Nestled on the leeward corner of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state is a little town at the end of the road called Port Townsend. It’s one of the oldest non-Spanish towns on the USA’s west coast and still has a largely Victorian aesthetic. Water Street is the main drag. Along each side of the street two and three story red brick buildings sit like beacons from a bygone era — each one has a faded mural for some product or another, long discontinued. The insides of these buildings are largely original. Wooden staircases lead to creaky second floors. Plate glass windows look out onto the Straits of Juan de Fuca and snow-capped Olympic Mountains.
About 2/3 of the way down Water Street sits a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria called Waterfront Pizza. That’s where my old man would take me for a slice after an afternoon out salmon fishing or dragging up crab pots. I can still smell the oven to this day — the mozzarella, sourdough bread, sizzling pepperoni. It’s all there in my sense memory. We’d walk in to the small shop and I’d gaze around at the tiny prep area and two huge ovens. Flour seemed to coat everything. I watched in awe as the pizziaolo stretched the dough and topped the pies. The smell wafting from the oven was magical.
We’d always get the same thing — two slices and two root beers. And it was always pizza with pepperoni, olives, mushrooms, and pineapple. In the years since, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve learned to cook, and I’ve never had anything as good as those slices of pizza with my old man all washed down with root beer. Never once.
Cut to my college days in Washington, DC. I worked as a waiter for a new pizzeria right next to my university called 2Amy’s. The joint was set on introducing a new take on pizza — the real Neapolitan Margherita. 2Amy’s was so deft at making the Naples original that they were first Neapolitan pizzeria in DC allowed to use the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation.
I quickly befriended the sous chef and set about to learn the ins-and-outs of making a real Neapolitan pie. He taught me about sourcing and handling flours, cheeses, and basil. Hell, we even made salsiccia and pancetta in house. I have fond memories of taking naps in the cellar between lunch and dinner shifts, surrounded by hanging prosciuttos and salamis.
Couple that with my constant road tripping — where I ate pizza everywhere from Oxford, Mississippi to Chicago to most cities between Boston and Philadelphia — when I left DC, I felt like a pizza master.
Then I left America and started traveling the world. Pizza was always a go to meal on the road. There are pizzerias everywhere. I’ve had pizza from Afghanistan to the Congo. It became a running litmus during travels with my wife. We’d always try a local pizzeria as our last meal in new place. I had to know how x, y, or z culture did their pizza. As of now I’ve eaten pizza in 61 countries.
Though I may have technically had better made, higher-quality pizzas all over the world (especially in Italy), and there have been pizzas that I love with all my culinary heart; there has never been a slice as good as Waterfront Pizza’s pepperoni, black olive, mushroom, and pineapple. Which naturally made me curious.
It’s Not The Water… But It Might Be The Ovens
Arguing over what makes a great pizza can get almost as heated as debating which Godfather film is the best (obviously Part II). Let’s set toppings aside. For one, telling people what they can and can’t have on their pizza is as un-American as telling someone what they can put on a hot dog. Secondly, let’s just assume we’re talking about using high-quality ingredients.
New Yorkers are probably the most vocal about the greatness of their pizza. Fair enough. They have very good pizza. And it’s not the water. It’s not the dough. It’s the ovens. New York’s oldest pizza oven is from 1905 and a fair few more were fired up for the first time between 1920 and 1930. That’s a long history of making pizza and that’s very important to making a good one.
Before we tackle why it’s the ovens, let’s get some facts about the water out of the way. Yes, New York has a specific aquifer that gives their water a certain mineral content — just like everywhere else in the world. Why this is less important is that even if you have New York water, but you’re not in New York, the pizza isn’t going to taste the same. You can reverse osmosis water then literally clone any area’s water anywhere in the world. This means taking all the mineral elements from water and rebuilding it to match whatever aquifer you want it to. This process is used fairly regularly in brewing.
The oven is where your pizza memories are hewn in stone. Each oven has a history. It’s an encyclopedia of everything that’s ever been baked inside of its chamber. When a pizza goes into the oven, food particles evaporate and stick to the oven’s walls creating a layer of seasoning. This happens hundreds of thousands of times with a pizza oven over the years. Meaning that pizzas from that oven will have a subtly distinct flavor that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Or, as Mario Batali puts it, “an oven captures the gestalt of beautifully cooked pizza. And it imparts that.”
David Tisi is a food consultant who studies food and has a particular obsession with cracking what makes pizza so f*cking great. Tisi told Wired what he learned way back in 2008 which is, “as you cook, some ingredients vaporize, and these volatilized particles can attach themselves to the walls of the baking cavity.” He continues, “The next time you use the oven, these bits get caught up in the convection currents and deposited on the food, which adds flavor.” Once those particles are reheated and mix with the fire from wood or coal or even electric heat, that oven’s flavor becomes part of that pie. And each one develops a deeper and deeper flavor complexity as the years tick past.
The Power Of Food Memories
Here’s the rub: Whatever flavor you grew up on, can’t be replicated. New oven, new taste. You can claim that your local pizzeria has the best slice or pie in the world. But we all grew up with a specific pizzeria and thereby developed our palates around one specific oven and one pizziaolo’s ingredients, with a huge dollop of nostalgia thrown in.
Studies have pointed out that what we eat with our parents has a massive effect on how we develop our young palates — this makes sense given we mostly eat with our parents growing up. National Geographic looked at the way we taste things from a scientific view point and concluded that we’ve had “great progress in recent years in identifying taste receptors and the genes that code for them, but they are far from fully understanding the sensory machinery that produces our experience of food.” They also found that our ability to taste is far more complicated than our ability to see since taste uses vision, smell, sound, touch, and physical contact inside the body to form a taste and thereby a palate.
Which is all to say: Tasting is complicated and probably has to do with your psychological state and a whole host of other factors.
It’s important to remember that all of this research is new. One of the bigger discoveries is that there’s “a separate sensory system located in the gut.” This system “sends subliminal messages to the brain about what’s good to eat and what’s not.” Theoretically that means subliminal messages from our gut could contradict what we think we want in our brains. And maybe our guts got used to one pizza and that’s all it really wants.
Looking at the issue of our love of certain foods from our past/childhood perspective provides a few more answers. Hedonic hunger (eating for pleasure) studies have found that “eating beloved foods stimulates some of the same neural pathways as addictive drugs like cocaine.” So, yeah, that slice of pizza from the pizzeria you grew up with — or the one down your street in the neighborhood you’ve been living in the last few years — is definitely going to have a pull on you specifically that other people just won’t get.
So, is your pizzeria the best? Sure. But so is mine.
In the end, I’ll have to go back to Port Townsend if I want to relive my best pizza in the world. Until then, there’s a whole world of “pretty amazing” pizzas out there to choose from to tide me over.
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Here’s a visual tour of some of the best and oldest ovens out there to temp your pizza palate.
LOMBARDI’S — NEW YORK
Lombardi’s has the oldest pizza oven in the USA. The grocery store installed a coal-fired oven at the behest of Naples’ immigrant Anthony Pero in 1905 and the rest is history.
L’ANTICA DA MICHELE — NAPLES
L’Antica da Michele has 35 years on America’s first oven. L’Antica da Michele is also credited with basically inventing pizza as we know it by combining the holy trinity of toppings — San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil.
BONCI PIZZARIUM — ROME
Bonci Pizzaarium in Rome isn’t necessarily the oldest pizzeria in Rome by any stretch. But it’s an old bakery that bakes a crazy amount of bread in its ovens. It’s consistently considered among the best pizzas in Rome — even getting the Bourdain seal of approval. Plus the toppings are mind-blowingly diverse.
PANIFCIO GRAZIANO — PALERMO
Another bakery that turns out mostly pizzas, in this case pizza sfincione — a thick dough pizza with minimal toppings of tomato and cheese. Panifico Graziano uses electric ovens to turn out huge sheets of pizza and it’s worth the trek out of the city center to get as many pieces as you can carry.
TOTONNO’S — NEW YORK
After Anthony “Totonno” Pero brought pizza to Manhattan at Lombardi’s Grocery, he headed out to Coney Island and opened up his own place using his nickname as the pizza joint’s name. Totonno’s oven is from 1924 and makes some of the best pizza in New York to this day.
WATERFRONT PIZZA — PORT TOWNSEND
Is Waterfont’s pizza the technical best pizza I’ve ever eaten? Maybe not. I still crave a slice from here washed down with a real beer now more than any other pizza I’ve ever eaten.