It would have been a fair question in 1929, long before the Neapolitan dish became as commonplace as french fries and Swiss cheese. Today you can buy a hot slice of halfway decent pie at certain gas stations, Target stores and Costco. The very first pizzeria opened in Naples Italy, not Florida in 1830. The first American pizza joint opened in New York 75 years later. Since then, it has become the culinary equivalent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and has taken over the universe.
Well, my universe anyway. As a baby boomer, I came of age with frozen pizza, Chef Boyardee pizza mix, corporate-owned pizzeria chains, pizza rolls, pizza bagels and pizza-flavored Pringles. That wasn't always the story, though, and I have to remind myself that until the 1950s, pizza was still kind of a novelty in parts of the Midwest. Back in '56, my Indiana-born mother had never seen pizza until she started dating my father, an Italian-American from New York. Yes, Chicago had been famous for deep-dish pizza since 1943, but former tile installer Ed Imo didn't introduce his thin-crust pie to St. Louis until 1964.
Kansas City's pizza revolution came earlier, in the form of corporate-owned pies. In 1957, a young Kansas entrepreneur named Frank Camey started selling the quintessential Italian-American version of the dish at the very first Pizza Hut in Wichita; it's now the dominant pizza chain in the country, controlling 17 percent of a $30-billion-a-year industry. Americans love their pizza; we supposedly eat 350 slices a second.
OK, so no one is going to ask "what is pizza?" in the 21st century. But where the hell is good pizza? I'm not a fan of the indulgently cheesy big-chain product, and all frozen pizzas taste like cardboard to me. That's what led me to take my friends Bill and Bob to Spin Neapolitan Pizza. It's gourmet pizza, according to Bill, who loves the place.
I have lots of friends who love Spin and nearly as many who hate the fast-casual suburban venue. Not because of the food (which lives up to the reputation of the award-winning chefs and minority owners, Michael Smith and Debbie Gold) but because the ordering process is occasionally chaotic and disorganized. I've eaten at the joint three times, and only once did I have a glitch-free dining experience.
As at several recent "concept" dining operations, customers at Spin order at a counter. Later, servers bring the food to the table. It seems relatively simple in theory. Somehow, though, things can and do go awry between the person sitting at the computer and the server hauling out the plates. The wrong salad was brought out at one meal, no salad at another. Glasses were never refilled at one meal, and, at another, the zombie passing himself off as a waiter barely gave our group a second glance after dropping off the food.
"But it's just a pizza joint," said Bill, who thought I was being too hard on the place, "not a real restaurant."
He was right. It is a pizza joint ... with delusions of sophistication. On the surface, the delusion is more than a mirage. There are stylish qualities to the place: the stark, industrial-chic décor; the heavy, rustic-pottery pizza platters; the matte-black serving plates. By the standards of most pizza parlors, Spin isn't just upscale it's downright glamorous. It certainly outclasses the less snobby California Pizza Kitchen, but the latter still has the ace in the deck: a well-trained staff. Because the servers at Spin bring out the food and when they are attentive enough perform traditional waiter duties (and also expect, naturally, to be tipped), why not do away with the cashier at the front desk and have the dining room staff just take the order from the beginning?
"That's not the point," Bill said. "This is the wave of the future. Full service is out. Simplicity is in."
Simplicity is certainly the touchstone for the fare at Spin, where 13 signature pizzas are topped with different but refreshingly uncomplicated variations of vegetables and meats roasted in the giant gas-fired oven, then combined with cheeses on a delicious thin, chewy crust. Creative patrons can also custom-design their own pizzas with a list of ingredients that runs the gamut from prosciutto to roasted onion-fig marmalade.
Creativity is great, but I prefer pointing to pizza combinations that are already proven success stories, such as the splendid oliva e carcioffi, baked with roma tomato sauce, roasted artichokes, capers and caramelized onions. From the "white cheese" half of the pizza menu, I also ordered a number with goat cheese, crimini mushrooms and roasted chicken called pollo rosto e chevre. But what I received instead was the chicken sausage and gorgonzola pizza from the rossa menu. I don't blame the young lady who took our order. She had to cope with the confusion of three men who were suddenly standing in front of the mounted menu and forced into a quick consensus about which pies we wanted to share. It's not a good place for impulsive decisions.
Everything was delicious, though. The salads were fresh and lightly dressed. The best of them was the 8-Color Salad, a jumble of greens, red cabbage, crunchy radishes and pine nuts. We made quick work of the pizzas and even took home a couple of leftover slices. Nice dinner, but it was still, you know, pizza.
I returned on the following Saturday with a couple of friends; by 6:30 p.m., there was a 30-minute wait, so we went to a movie instead. A few nights after that, I came back with Bob and Marilyn. "Everyone's talking about this place," Marilyn said, though she was disappointed that she didn't recognize a soul in the dining room. The clientele seems dominated by residents who live in and around the 119th Street corridor and south. Mostly they're white, well-coiffed and conservatively dressed. You know, the anti-Waldo Pizza crowd.
Bob got miffed when the waiter didn't bring the salad he ordered; Marilyn hissed when her Eduardo a grilled panini with chicken sausage, white-bean spread and onion-fig marmalade came out too soon. She wanted it served with the pizza. Too bad, because the sexy-sounding Eduardo looked and tasted fantastic, but there's nothing quite as frustrating as a premature panini, let me tell you.
Marilyn downed a glass of Chianti and described the first time she tasted pizza. No, it wasn't pizza at all but a party in a palazzo in Rome, and if I'm remembering correctly, there was a movie star, a count or a famous conductor involved. I should have paid more attention, but I was absorbed in eating big triangles of a pizza bianca decked out with slightly crispy, translucent baby spinach leaves and fat, amber cloves of roasted garlic. I finished three pieces before Marilyn had reached, well, the climax of her story.
And on the subject of Roma, I wouldn't compare Spin's Michigan-made gelato to the extraordinary stuff one can eat on the Via Panetteria, but Marilyn swooned over the little plastic cup filled with a tart mixed-berry version. Not all of the gelato flavors caught my fancy, but the Swiss chocolate was pleasant enough, and I ate more than my share of the very Midwestern "double malted" variety made with crushed Whopper candy balls.
"Is there anything more wonderful than ice cream?" Marilyn gushed.
Well, yes, I can think of a couple of things one involving a palazzo in Rome, and the other with a well-timed Eduardo but the pizza at Spin comes pretty close.