Pizza al taglio: Singing the praises of a superior slice

Good Eats, Focacciaria

The ‘I love pizza’ chorus projects their message far, but these singers intone a one-note harmony on their alleged favourite food. Do they crave New York-style slices, Sicilian squares, or Chicago deep dish? Maybe their hearts go a-flutter at floppy Neapolitan pies, Roman ones with cracker-thin crusts or a chewy slice of Domino’s. You profess your devotion to pizza, but what’s the north star of your pizza universe?

I do not harmonize with the choir. I do not love pizza. I do not claim that takeaway pizza and frozen pies are vastly — obviously — inferior to those mythical breads from Di Matteo and Joe’s Pizza. I do not pretend that, when confronted with a New York pie, I would be able to beast the entire eighteen inches. I merely claim that, when it comes to this sacrosanct food, I prefer thick, chewy focaccia-style slices. Called pizza al taglio or pizza al trancio in Italian— both translated roughly as ‘pizza by the cut’ — the best squares combine a few inches of pillow-y dough with an olive oil-crisped bottom and a luxurious mass of stewed, basil-spiked tomato sauce and oven-scorched mozzarella on top. Crisp, chewy, sweet, salty: forget memorable pizza, pizza al taglio presents a striking way to re-experience the lunchtime standby.

In New York’s pizza universe, these stubby square slices lie untouched on their aluminium trays. They’re either unfortunately dubbed grandma slices or compared unfavourably to a gut-busting deep-dish pie. But pizza al trancio bears little resemblance to a soggy slice laden in cheap cheese grease. If Sam Sifton’s pizza cognition theory is correct — and the pizza of our youth becomes the benchmark against which we judge all pizza — then we can say that focaccia-style pizza has yet to become synonymous with so-called regular pizza because it defies the country’s collective childhood memory of the food.

Joe's Pizza of Park Slope

Sure, these thick squares combine contrasting textures, but not how we believe they should. The crust doesn’t shatter with a satisfying chip-like crunch. There’s too much bread with a decidedly assertive flavour. Even the milky mozzarella tastes dreary in comparison to American pizza’s blankets of salt-fortified low-moisture mozz. Whereas pizza al trancio softly balances tastes and textures, American pizza belts out its components, positioning itself as the singular definition of a complex product.

But pizza al taglio argues against balance as blandness. Establishing the good/bad paradigm demands eating the requisite amount of pizza al trancio. Olive oil shouldn’t ooze from the crust and that mozzarella shouldn’t pull off in glue-like strings. In Italy, taste a standard slice at your local panificio and fa la passeggiata eating a softly oily version at the local branch of Mr. Focaccia. Take the train to Milan then west to Pavia, grabbing a gloriously heavy slice from Spadaro just before their 1:30 pm lunch break. Hightail it to Turin’s Tomatika and you’ll understand properly salted sauces. Pizza al trancio is a pizza cosmos onto itself; a topography replete with mountains of geographically distinct attributes.

The pizza al taglio world extends beyond Italy, but the language for the landscape changes upon departing Italy. Eataly’s focaccia squishes gloriously, but you forget about the buffalo milk mozzarella bite. Stop by Sullivan Street Bakery for a satisfyingly sauce-less pizza bianca. Grab a floppy focaccia from Hot Bread Kitchen in the Union Square Greenmarket and bear the stares as you fare all’italiana and walk down Broadway eating it.

It’s easy to declare that pizza is delicious — that you looove it — but describing which version you enjoy, and analyzing why that style sets your mouth a-salivating, requires an examination overlooked in our consumption of this grab-and-go favourite. Tell me you love the all-out indulgence of a butter-crusted deep-dish pie; explain to me your paradoxical passion for a spongy, sweet frozen pizza; don’t just tell me you love pizza. Pizza isn’t a singular entity, it’s a mini-food universe, packed full of diverse meanings. Our opinions should be similarly diverse.

Images from top: Flickr via Andy Ciordia, Flickr via Adam Kuban

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