If you were to ask someone what their favorite food is, there’s a good chance that they’d respond with “pizza.” Pizza contains all the staples of what makes food delicious: toasted bread, melty cheese, balanced sauce, and near-infinite customizability.
Within the genre of pizza lies a huge range of variations from New York style to Neapolitan and beyond. Regardless of your preferred pizza, if you’re wondering what the difference between Italian and American pizza is, you’re in the right place.
Italian pizza and American pizza differ in their doughs, sauce, and styles of topping. While both countries have wide varieties of pizza within them, Italian pizza is generally made with a very thin stretched dough, fresh tomato sauce, and simple toppings. American pizzas have a variety of doughs and toppings as well as a cooked sauce.
Even labeling Italian pizza as a whole is too general. Within Italy, many different regions pride themselves on their own variety of pizza. Most famous is the Neapolitan from Naples, but regions like Sicily, Rome, and Florence have their own specialties.
Pizza in Italy can trace its roots back to the Byzantine empire in the 10th century CE. Pizza as we know it was invented in Naples sometime in the 1700s or 1800s and has gone on to become one of the most popular foods in the world.
Just as Italy has region-based styles of pizza, so does America. The variety of pizzas in America astound from types of crust, styles of sauce, toppings, even in pizza shape. America is as famous for barbecue chicken pizza as it is for New York style pizza.
Pizza in America originated from New York. Italian immigrants are thought to have brought it over with the first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, opening in New York City’s Little Italy in 1905. Since then, pizza has taken over the nation and become one of America’s favorite foods.
Italian pizza and American pizza share the same general formula: dough, sauce, cheese. They have some key differences in each of these categories though.
Italian pizza traditionally has a very thin, almost cracker-like crust. Pizzaoilos in Italy will carefully stretch out the dough as thin as possible. Because the dough is so thin, many pizzas in Italy are eaten by one person alone.
American pizza crusts vary in size and shape with no uniform winner. New York pizzas typically have a thinner dough resembling those of Italy, while Chicago-style pizza boasts a deep dish crust more akin to a pie than a pizza. Even within fast food restaurants, pizza crusts can be as thin as a cracker or as thick as slices of bread.
The main difference between the doughs is in the fermentation process. While American pizzerias let their doughs rest and rise for between 8 and 16 hours, Italian pizzerias rise their dough for 24 or even up to 72 hours. As dough spends longer resting and fermenting, the flavors get better.
Pizza sauces in Italy, like much of Italian food, are simple. Pizzas will be topped with either high-quality olive oil or fresh, uncooked tomatoes crushed by hand or passed through a food mill to ensure a smooth consistency.
American pizza sauces differ in that they are typically cooked. Tomatoes are combined with aromatics and herbs and slow-simmered for a few hours before topping the dough headed for the oven.
In Italy, the number one priority in making pizza is ensuring that they use the highest quality ingredients. Italian pizzas are made with fresh, full moisture mozzarella.
American pizzas use mozzarella as well but an entirely different kind. The mozzarella on American pizzas is typically low-moisture and salted. The reduced water content results in a drier, crispier, less watery final product.
What each nation decides to put on their pizzas might be the biggest differentiator between Italian pizza and American pizza.
Italian food is traditionally made simply with high-quality ingredients. Pizzas in Italy will often times have no toppings, opting to display only the bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Italian pizzas generally will never have more than 3 toppings on them.
Some Italian pizzas are even simpler and barer than that. Bianca Pizza, or white pizza, is made without red sauce, topped only with olive oil and cheese.
In America, pizzas tend to follow a different trend. Anything and everything can be a topping for pizza in the United States whether that be high-quality mozzarella or pineapple and barbecued chicken.
America does have some staple pizza toppings though. The most common varieties of pizza in America are plain cheese or topped with pepperoni.
While this is not an exhaustive list of the differences in styles of pizza, it’s clear that Italians and Americans approach pizza-making differently on the whole.
In Italy, the quality of food is a top priority. Not only do Italians pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients, but they’ve also gone as far as registering Neapolitan pizza as a Traditional Guaranteed Specialty product of Europe.
The art of making Neapolitan pizza is a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage act. There are whole organizations that have strict regulations as to the process of making Neapolitan pizza. Pizzerias that fail to follow the guidelines can’t claim their pizzas to be Neapolitan in Italy.
Neapolitan pizza has to be made with San Marzano or Pomodorini tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil around Mt. Vesuvius. The cheese in Neapolitan pizza must be Bufala Mozzarella, cheese made from water buffalo in the Campania and Lazio regions.
The standards around Neapolitan pizza are stricter and higher than any food standard the United States has.
That’s not to say that Americans don’t care about the quality of their pizzas. Food standards in the United States are generally much lower than in Italy. Americans, and specifically New Yorkers, hold much pride for New York pizza, the gold standard in the United States and potentially the world.
New York pizza is modeled after Neapolitan but uses dry, low-moisture mozzarella and oftentimes cooked sauces. New York style is traditionally baked in a coal-fire oven until crisp on the bottom, cut into slices, stored, and reheated to order.
The twice-baked method of New York pizza ensures that the thin dough holds the weight of the pizza, giving it a solid crunch. It’s said that the minerals in New York City water are the secret behind New York’s classic dough. Some restaurants in the United States specially ship water from New York just for their pizza doughs.
While the choice of toppings is the easiest way to differentiate Italian and American pizzas, the treatment of pizzas, how they’re eaten, is another telltale sign.
Italian pizzas, especially Neapolitan pizzas at upper-class establishments, are often eaten with a knife and fork. Italian pizzas are also cut into slices and eaten by hand at quick-eating restaurants where locals may purchase their lunch.
American pizzas, outside of the dense, pie-like deep dish, are sliced into triangles and eaten by hand. Some pizzas cooked in rectangular pans like the Detroit-style or Sicilian are cut into rectangles.
Many Americans believe pizza should only be eaten by hand. A number of public figures in the United States have been ridiculed for eating pizza with a knife and fork. Eating pizza with a knife and fork can be seen as alienating and too upper-class.
In general, pizza in the United States is considered a quick bite, a fast food item. There are thousands of fast-food pizza establishments serving quick, cheap, and overall low-quality pizza all across the nation.
Pizza in Italy is taken far more seriously. While fast-food pizza exists in Italy, the standards are much higher there than in the United States, so local pizzerias are vastly preferred.
The differences between Italian and American pizza are plenty. Italian pizza is made with simple, high-quality ingredients on skillfully thin-stretched dough. American pizzas vary in sauces, crusts, and toppings.
While Italian pizza is held to a higher standard and quality, American pizza has a variety and ease that cannot be beaten. Whatever pizza you feel like eating, you can’t go wrong with either.