We did it. We tried making Altoona Hotel Pizza.

Overhead view of pizza covered in glossy melted slices of American cheese
You can practically see your own reflection in this thing
Photo: Dennis Lee

While I haven’t tried every single type of pizza listed in our big honkin’ pizza styles guide, there are only a few that majorly deviate from the product we all know and love as pizza. One of the most fascinating deviations is the Altoona-style pizza, which begins with a perfectly reasonable Sicilian-style dough with red sauce. So far, so good. Then slowly, the pie starts veering off the road. First up is a single piece of salami per slice, which, okay, is a little different, but not so weird. Then, an entire cross-section of a green bell pepper, which is still okay; I like any form of bell pepper on pizza, it’s just the ring format that feels a little off. But then—and this is where it gets weird—you add the cheese. A piece of melted processed American cheese covers the top of each slice. What? The? Hell?

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Apparently this pizza comes from a single source, the Altoona Hotel. The Pittsburgh City Paper wrote about its creation last year:

The style originated from the Altoona Hotel, which was destroyed by a fire in 2013. Since then, however, about a dozen local restaurants have started serving Altoona-style pies. For example, Zach’s Sports Bar off Route 764 offers an “Altoona’s Favorite” pizza on its menu, which is described as Sicilian crust, marinara sauce, American cheese, salami, and green peppers. CO”BRH”s ll restaurant on 6th Avenue also serves the yellow-cheese style pizza.

Though it was a really big source of fascination last year (including among Takeout staff), it still pops up now and then on social media, like in this tweet from earlier this month:

Of course, as an intrepid food explorer and a former pizzamaker, I had to try it myself. I owe it to the previous phase of my career to at least give this version of pizza a shot, not to mention that I pride myself on my sheer capacity to tolerate food that tests my limits as a human being. I’ve made cocktails out of kitten formula. I can handle uncharted pizza territory.

The Sicilian pizza dough I like to make, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s version, is same-day, nearly hands-off (especially if you’re using the food processor), and a staple of my household. I highly recommend it, especially for novices; I used this recipe to teach a Zoom class of kids last year and they all nailed it like champions.

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Now, here’s where I have to make a humble admission. I somehow fucked up the dough. It didn’t rise much, so I went for a grocery store batch instead, the kind that comes in bags near the deli counter. Even though I work with food for a living, it’s important to note that fuckups are as big a part of the job as the successes—we just like to pretend we don’t mess up, that’s all. And for the record, I think that the deli dough is perfectly fine for a fast weeknight meal. The rest of the prep was easy; I got jarred sauce, cheap pre-sliced deli counter salami, cheap pre-sliced American cheese, and green bell pepper, which can be cut into rings easily enough.

parbaked pizza with sauce, salami, and green pepper rings
Eh, so far so good
Photo: Dennis Lee
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I parbaked the pizza crust with nothing but sauce on it, then placed a piece of salami on each square-slice-to-be, along with a single ring of green pepper. There’s a reason I parbaked the dough, and it has to do with the weirdest ingredient of the whole pizza: the American cheese (or “cheese product,” if you’re a stickler).

Here is something that is really, really, important to note when cooking with American cheese in any way. It’s made to melt very well at fairly low temperatures compared to other types of cheeses, and once melted, it almost becomes its own kind of sauce.

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But American cheese, when baked, will scorch. When I say scorch, I mean it’ll actually turn black. Don’t do what this guy did; he recreated Altoona pizza too, but made the mistake of baking the pizza with all the cheese on it. Scroll to his final photo if you want to stare into the face of Satan. (I say this all in good fun. I’m not here to crap on other people’s efforts.) So, do not, for the love of God, bake Altoona-style pizza in the oven for an extended period of time.

Pizza about to go into the oven, with slices of American cheese arranged on top
Getting ready to put the pizza in!
Photo: Dennis Lee
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To melt the cheese, what you want to do is put the parbaked pizza into a hot oven and watch it carefully. Depending on how thick the cheese is, it’ll take anywhere from one to five minutes, and then you’re done. You can tell the cheese is done melting when it’s glistening. Anything longer than that and you’re playing Russian roulette with your dinner.

Slice of Altoona-style pizza fresh from the oven
Oh man
Photo: Dennis Lee
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I sent the above photo to our work Slack channel. Editor in chief Marnie Shure saw the green pepper ring under the sheet of cheese and proclaimed, “It’s like Han Solo frozen in carbonite!” I’m assuming if we were in person she would have been shouting this loudly.

In fact, that was a pretty good description. It really did look that way. After a moment of hesitation, I took a big, hearty bite, and immediately had more questions than I had answers. Was this actually pizza? What on earth was going on with this thing? Did I like it? Why was I feeling so torn about it?

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I am going to have to come out and say that I’m not really sure this qualifies as pizza. Though it sits on pizza crust, it feels more like an open-faced sandwich with pizza sauce on it, like a hot hoagie or something. (My hoagie experience is limited, so I’m sure one of you will angrily correct me about some part of this comparison.) If someone declares loudly that, say, their toes are pizza, are their toes actually pizza? Is this what Altoona is doing? Just calling a concoction pizza because there’s sauce and cheese on dough? And are they in fact right to do so?

I was sort of confused by the flavor of it all. The loudest parts of each bite were the bell pepper and the American cheese (I didn’t really taste much salami), and I’m not entirely convinced those two ingredients are friends, because after a while I didn’t quite care for the combination. The bell pepper didn’t have enough time to cook, so it was still completely raw, and the American cheese was a little gummy. Those textures aren’t good together, at least in the proportions on the slice.

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My fiancée said, “It reminds me of a cheesesteak.” I don’t know how to explain it, but yeah, did have a weird, amorphous, cheesesteaky feeling to it. So there’s that, too. Take all of this how you will.

Now, the important thing: Would I recommend you try this at home? I’m going to have to say, without complete certainty, that you should pass on it. However, if you’re visiting a place that considers something like this a specialty food, you certainly need to give it a try. In the Pittsburgh City Paper article about the Altoona pizza, there’s a quote from a local man named John Berry that spiritually sums the whole thing up:

“It is a great example of the Altoona that I remember. Not good, but memorable...that’s my experience of Altoona in a nutshell I guess.”

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Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

juliaq
Julia Q.

Just goes to show you that much of pennsylvania is awful