By Scott Wiener
If there’s one characteristic common among all new wave American pizza makers, it’s that they’re concerned with self-improvement. Whether sourcing better cheese, experimenting with new fermentation schedules or testing their pizza in an unfamiliar oven, the country’s most exciting pizza makers are not trying to make the best. They’re just trying to beat their last pie. And they’re taking their colleagues along for the ride as they do it.
A new crop of pizza makers are ignoring the rules and achieving their own vision Being the rolling stone that it is, pizza has gathered no moss since first gracing America’s lips in the late 19th century. It’s clear that what was once considered the child of Southern Italy has now been adopted by every culture and destination. American pizza makers have been particularly diverse in forging their identity, evolving the Neapolitan bread into distinct regional variants across the country. With so much diversity, no single style represents all of American pizza.
Instead, a common aesthetic among the country’s most exciting pizza makers is driving progress. Who are these pizza makers and what makes them stick out among the pack? It all starts with education. Pizza schools didn’t exist until the late 1980s and they didn’t come to America until over a decade later. Now prospective pizza makers can seek instruction from at least a dozen schools, most of which offer certification in specific styles. Tony Gemignani, whose International School of Pizza was the first in the U.S. to teach American pizza styles, remembers the lack of resources when he got into the business in the 1990s. “It was the Wild West. If you wanted to learn about something, you couldn’t just Google it,” recalls Gemignani. “The books that were out were very general. Nothing gave much detail because they were written by cookbook writers and not by pizza makers or bakers.” Now the scope of information is much broader, so anyone interested can access reliable information with a few clicks or swipes. At Gemignani’s school, he sees an increasing number of students whose virtual exposure to foreign pizza styles inspires them to pursue their mastery. He credits the growth of regional variants like Neapolitan, Roman pizza al taglio, Grandma and Detroit to the broad access to educational materials.
On the flip side, we see a host of new wave pizza makers avoiding definition. Rather than sequestering themselves within a set of rules, they’re experimenting to achieve their own visions. Ingredient availability has expanded so sourcing is much easier and more exciting. Dan Richer, of Razza in Jersey City, New Jersey, has found this to be the key to creating a unique identity with his pizza. “Let’s move away from buying what they want and switch to buying what we want,” he says about breaking free from the paint-by-numbers majority of the industry. That’s the idea behind movements like These Hands, which credits pizza makers’ personal decision-making power in their processes rather than leaving decisions to the guidelines of a known style.