This article is part of a package of stories called “In Search Of Louisville Style Pizza.” For more, go here.
How do you spell Louisville-style pizza? Impellizzeri’s
Yes, there is such a thing as Louisville-style pizza, and we owe the genre to Benny Impellizzeri, a local pizza maker whose career spans almost the entire life of the noble Italian pie in Louisville.
If that’s all you wanted to know, then thanks and buh-bye. But stick with me, and we’ll spend a little more time talking about how our particular style of pizza — a thin-crusted but heavily-laden, massive round that none dare call casserole — came to be here and thrive.
It’s surprising that an edible so simple, so deeply rooted in history, could have spawned so many variations, but there it is: Humankind has known flatbread since the dawn of civilization. After the first agricultural societies domesticated grain, perhaps 10,000 years ago, it couldn’t have been long before someone had the idea of cooking a flattened mass of flour-and-water dough over a fire or on a hot rock: Voila, flatbread!
Put some food on top of flatbread, and you’re on your way to pizza, although it required the efforts of 16th century colonizers to bring tomatoes back from the New World to Italy before pizza as we know it became possible. What happens when flatbread meets tomatoes? You’ve got it, kiddo: We’re looking at pizza! This simple, basic food of the people, accessible and affordable, quickly became popular casalinga (household) fare: thick and hearty pies, akin to modern deep-dish pizza that moms made at home in Southern Italy and Sicily.
Moving quickly along, it was in 19th century Naples that pizzaioli (pizza makers) refined pizza toward the high standard that we know today. In 1889, the red-white-and-green Margherita pizza was named in honor of the first queen of unified Italy; and soon after that, a flood of immigrants through Ellis Island brought pizza to America: Lombardi’s, the first pizzeria in New York City, opened in 1905.
It was only after World War II, though, that GIs returning home from the war brought a love for pizza back home with them, and pizza soon spread across the country like a wave of tomato sauce.
Pizza must have come to Louisville by the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, when I recall my mom coming home with something that she called “a new kind of food, peet-za pie!” It was love at first bite for me, and we soon became regulars at Calandrino’s (where Za’s now resides) and Highland Italian (later Lentini’s) on Bardstown Road.
Elsewhere in town, Mario’s in St. Matthews and Hikes Point, Joe Z’s in Buechel, Fun City on Preston Street at Eastern Parkway and others, I’m sure, were introducing us to this delicious new food.
At that time, all pizza seemed pretty much alike. With the exception of Highland Italian, which offered a thicker, herb-scented pie in a shallow dish, they were all quite similar: thin-crust, New York style with moderate tomato sauce and cheese plus the basic toppings, sausage or pepperoni, mushrooms or anchovies.
But some time during the ‘70s, young Benny Impellizzeri, who started at Mario’s in 1968 and went to Fun City in 1971, had an idea. When he moved on from Fun City with his brother Tony to start making pizzas in their dad’s butcher shop on Bardstown Road in 1978, he created a new pie that, he later declared (although Fun City boasted a similar concoction), was based on his dad’s old recipe.
Starting with a thin but firm bread-like crust, he piled on sauce, cheese and toppings in layers: Lay down sauce, some toppings and a layer of cheese; then more toppings and more cheese until the pizza peel groans under its weight. Fire until done, box it, move it out to the hungry crowd and fire some more.
This, Benny declared, was Louisville-style pizza, and it was a big success.
Lines quickly formed at the tiny shop and fans soon learned that it was best to get there early before the line got too long.
It wasn’t long before other Louisville pizzerias emulated the massive delight. You could go to Bearno’s and get something similar; when Clifton’s and Wick’s came along in the early 1990s, it was no surprise that their signature pies, the Clifton and the Big Wick, fell neatly into the Louisville style, as did the offering of Benny’s brother Tony, who later went off on his own with shops in the East End and now in New Albany; and they weren’t the only ones.
But it was Benny Impellizzeri who claimed the name and success tells the tale: Save for a brief dark period a decade or so back, Impellizzeri’s and Louisville style have been synonymous.
As a matter of fact, I’m craving one right now. •