Deconstructing: The Pizza Belt

2015-04-24 14.59.51The Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Rust Belt – the name alone is enough to bring to mind a very specific region famous (or infamous) for a very particular reason. There’s another region to add to that list; The Pizza Belt. So where exactly is the Pizza Belt and what is its claim to fame? Take a wild guess and you likely won’t be very far off. If you’ve spent a length of time within it I can guarantee you’ll realize when you’ve left it.

Credit should be given to Ed Levine for developing the theory, but anyone who has spent time in the area has likely had similar thoughts even if they haven’t put a name to it. Generally speaking, the Pizza Belt is the small belt of land (that’s where the belt part of the names comes from) stretching from northern New Jersey, centered in south-eastern New York and creeping into the western fringes of Connecticut (others might say it extends into RI in the north and Philly in the south, but I strongly disagree with that). Now here’s the curveball – it’s the region that produces the best and dare I say the only edible pizza (that’s where the pizza part of the name comes in) in the United States, and by extension the World (ok so maybe Italy does a decent job, but that’s really a different kind of pizza anyway). Chicago, that stuff isn’t pizza (I LOVE Chicago Deep Dish, just remember that it should be called Chicago Deep Dish. Under no circumstances shall it be referred to as Chicago Deep Dish Pizza – even a certain Supreme Court Judge agrees with me on that!)

To prove my point, I was recently on the hunt for a slice of pizza in New Hampshire and discovered the local pizzaria (no, that’s not a typo). Do you know what a pizzaria is? I don’t know what a pizzaria is. I certainly don’t expect half decent pizza from a pizzaria, that’s for sure! You might say to yourself, but NH is relatively close to New York, surely by 2015 decent pizza must have migrated up there; you’d be wrong. Even Philly with its proximity to the Pizza Belt and a large Italian-American population of its own can’t seem to get the formula down (don’t you dare knock their cheesesteaks though – you haven’t lived until you’ve had a wiz wit). After 4 years in college in Philly, I’ve had more slices from more pizzerias (at least Philly got the spelling right) than I’d care to count and despite some differing opinions, I would say Philly is most certainly not in the Pizza Belt (it doesn’t get any better in central PA either, it really starts to go downhill there).

Full disclaimer – I was one of those fortunate to grow up within the pizza belt where just about every street corner and strip mall has at least 1 family owned pizzeria. I just assumed that pizza everywhere tasted the same as it did at home. Obviously there were the Domino’s, the Pizza Huts and the Papa John’s of the world, but surely no one actually considered that real pizza. Obviously there were the favorite local shops, but you hardly ever ended up with a bad pie (and pizza should only be measured in pies and slices).

I swear I ordered this only in the name of science
I swear I ordered this only in the name of science

So why is it so hard to find good pizza elsewhere? Some ascribe it to the quality of the water in New York City (which if you’re curious is piped in from Upstate NY – the history of which is really interesting).  The problem I see with that is large parts of the Pizza Belt have different water sources and still manage to turn out good pizza.  J. Kenji López did a thorough taste test and agreed, the water is not as important in the final taste as other parts of the process are.  Going back to Ed Levine, he supposes (and I would tend to agree) that the reason you’ll find good pizza in the Pizza Belt is simply due to the high concentrations of Italian Americans that emigrated to the the northeastern US.  I do wonder why 100+ years after those original immigrants settled in America we have not been able to export good pizza across the rest of the country.

If you’re living within the belt right now, be thankful you are (and remember to never order a pizza anywhere else, you’ll only be disappointed).  If you haven’t had a pizza within the Pizza Belt, now’s the time!

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