The United States of Pizza
Few foods animate consumers like pizza. Passions flame over the shape, sauce, cheese, crust and toppings, not to mention where to find the best slice and what to drink with it.
Pizza lovers gush over their own regional pies, like the classic eat-and-walk New York-style slice, Philadelphia’s famous “tomato pie” and health-focused, ingredient-forward California pizza, just to name a few.
Wine Enthusiast asked experts in four parts of the country with distinct pizza–making traditions for tips on what to sip with the perfect slice.
Photos by Robyn Lehr, styling by Roscoe Betsill
In New York, it’s not a piece, it’s a slice, and if you’re picturing a lightly charred, thin-crust triangle topped with a tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese eaten in a hurry from a paper plate, you’re mostly right.
“The traditional New York-style pizza is the grab-and-go slice situation,” says Patrick Cappiello, wine director and partner at Pearl & Ash and Rebelle in New York City, whose work life means late-night slices picked up from around the block.
“The one-dollar or two-dollar slice defines what New York pizza is for me,” says Cappiello.
Anthony Scotto, of Fresco by Scotto in New York City, says Neapolitan-style pizza is the New York standard.
“Chicago deep-dish pizza is good, but I think that New York-style pizza has the best ingredients—the tomatoes, the cheeses and the seasonings are better,” says Scotto.
Having grown up in Brooklyn, Scotto admits he’s biased. “I believe that Brooklyn pizza is the best in the United States. It all started in Brooklyn.”
While Scotto is quick to point out that New York’s diverse restaurant scene—from New York City and its boroughs to the Hudson Valley and beyond—offers incredible variation, his restaurant’s pizzas skew Neapolitan, thin-crusted and grilled. He points out that every pizza maker in New York offers a special twist.
“Fresco’s pizza dough is a combination of high gluten, whole wheat and all-purpose flours, but molasses is the secret ingredient in our pizza dough,” Scotto says.
The addition of cornmeal is another New York variation. “It adds cool texture to the crust,” says Cappiello.
And while Cappiello says that plenty of traditional pizzerias, like Grimaldi’s and Lombardi’s, offer simple wine lists, the main challenge of pairing New York pizza is “figuring out how to drink a glass of wine while you’re in a slice pizzeria. You have to find a to-go cup to enjoy it.”
For those taking pies home, Cappiello suggests opening a simple, inexpensive red wine from Sicily, opting for Barbera from Piedmont or popping the cork on a bottle of Lambrusco.
“Lambrusco is cool, because what other hearty red wine is sparkling?” he says. “It’s kind of a crazy dynamic, with a little bit of sweetness, it will wipe off the grease off your palate. Just like pizza, it’s an inexpensive option for wine drinkers. I like Lusvardi Brut (pictured) sparkling wine.”
Scotto, whose restaurant has its own wine label, looks to Sangiovese to pair with his New York-style pies.
“Our Fresco by Scotto 2012 Chianti Colli Senesi is a youthful and fruity wine that balances the piquant bel paese and Pecorino Romano on our pizza,” he says. “The light char on the grilled crust complements the earthiness of the Sangiovese grape.”
Creativity rules in California pizza making. The Golden State may have borrowed its techniques from Italy, but it tends to offer healthier tweaks on classics and unique combinations of farm-fresh toppings.
“If you’re eating at a chef-driven or artisan pizzeria, you’re having a ‘California style’ pizza,” says Tony Gemignani, chef/owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. Gemignani has won multiple global pizza competitions, including
being named the World Champion Pizza Maker at the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples,
Italy, where he was the first American and first non-Neapolitan victor.
“California-style doughs have higher hydration and can be multigrain doughs,” says Gemignani. “They can be round or oval, and the ingredients are much more diverse and sustainable than your typical pizza. Farmers’ market fruits and veggies, organic, free-range eggs and chicken, hand-pulled mozzarella, ancient grains, preferments, are all examples.”
With such a diversity of intriguing toppings, wine pairings need to be ingredient-focused.
“The main thing is making sure to understand the flavor profiles of all the different toppings, since they can widely vary,” says Juli Gregg, wine director at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana.
Wines with versatility, like Barbera d’Asti, are key.
“Barbera pairs with a lot, but works especially well with our Tartufo pizza,” says Gregg. “The delicate cheeses on this pizza, as well as the prosciutto and arugula, want a fruity wine that will not overpower. Damilano 2013 Barbera d’Asti is weighty enough, with a little acid to offset and stand up to the meat and the peppery aspects of the arugula.”
For a pizza with sweet notes like the fig jam and balsamic reduction on the Cal Italia pizza served at Tony’s, Gregg recommends a dry rosé with some heft, like Fattoria Sardi 2014 Rosato from Tuscany.
“Because this is essentially a white pizza, I would skip the red wine,” says Gregg. “The blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Ciliegiolo gives depth to this rosé, but there’s enough fruit on the palate to pair perfectly with the fig jam on the pizza.”
Ordered some crazy combination of toppings? Falanghina is your friend.
“This indigenous varietal from Campania pairs with a ton of different ingredients and is a champ for difficult-to-pair toppings,” says Gregg. “Feudi di San Gregorio 2013 Falanghina (pictured) has the weight of Chardonnay, but instead of apple and butter flavors, there is a muted and tropical palate. It has enough acidity to cut through rich cheeses, but is well-rounded enough to pair with almost any white or California-style pizza.”
The City of Brotherly Love offers plenty of New York-style pies to swoon over, but its true gift is the tomato pie, made famous at institutions like Marchiano’s Bakery, Tony Roni’s and Sarcone’s Bakery.
“Philly is definitely a pizza destination,” says Steve Wildy, beverage director of Vetri Family Restaurants, which owns the popular modern Pizzeria Vetri in Philadelphia.
“The traditional tomato pie is representative of South Philly,” he says. “It’s a traditional Sicilian square pie baked with a thick layer of marinara sauce, tons of dried herbs, oregano and a dusting of Romano cheese. It has a hearty crust, slightly sweet tomato sauce and a good kick of garlic, as well.”
And while the saucy pie sounds simple enough, pairing wine with it can be a challenge.
“Sometimes, that uncomplicated template of dominant flavors can wreak havoc at the table,” says Wildy, who says that there’s a narrow spectrum of wine styles that work. “When you find them, they’re mind-blowingly good,” he says.
“Great pizza is typically just about bread, tomatoes and cheese, and tomato pie is no exception,” says Wildy. “But it’s so much tomato, and also so much dried oregano, and often garlic, so those are the notes the pairing needs to hit to really hold its own.”
While the tomato pie’s true calling, according to Wildy, is a glass of homemade red wine “that’s made by your Italian-American uncles in the garage and distributed over the holidays,” such bottles tend to disappear fast.
Opt for a lighter Sangiovese, a classic wine for pairing with tomatoes, herbs and Pecorino.
“Some traditional Chiantis fit the bill, but can overpower the sweetness of the tomatoes,” says Wildy. “More suitable is a juicier, simple interpretation, like Le Ragnaie 2014 Rosso Toscano, sourced from Brunello fruit that didn’t quite make the grade in a challenging harvest. The result is a gorgeous, elegant wine that isn’t too fussy to enjoy alongside pizza on paper plates.”
High-acid rosés are another go-to pairing, especially considering the prominence of tomatoes.
“Take this pairing to the next level by selecting a rosé that exhibits an herbal component to echo those in the tomato pie,” says Wildy. “Sardinian wines especially tend to show off the wild herbs that populate the island’s striking landscape. Argiolas’ 2014 Serra Lori Rosato hits the rosemary, fennel, oregano and sage notes beautifully while maintaining zesty acidity and juicy berry fruit.”
Gamay is another great match for Philly-style pizza, though “the undervalued Cru Beaujolais wines can drink a little big here,” says Wildy. “Try Paul Durdilly’s Les Grandes Coasses Beaujolais Nouveau (pictured). Classic forest berry fruit with lip-smacking acidity and a backbone of savory, woodsy character and minerality, it has enough personality to elevate the tomato pie’s simple flavors.”
Detroit is famous in the pizza world for its square-shaped, deep-dish pies, and Buddy’s Pizza is widely regarded as the regional founder of the style.
According to Larry Simone, operations manager of Buddy’s Pizza, true Detroit-style pizza should have fresh dough that’s hand-pressed into square, deep-dish pans. Pepperoni is placed on top of the dough, under the cheese. At Buddy’s, “we use ‘brick’ cheese that comes from Wisconsin, not mozzarella,” says Simone. Finally, the sauce goes on top of the cheese.
“You would think that it would be challenging to pair Detroit-style pizza with wines, but in fact,
it’s not,” says Simone. “Specialty pizzas offer a variety of international flavors that the wines of the
For Buddy’s Motown Museum Pizza, which includes brick cheese, Fontinella and Parmesan, plus pepperoni and bacon, Simone recommends a rich red blend like the Santa Martina 2012 Toscana Rosso. It’s made from a blend of four grape varieties: Syrah, Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“This super Tuscan hits the perfect note,” says -Simone. “Food-friendly acidity and fine tannins balance the wine’s full-bodied, juicy fruit character, and the pizza’s tomato-based sauce, cured meats and young, earthy cheese complement the wine’s Old World flavors.”
Cabernet is another classic pairing, he says.
“Louis M. Martini 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured) from Napa is rich and broad in the mouth,” says Simone. “Its silky tannins and complex aromas of dark fruit, smoky cedar and dried herbs best complement the Detroiter Pizza, with pepperoni, tomato and basil sauce, and Sicilian spice blend.”
But don’t think that reds are the only way to go. Simone looks to Starborough’s 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand to pair with the Lake Huron Pizza (it comes topped with spinach, artichokes and roasted tomatoes) for its “refreshing, tropical fruit accents highlighted by lively acidity [that] just cruise with the vegetable-forward pizza.”
- 1New York-Style Pizza
- 2California-Style Pizza
- 3Philadelphia-Style Pizza
- 4Detroit-Style Pizza