A 2006 survery by the School Nutrition Association found that, for the eighth year in a row, pizza was the number one school lunch entrée choice in the country. Americans learn to eat their pizza early in life.
Pizza came to American shores as an import from Italy around the beginning of the twentieth century, initially becoming popular in large eastern cities as an inexpensive, tasty, and quick food. Over the course of that century pizza filtered into every corner of the American food world to become, essentially, an American culinary staple. Pizza restaurants, called “pizza parlors” or “pizzerias” in the original Italian, can be found on every main street and even the tiniest strip shopping centers in the country. Some specialize only in pick-up and home delivery, others maintain a few tables for dining in, while still others have become large theme restaurants offering many varieties of pizza along with other menu items like hamburgers.
Thin crust pizza is available all over the United States, but it is especially popular in Northeastern cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, and the many smaller cities in-between, which at one time saw large immigration from Italy. The ideal thin-crust pizza begins with a base of thinly-rolled dough. A common image is the pizza chef tossing the dough high into the air, deftly catching it and twirling it on his fingers in the process of stretching it out to exquisite thinness; the tough dough, made from high-gluten durum wheat, can take the strain. The rest is simple: a layer of tomato sauce, a layer of mozzarella cheese, basil (for a classic Pizza Margarhita), or uncomplicated toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms or sausage. This pizza is often sold by the wedge-shaped slice (a practice not really common in most of the United States, where pizzas are usually sold as round or square pie in various sizes). The ideal thin-crust pizza is quickly baked in a stone-lined, wood-fired oven at extremely high temperatures.
Northeastern pizza purists can have strong differences of opinion on who makes the best pizza; there are, for example, several competing restaurants in the New York City area that each claim to be the “original” Ray’s or the “original” John’s Pizza. Perhaps the greatest confluence of opinion on this matter points to a handful of pizzerias on Wooster Street in New Haven, Connecticut, particularly Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and its rival for more than half a century, Sally’s. By and large, the Middle Atlantic and New England corner of the United States favors small “mom and pop” pizza parlors, while the rest of the country is better populated by franchise and chain operations.
Thick crust pizza, commonly referred to as “Chicago style,” features a doughy, chewy crust with generous toppings. Austrian-born Hollywood chef Wolfgang Puck developed new concepts in pizza toppings during his rise to fame in the 1980s and 90s, and today restaurants of all formats may offer pizza covered with anything from roasted vegetables to pineapple chunks to salads. Gourmet and health pizza variations abound both in restaurants and in the offerings of the burgeoning frozen pizza industry. The American public demands constant variety and the pizza industry delivers. A huge infra-structure supports American pizza: ingredient manufacturers, pizza delivery equipment and supplies, uniform vendors, and pizza oven systems.
The top 20 multi-unit pizza restaurants (eat-in, home delivery, or both) in terms of sales volume in the United States are:
- Pizza Hut
- Papa John’s Pizza
- Domino’s Pizza
- Little Caesars Pizza
- Chuck E. Cheese’s
- California Pizza Kitchen
- Papa Murphy’s Take N’ Bake Pizza
- CiCi’s Pizza
- Uno Chicago Grill
- Godfather’s Pizza
- Round Table Pizza
- Old Chicago Rock Bottom Restaurant
- Hungry Howie’s Pizza
- Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizzeria
- Donatos Pizza
- Peter Piper Pizza
- Mazio’s Corporation
- Pizza Inn
- Mr. Gatti’s
Frozen pizza, once mainly a convenience that often tasted like the cardboard in which it was packaged, has improved greatly in quality and variety over the past few decades. Available in thin and thick crust, individual or family sizes, or even in hand-held “pocket” format, popular American brands include DiGiorno, Tombstone, Red Baron, Freschetta, Totino’s, Jeno’s, Ellio’s, and Celeste. Frozen or fresh pizza dough is available at supermarkets and specialty stores for home use, though making pizza at home “from-scratch” has never caught on as a major pastime in the face of the ease of ordering in or throwing a frozen pizza into the oven.