Pizza (And Basic Pasta)
The Casual Pizza-And-Pasta Houses
Wherever you travel in the world, Italian food is there. That universality has been accomplished largely by a recently-developed kind of restaurant: the pizza-and-pasta house. Although the decor and menus scream Italy, even to the point of using Italian words all over the menu, these eateries focus on only the two most popular, least expensive, and most profitable parts of that cuisine. The complexities of Italian cooking are left to the more ambitious restaurants, while a limited range of ingredients combine to create enormous menus. Really, these places only serve a handful of dishes, but the dozens of variable create the illusion of hundreds of dishes.
The best of the pizza-and-pasta houses (most of which are parts of chains) serve better food than the neighborhood Italian places of fifty years ago, and with prices as low. The worst of them are parodies of Italian cooking, with the sauces made in a factory somewhere and just warmed up for service. In either case, the pasta is piled high on the plate and the sauces flooded over the mound. The children are happy, and do everybody's happy. Pasta is the easy part.
Pizza is a bit more difficult to get right.
The World's Most Popular Dish
Pizza was born in Naples, on the west coast of Italy. It has spread everywhere in the world, but the first place outside Italy to go crazy over pizza was the United States. It landed in New York City before World War II, and reached every other part of the country after. The first pizzerias in New Orleans had a distinctly low-rent look, the orphan children of the Italian restaurant business. Beginning in the 1980s, pizza became first respectable and then, in the past decade, gourmet.
The world of American pizza is divided into two categories, according to the kind of oven used. Most common are the foolproof conveyor-belt ovens, fed with over-risen dough at a fixed temperature, exiting the other end puffy, bready, and a bit dry. This is the standard of the chain take-out and delivery shops, but it's also widely used in the spiffy new pizza-and-pasta houses.
The other, rarer, and much better pizzeria category still uses the hearth-style ovens, in which the pizzas bake to a crisp, thin crust, charred a little around the edges, directly on stone or brick. The best of these use wood-fired ovens, copying the ones in Naples and elsewhere in Italy. We are seeing more of these all the time, with a concomitant improvement in the excellence of the pies.