This article is part of a package of stories called In Search Of Louisville Style Pizza. For more, go here.
Papa Johns has proposed a chicken-and-waffles pizza. Pizza Hut has sold pizza with hot dogs for crust.
Are these merely commercial bastardizations of pizza, or are they the way pizza was meant to be?
There is no question that Louisville holds a special place in this debate, given that the city is home to Pizza Hut, by way of YUM! Brands and Papa Johns, which was born, or baked rather, across the river in Jeffersonville, Indiana. While some pizza aficionados pooh-pooh them as just the fast food equivalent of pizza, two experts told LEO that at least in some ways their pies exemplify pizza at its purest (but not the best tasting).
I think that that boundary testing is exactly whats so beautiful about pizza, said Scott Wiener, the founder of Scotts Pizza Tours in New York City and a host of Really Dough? a Thrillist series that explores all things pizza.
To Wiener, pizza is simply a type of bread.
Since thats all you need, really, for something to be a pizza, is a dough with something on it, then whos to say that something is illegal? he asked. You cant. Anythings possible.
Pizza expert Carol Helstosky, a University of Denver professor of history and author of the book, Pizza: A Global History, agrees that pizza was meant to be versatile, but she said it has to have two main elements: A pizza needs to be made using a yeasted flatbread, and most agree that the ingredients must be baked on rather than added later.
As for Pizza Hut and, to a lesser extent, Papa Johns, Helstosky said, Those chains, or franchises, represent a pretty dramatic turn in the history of pizza that sort of fits the history of pizza, but then doesnt really fit the history of pizza.
Pizza was first created in Naples, Italy, as a food for the poor, according to Helstosky. As such, its toppings were whatever the pizza maker had on hand that day ever-changing to suit the situation.
The big chains are flexible with their pies, too, except their motivation is the customer, not the supply. When Pizza Hut and Dominos introduced the dish to Middle America, their patrons wanted a chewier, thicker crust so they got it. Papa Johns, which was created later in the 1980s compared to Pizza Huts 50s has carried on this tradition of adapting for its customers, debuting different pizza styles throughout the years.
Pizza was not a hit here immediately, but we have the chains to thank for bringing it into the mainstream.
Invented in the 18th century, it was a flatbread with tomatoes, cheese, garlic, olive oil and fish. It was much less cheesy, however, than American pizza.
Now we see pictures, and we dont like the look of the pizza unless we see all the cheese being pulled, Wiener said.
In Italy, pizza wasnt popular, either, at first. In fact, the wealthy and tourists considered it gross. There was fish on it, Helstosky explained. It smelled funny.
When Italian immigrants came to America, a pizzeria was easy to open because of low overhead. But their pies were rarely found beyond the pizza belt, or the Northeastern cities. That was, until the non-Italian founders of Dominos and Pizza Hut adopted the food. They took it, first to the rest of the United States, and then they launched it globally. Wherever these pizza magnets have opened a restaurant, theyve tried to adapt to what the locals have wanted. In the Middle East, for example, turning pizza crust into snacks, such as cheese sticks, works well for the culture, Helstosky said. Diners treat the crust as an appetizer.
Pizza chains also are true to their roots in that theyre still serving the food of the people. There have been efforts over the years to make pizza a fancy dish, Helstosky said. But Papa Johns and Pizza Hut arent doing this.
Its for these reasons that pizza aficionados like Weiner cant completely turn their backs on pizza chains, even when theyre pulling something ridiculous, like chicken and waffles pizza. Im all for it, as long as it tastes good, Wiener said. You can say all you want about chicken and waffles pizza, that its a violation, but part of you really wants to try it.