that it’s made from canned tomatoes, with few additions. The pepperoni is curling at the edges just so. Most importantly, it’s not overly uniform.
Complete homogeneity isn’t as delicious-looking as you might think. In fact, the worst ever movie pizza is the most theoretically flawless one. It’s the dehydrated pie from Back to the Future Part II. Pre-sliced? No air bubbles? Thick, bready crust? Jesse Pinkman would not be impressed with the food scientists of the future.
The goal of good food photography is, of course, to make an image that can almost be tasted as a collection of pixels. That’s where Walt’s flying pie really excels: It makes you hungry. Surely, I’m not the only one to watch the sequence and spend far less time thinking “What’s Walt going to do now that his personal life has collided with his meth-life?” and far more time thinking, “Ohhhh, I bet they use San Marzano tomatoes!”
As Breaking Bad caught fire — right around the beginning of season three, when Walt threw the pizza — scores of people went to Reddit to speculate on the propulsive plot. There were also people like me, who visited to find out where to get a “family size” of their own next time they visited Albuquerque.
Turns out, food lovers are pretty good sleuths (though the name is on the box). The restaurant is called Venezia’s New York Style Pizzeria and it’s quite real. More than that, they’re passionate about their pizzas. This wasn’t just some barely-caring takeaway spot. Walt wanted to bring his fractured family something special. After all, the man had dipping sticks.
“My parents were born in Italy, moved to New York, and met each other in the Bronx,” says Venezia’s owner Domenick Montanile. “We moved out to New Mexico when I was a teenager and my dad started the pizzeria.”
Venezia’s star turn almost came at the beginning of the series, when the producers asked to use one of the company’s food trucks as a mobile meth lab.
“They wanted to use my dad’s truck for Walt and Jesse’s trailer,” Montanile explains. “The problem is my dad needed it for concerts and catering — and he didn’t know anything about the show, remember — so he passed. Then the second season they came back and asked for pizzas. Some of the guys on the crew really liked them and recommended us.”
By this time, the restaurant was only too happy to have its pizza on the show, but there was another little hitch.
“We sent the first batch — 10 party pizzas,” Montanile says. “Then they called back and said they needed them uncut.”
The choice to leave the pizzas uncut is what elevates both the pizza and the scene from good to great. When Walt’s frustration bubbles over and he hurls the pizza onto the roof, it flies out of the box and soars like a giant, floppy frisbee. In order to do that, the pizza had to be whole. Even then, getting the pie to stick on the shingles was a major concern. No one was really sure how hard or difficult it would be.
As luck had it, Bryan Cranston nailed the toss on his first try — an accomplishment that would go down in history in this mini-doc.
As fans raced to throw pizzas onto the White house in the real world (eventually requiring a fence and an impassioned plea from showrunner Vince Gilligan to curb), Cranston’s incredible feat actually caused a new wrinkle in the writer’s room, too. Gilligan worried that they’d be called out for breaking the laws of conventional pizza making in order to support the laws of aerodynamics. As per his MO, he credited the brilliance of his team for coming up with a patch during a Reddit AMA:
We had a long discussion before we shot the pizza on the roof scene about whether or not the pizza should be sliced — because, as all you physicists know, a thrown, sliced pizza would come apart due to centrifugal force or angular momentum (or something like that).
And yet, you’re right: no self-respecting pizza parlor sells an unsliced pizza. So we figured we needed to explain it (in the “They pass the savings on to you” scene), or else face our audience’s righteous wrath!
The scene Gilligan is referencing came a whole year later, in the second episode of season four. While Jesse descends into guilt-ridden oblivion, he asks Badger and Skinny Pete to score some pizzas. When Badger passes them out, he explains the restaurant’s marketing scheme:
Jesse: “Yo, what’s up with the pie man? It ain’t cut.”
Badger: “Yeah, right… That’s the gimmick.”
Jesse: “What gimmick?”
Badger: “This place, they don’t cut the pizza and they pass the savings onto you.”
Jesse: “How much can it be to cut a damn pizza?”
Skinny Pete: “Maybe it’s like… democratic. Cut your own Christmas tree? Cut your own pizza.”
Once Skinny Pete gets into the mix, their banter seems ready to spin off into one of the trio’s classic comic relief scenes. But in the background, the doorbell is ringing all the while, growing increasingly ominous. The real world is coming for the lost boys. They can’t hide on their uncut pizza island for long.
As Badger tries to calculate the money Venezia’s might save by leaving their pizzas uncut, Jesse and his on again, off again girlfriend Andrea step outside to talk about the cash Jesse sent to her — another moment reaffirming the character’s humanity amidst the chaos. It’s a tough scene, watching him wave goodbye to Andrea’s son Brock.
One can only hope that Skinny Pete had saved Jesse a hand-cut slice.
For a food writer, all of this backstory is meaningless if the pizza doesn’t taste good. To know this, I had to taste one for myself. So I ordered an uncut family size pepperoni from Venezia’s (the restaurant is no longer operating in the ABQ, instead they’re focused on their five Arizona locations).
This came with a little wrinkle of its own, as I’m in Los Angeles and the closest Venezia’s is in Tempe. By the time the pizza got to me it was sure to be a little stale. Maybe a lot stale. It would have been banged around and left unrefrigerated. The cheese, in particular, would probably be in rough shape.
Like the Vince Gilligan of consuming carbs, I wracked my brain until I came up with a good fix: The pizza, after a flight and banging around in the back of a FedEx van, wouldn’t taste fresh, there was nothing I could do about that, but it would taste similar to how it tasted when Walt scraped it off the roof. That’s the pizza I set out to pay homage to, after all.
Besides, has anyone ever needed a pizza more than Walt in that moment? It’s amazing that he didn’t tear off a slice while he was cleaning. There’s no chance I would have shown such restraint. That pizza was the one I wanted to honor.
My pizza arrived the morning after I ordered it, around 10 am. If nothing else, that’s a vote for the American shipping network. It had clearly had a rough night, but Venezia’s had promised to leave it slightly undercooked so that I could put it in the oven. It also gave Dom Montanile and me the chance to bro out over being the sons of New York Italians.
“You gotta promise you won’t microwave it,” he said, accent thickening a little.
“Dom, if my father heard that I microwaved a pizza, he’d come back from the grave to disown me,” I said.
“Oh, good. I figured, with that last name.”
I heated the oven to 400. Normally I like pizza cooked at the hottest possible temp — like, on the surface of the sun for ten seconds would be ideal — but I didn’t want to risk drying out the crust. When the pie came out of the oven, it had flattened out and the cheese had re-melted nicely. I used scissors to cut up the pizza, as per Skinny Pete’s recommendation.
With a little parm and some pepper flakes, it was ready to eat.
My slice is cut ridiculously big, but only because I was taking the advice of an expert:
“New York style, you want a nice big slice,” Montanile told me. “That’s why we make the 24-inch pizza in the first place. You’ve gotta be able to fold it.”
All things considered, my piece isn’t a far cry from the press images that Venezia’s emailed me.
“We’re thin but not too thin,” Montanile had told me. “If your crust is too thin the cheese turns to oil. We make every pizza by hand and practice with the cooks to not make it too thin.”
I also wanted to find out if my guesses were right about the sauce.
“When you see a deep red sauce, that’s tomato paste,” Montanile said. “Ours is crushed imported tomatoes, with a little fresh basil and a little fresh garlic. When my dad first opened we used canned sauce but eventually he wanted something fresher. It just makes the pizza so much better.”
I took my first taste. There was a noticeable bite to the pizza — the crust had lots of chew to it, in a good way. There were also spots with air bubbles for a little crunch. The cheese had lost some of its luster but held up okay, considering what it’d been through and the sauce was still perfect: just the tiniest bit sweet from basil and Venezia’s choice to use good tomatoes without additives. All in all, it tasted a fair bit like my favorite pizza on earth: Dom DeMarco’s pies served at DiFara in Brooklyn.
It definitely lived up to the hype (90% of which had been created in my pizza-loving brain). Still, just to check my work, I called Matt Jones, Badger from Breaking Bad. Our phone connection was rough, but we made it work.
“Matt, I’m wondering about the uncut pizza from Breaking Bad,” I yelled into the phone. “I think it’s the best pie in TV and film history. Did you eat it?”
“”I think I did!” The line buzzed and I leaned forward in anticipation. “…I don’t remember liking it very much.”
I saw my whole article fizzling out before my eyes. I mean, even with 15 years of food writing under my belt, who wouldn’t trust the real Badger’s words over mine?
There was a long pause and Jones’s voice crackled to life again. “Keep in mind I was eating cold pizza in a hot studio with about five pounds of FUBU on. Also, I had blue rock candy jammed up my nose. So… I don’t know if I was the best person to judge the taste of it.”
It was the rock candy line that sealed it. We all know that the senses of smell and taste are tightly linked and Jones’s smell was skewed with the flavor of fake meth. I’m sticking to my claim. Walt’s judgment clearly wasn’t perfect, but I believe a chemist would understand the intricacies of a great pizza pie.
Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, Venezia’s.