New Jersey’s official state Twitter account, @NJGov, set off a “pizza war” a few days ago when — just in time for National Pizza Day — it proclaimed the Garden State the “official pizza capital of the world.”
But is it, though? Is it really?
As everyone knows, pizza got its start in Italy. In Naples, to be exact, according to food historian Ken Albala.
“People often say after WWII soldiers came back wanting pizza, but it was already here in the early 20th century,” said Albala, who grew up in Manalapan.
“It came with immigrants escaping impoverished Europe,” Albala said. “There was economic depression that especially hit unindustrialized Southern Europe and Eastern Europe.”
When we contacted him, Albala happened to be finishing a breakfast of — what else? — pizza.
“You know, there are several different types in New Jersey. That roughly follows the shift in accent too,” Albala said. “Where I grew up was in the orbit of New York linguistically and in terms of pizza, and bagels too. But Freehold was very different. Federici’s ... was much thinner crust and wider. And they spoke differently five miles away. Trenton had its own weird tomato pie with cheese first and sauce on top. I still make pizza that way.”
The sheer diversity of New Jersey’s pizza makes it a real contender, according to Joseph Mortarulo, one of the owners of Houdini Pizza Laboratory, a Neopolitan-style pizzeria that offers modern takes on toppings in Fanwood.
“I would definitely say it’s got to rival New York,” Mortarulo said. “You run the full gamut in New Jersey, so it could very well be considered the pizza capital.”
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Quality is another factor.
“It comes from the crust and the cheese and, of course, the tomatoes,” said Mortarulo. “How the pizza is cooked affects it, as well.”
“The pizzaiolo making the pie and starting with a good foundation,” offered Attilio Guarino, owner and pizza chef at Ava’s Kitchen & Bar in Kenilworth. “It all begins with the dough and if you are using low-quality flour, you’ll have a low-quality product. Next is coming up with creative topping combinations. Everything that goes on the pie should be fresh and locally sourced.”
And while New Jersey may have its share of so-so pies along with the awesome, Albala puts it ahead of New York in the quality department.
“I think in general the pizza was better in New Jersey. Small independent shops that had never franchised or sold out with cheap ingredients,” Albala said. “There were a few classic oddballs in New York.”
He mentioned Lombardi's, which he said has a great clam pizza. And then there’s Connecticut’s claim to pizza fame.
“Pepe’s and Sally’s in New Haven are very good too, but not typical pizza,” Albala said.
John Mooney, publisher of TAPinto Scotch Plains/Fanwood and self-proclaimed pizza aficionado swears by the coal-fired New Haven pizza of his childhood at Sally’s Apizza and Frank Pepe’s, both nationally recognized pizza joints steps away from each other.
“I go home every year in December and go straight to one of the two. People will wait in line for an hour,” Mooney said. “I’m not saying there aren’t lots of good pizza places in New Jersey, but I think nothing compares to New Haven pizza.”
And Chicago? Fuggedaboutit.
“Chicago pizza people think is deep dish, but a more typical Chicago pizza is an ordinary medium crust,” Albala said. “The deep dish isn’t really a pizza anyway.”
Want to learn more about the history of pizza? Albala recommends the book “Pizza: A Global History” by Carol Helstoky.
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