So What Do You Call a Pizza With No Toppings?
What do you call an unadorned, triangular slice of dough baked with a crust, tomato sauce, and cheese? In America, there is divisiveness over how to refer to a pizza with no toppings. Bringing it up often draws as much derision as the issue of folding the slice (the sign of a true New Yorker) or whether pineapple is a legitimate topping (in California, apparently, it is). People have a lot of feelings about their pizza. But let’s leave those pizza cultural conundrums to another story, since the question of what to call a slice with no toppings brings up its own set of existential questions.
If you say "cheese," is that redundant? Will you get extra cheese? Is the cheese implied in a pizza? Does "plain" mean that you believe a pizza doesn’t really feel complete without a topping? If you say "plain" over the phone will you just get, like, pita bread delivered? Is a pizza just a circular open-faced sandwich? Are we all living in a soulless world where a corporate (yet hilarious!) monstrosity like None Pizza With Left Beef can be forced into existence?
Admittedly, “plain vs. cheese” is a very New York-centric question, because it is primarily debated over a New York-style pizza with a thinnish, chewy crust, baked with low-moisture cheese and a bold tomato sauce, which is perhaps the style most available as a slice across America. This is not to say that the New York-style pizza is better than any other styles across the country—Chicago deep dish or tavern-style, Detroit-style, Sicilian aka grandma aka pan, grilled-style from Providence—just that it’s the most ubiquitous. It can be argued that the pizza emoji is a New York-style slice, after all. Albeit, topped with pepperoni. At least we all know what that’s called: pepperoni pizza.
There is no wrong answer, ultimately, but this is what some experts around the country think about "plain vs. cheese," from a co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen, to the guru of the Brooklyn pie, to one of Italy’s foremost pizza experts. Which team are you on?
Lucali and Baby Luc's (Brooklyn)
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"It's a plain pie."
Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream (Chicago)
“Although Chicago isn’t typically considered a slice city, it is a big sausage city. The reason I mention this is, on a lot of tavern-style pizza joint’s menus you’ll see 'cheese' or 'sausage' as your base pizza options. So for me, it’s just a cheese pizza!”
Original co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen; founder of ROCA Pizza (Glendale, CA)
“At the beginning of the CPK days, we needed to come up with a name for our simple plain cheese pizza. We decided to call it Traditional Cheese Pizza because ‘simple cheese’ was too simple and ‘plain cheese’ was too plain!! That’s continued to be its name for a lot of years.”
Co-author of the forthcoming cookbook The Joy of Pizza
“In my town in New Jersey, a slice topped with tomato sauce and cheese was cut from a ‘cheese pizza.’ New York-style was the dominant genre locally. In the late 1990s, I worked at BAR in New Haven and the menu called that same slice a red pie with mozzarella. That honestly seemed weird at the time but makes sense now, particular after years in Italy where ‘red’ pizza topped with a slick brushing of tomato sauce is pretty ubiquitous. In fact, here in Rome it is my breakfast daily.
“In Rome, where slices are a popular lunch or snack food, and have been for decades, a 'plain slice' would denote no toppings at all and would imply pizza bianca, an unadorned flatbread simply seasoned with salt and olive oil. For what it’s worth, we don't call that a plain slice; we call it pizza bianca (white pizza).
“To order a slice topped with tomato sauce and cheese in Rome, we say Margherita (if there's basil on it; it's not uncommon to be corrected for ordering a Marg when there is no basil in sight). Meanwhile, a sauce and cheese slice can just be called ‘pizza con la mozzarella,’ because it lacks basil and therefore isn't technically a Margherita and because there is no tradition of just mozzarella baked alone on dough, so it's implied there is sauce on it.”
Smillie Pizza (New York)
“There's a lot of debate about what traditional, 'American-style' pizza is called, but I use the term 'regular pizza,' because a 'regular' slice indicates the expected tomato sauce topped with cheese on top of the dough. At Smillie Pizza, our Margherita is the closest thing to a regular slice, and it includes house-made mozzarella, tomatoes, spring onions, and fresh basil."
Author of Modernist Pizza
“I would call it a 'cheese pizza' or a 'cheese and tomato pizza' because those names are descriptive. They say what’s on the pizza. One of the characteristics of a New York-style pizza to me is that, thanks to how the pizza is baked, the cheese and sauce mix together, making a uniform layer.
“You could call a New York-style pizza without toppings a plain pizza, but one could make the case that the name could also describe a marinara pizza. I can understand why people would be inclined to give the pizza that name; those are people who think it needs more toppings. There are some people who refer to it as ‘regular,’ which is understandable because it is the most common pizza in New York City. In that sense, it is the most regular pizza; however, I prefer ‘cheese’ or ‘cheese and tomato,’ because the name leaves no surprises as to what pizza you’re going to get.”
Co-founder of La Rossi Pizza (Brooklyn)
“To test what comes most naturally to me, I picked up the phone and called Fascati's in Brooklyn Heights to order pizza. Plain it is. It's always been plain. They knew exactly what I meant and asked no questions. Plain is the native New Yorker's pizza code.
“As a born and raised New Yorker who's spent the better part of 31 years in this amazing city, I grew up ordering my pizza this way by the pie and slice from Fascati's and My Little Pizzeria, and I distinctly remember always ordering a plain slice or plain pizza. I've never heard someone order a 'regular' pizza, though I do understand using 'plain cheese.' I'm a fan of descriptors. But let's be honest—'plain' is anything but plain, and these words indicate one's provenance and contextualized cultural habit more than they do the actual food. My love for the NY slice is probably why I can eat pizza every.single.day. and never tire of it."
Upside Pizza (New York)
"For me, it has always been and forever will be a cheese slice. ‘Let me have two cheese slices and a Coke please.' Maybe it's a NY/NJ thing but I never in my life asked for a plain slice growing up, nor did my mom ever bring home a plain pie. Cheese slice. Cheese pie.
"Just the word ‘plain’ evokes a feeling of ordering something that can be mediocre at best. Plain… Not what I am after ever.
"I have heard ‘regular’ tossed around a bit, but what's regular to me may not be regular to you. Cheese slice, no confusion, no questions."
La Natural (Miami)
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“I don’t really feel qualified to answer, especially not on a New York-style pizza. But we have a pizza like that at La Natural, which we offer as 'kids pizza.' It’s not even on the menu. But guests ask for it when they come with children so we make it. Dough + tomato sauce + mozz.”
Founder and CEO of La Rossi Pizza (Brooklyn)
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"I call a New York slice or pie 'tomato and cheese.' I need to specify the ingredients, because using 'regular' or 'plain' doesn't actually mean anything. I think this goes back to Bianca's point about where you grow up and how that affects your pizza language. I'm from Bologna, Italy, where we don't have New York-style pizza, so for me I assume that the most classical pizza in any place in the world begins with cheese and tomato, and I call it this way when I order."
Pizza Beddia (Philadelphia)
“I call mine the #1. It’s the pizza to measure the skill/quality of the maker. If I had to call it something else it would probably be a 'plain pizza' but hopefully there isn’t anything plain about it.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.