Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Pizza Guide and Companion
`Pizza, A Slice of Heaven' by New York Times culinary journalist, Ed Levine and a proverbial cast of thousands is a digest of many different opinions about pizza making around the country and around the world. The cover states that the author includes contributions from Nora Ephron, Mario Batali, and Calvin Trillin, but the `and many others' includes many heavyweights in the world of writing about food in general and pizza in particular, including Jeffrey Steingarten, Ruth Reichl, Robb Walsh, and Peter Reinhart.
There have probably been many more books recently on pizza, but the only one really worthy of consideration to my knowledge is Peter Reinhart's recent `American Pie' which takes a much less democratic and much more analytical and rational and professional approach to the search for the greatest pizza. It is immensely satisfying that these two very different books came up with the identical conclusion that the very best American pizza is Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. Bianco was easy to pick, as he is the only pizzaiolo to have been awarded a best regional chef award by the James Beard Foundation.
For those of us who do not live within easy driving distance of Pizzeria Bianco, all is not lost. Things are especially good for those of us who live in Levine's `Pizza Corridor' stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., the landing sites for the great wave of immigrants from southern Italy in the latter half of the 19th century. Particularly good are pizzas available in famous shops in New Haven, Connecticut, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and, to a lesser extent, in Baltimore and Washington.
Levine's book is collected from two or three kinds of articles, depending on how you want to slice them. The most common type of article is the informal survey of pizzeria's in various parts of the country and the world. Many, but not all of these are written by Levine. Others are written by correspondents who report on the state of pizza affairs in lesser pizza hot spots, such as the report from Charlotte by baking teacher Reinhart and the report from Argentina by Tex-Mex expert, Robb Walsh. The non-survey articles can be divided into introductory pieces written by Levine to lay out the land for the survey articles and background articles, many of which are reprints from other authors' collections.
The very best thing about the survey articles is that they give knowledgeable ratings for both whole pies and slices from a very large number of famous and almost famous pizzerias. This means that if you are a serious pizza lover, you can travel to many major cities in the United States and have on hand a reference to several good pizzerias, especially in the northeast corridor. The only drawback about these ratings is that they are not all done by the same people. Some ratings appear in articles by contributors such as Nora Ephron who is not a culinary professional. I will grant that she is a gifted amateur in pizza circles, but there is no guarantee she will evaluate things in exactly the same way as Mr. Levine. Thus, it is important to read the narrative evaluations and not go by just the number of icons given to rating the slices or pies.
The use of so many different contributors means that there is a fair amount of overlap from one article to the next. Levine edited well enough so that this overlap is not annoying, but it is there none the less.
One item which raised my opinion of Mr. Levine's judgment in food matters was his criticism of a Consumer Reports evaluation of frozen pizzas. He not only disagreed with their specific recommendation, but he questioned their overall competance in evaluating food products. I am certain they are honest. I am not certain they pick the right criteria on which to judge things.
In addition to the survey of great independent pizzerias around the country, Mr. Levine also evaluates the great pizza chains and frozen pizza products. There are no big surprises here, as Mr. Levine's opinion of almost all the chains is pretty dismal. While I have probably less than one thousandth of Mr. Levine's experience in evaluating pizza, I have a hunch that pizzas from major chain outlets may show a lot more variability than he may indicate. I am certain that on average, it is simply not as good as the very best you can find, but it may, on average, be as good or better than what you get from an undistinguished local pizzeria. It's the old Howard Johnson rule. It may not be the best, but in unfamiliar cities, you know what to expect from them.
Two pizza icons which get a tepid reaction from Mr. Levine are Chicago style deep dish pizza and California pizza. Levine goes so far as to say that deep dish pizza is really a casserole rather than a pizza. His take on Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters is relatively gentile, but also tends to treat them as a footnote to the great classic Neapolitan / American pizza standard.
If you are really interested in a serious discussion of what makes a great pizza, and how to make it yourself, then get Reinhart's `American Pie'. If you simply enjoy reading about pizza and want to know where the very best can be found, get this book. Just don't follow any advice found in Jeffrey Steingarten's tongue in cheek essay on how to achieve a very hot pizza baking environment.