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Why is pizza so damn vilified?

Illustration for article titled Why is pizza so damn vilified?
Graphic: Libby McGuire

Maybe you’ve seen the near constant stream of corporate body shaming campaigns and internet memes deeming the COVID-19 crisis a mass fattening, rather than the pulmonary pandemic that is killing people by the hundreds and thousands each day. If you haven’t, I envy you.

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The self-flagellation is getting old. Human beings cannot exist without calories, and some humans require more calories than others, and quarantine is the perfect time to make peace with this concept. If there is an ideal moment to enjoy the food you eat and be comforted by it, it’s weeks deep into these stay-at-home orders.

One food myth that has always chapped my ass is the notion that eating pizza is the enemy of health. I’m an Italian American, and the tendency to classify pizza as some major, sinful indulgence just gets on my nerves, especially because pizza, when prepared almost everywhere except major chain restaurants, isn’t all that horrifically unhealthy.

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As immigration to the U.S. from impoverished Southern Italy soared in the early 20th century (right around the time the world was recovering from the 1918 pandemic), American pizza was born. Though once an ethnic Italian dish, it eventually became an emblem of New York’s working-class melting pot, enjoyed by just about everyone. Now, of course, it’s also mass-produced by huge corporations who have entire supply chains dedicated to keeping markups—and preservative content—high.

Those corporate pizzas (and the corporate ad dollars that keep them top of mind) taint our overall view of this very important food group. The rich culinary history of pizza is unfairly rolled into a narrow category of super-caloric pies, flattening all its nuance. Mind you, there’s a time and a place for fast food pizza, too, grease and all. But the more storied varieties, many of which I grew up eating in New York City (shoutout to Nunzio’s!), are downright fine foods and deserve distinction. So let’s mount a defense of pizza, here and now. In these times, we need as much joy as we can grab, and if it comes by the slice, all the better.

The facts

According to Healthline, the average fast food pizza weighs in at over 400 calories, almost double that of a regular slice joint. That’s partly because it also contains almost twice the amount of cheese and dough, and all that sturdy dough can support a lot more salty cured meat. One slice of Pizza Hut’s Pepperoni Lovers pizza, for example, has over 26 grams of fat and a whopping 900mg of sodium, which is 38% of the recommended daily intake. Again, that’s for one slice.

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But the salt and fat content of a more traditional-style pie isn’t as bad as all that. The average slice of cheese pizza has only 260 calories, and that’s not even the fancy kind. It’s a pretty big leap for any health magazines or morning news programs to try scaring us off pizza using Pepperoni-Lovers-level stats as a general metric. That’s like comparing a plain McDonald’s hamburger to a Double Quarter Pounder with bacon.

In Naples, a sister city to New York in many ways—and where many Italian Americans are originally from—pizza is something else entirely. People come from all over the world to learn Napolitano pizza techniques, like crafting a Margherita pizza: fermented dough that forms a thin, chewy crust dotted sparingly with milky cheese, a smattering of plum tomatoes, and a dash of both olive oil and basil to finish it off. If these ingredients were assembled as a caprese salad instead of atop a crust, no nutritionist would bat an eye at them. Pizza, it seems, suffers from a branding problem more than anything.

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Though pizza can mean many things now, often caloric and unhealthy, the OG is unfuckwithably created to extreme standards that are regulated by an organization to protect the craft—the Associazone Vera Pizza Napoletana. Those pizzas are only about 200 calories a slice, with just four slices per pie versus the eight in a New York-style pie. That amount won’t get you far in most lunches—in fact, 200 calories is only about a third of many prepared foods like a grab-and-go chicken sandwich. So why not just seek out pizza if that’s what you’re craving?

What the experts say

Sydney Greene, a New York–based nutritionist, has a nuanced opinion on pizza. She says this whole debacle starts at the crossroads of what is considered “healthy” food to begin with.

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“From a pure nutrition science perspective, no, conventional Americanized pizza is not ‘healthy,’ as it is devoid of nutrients,” Greene tells The Takeout. “A traditional plain slice contains no fiber, a lot of simple carbohydrates, saturated fat from cheese, and little to no vitamins or minerals.”

Greene explains that the healthy-vs.-unhealthy distinction isn’t about what the pizza contains but rather what it lacks. So there’s hope if you want to make your slice count for more.

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“Cook up a pie with minimally processed local grains, fresh organic milk, and loads of veggies on top,” Greene notes. “Then you have a nutrient-packed meal.” (And then no one will be able to turn their nose up at your pizza.)

Fast food pizza is a different beast, of course, one comprised of highly processed ingredients, which Greene says is the core issue: “The combination of fat, salt, and carbohydrates lights up the areas in the brain that signal craving and the desire for more.”

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But that just means that pizza should be something we eat with conscious portion control, not that it should be sworn off entirely. You don’t have to go for second-rate substitutes, either; even a nutritionist like Greene sees the value in occasional indulgences. “If I am going to eat pizza,” she says, “I am going to eat the real thing. Pizza is my all-time favorite food and the cauliflower versions just don’t cut it.”

Advising clients on what to eat and what to avoid is tailored to each case. With some, Greene encourages flexibility around foods like pizza, especially when disordered eating is in their history. For others who may have an issue with portion control, it’s less about sticking to one slice and instead adding vegetables and going easy on the cheese.

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Italy, what are your thoughts here?

Americans love the stuff, but in pizza-packed and heavily Catholic Italy, dough, cheese, and tomatoes form a holy trinity.

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“We can call pizza holy!” exclaims Alejandro Daniel Mazza, ambassador for Ramazzotti liqueur. Currently quarantining in Milan, Mazza provided The Takeout with a bit of prospettiva Italiana to illuminate the differences in our nations’ pizza cultures. “In Italy pizza is very important in the culture of the entire country, from north to south, with different ingredients and techniques of preparation.”

Technique is a major point of pride by region, though Mazza says it’s not the precise dough tossing that makes pizza so revered. “More often the ingredients are the secret for creating a healthy or unhealthy pizza. Choosing the highest quality ingredients and an exceptional dough can transform pizza into a complete and healthy dish.”

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In fact, it’s one of these perfect specimens that Mazza misses most while on lockdown. To Italians, eating pizza fresh right out of the oven is the superior way to consume.

“I’m not really a takeaway pizza lover, because when it arrives at home it is usually made of rubber,” says Mazza. “I dream of being able to sit at Cocciuto again when everything is over and order a Five Cereal Pizza with ricotta, courgette flowers, gorgonzola cheese, and bacon.” Could anyone see that on a plate and look down on it?

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Sydney Greene summarizes the issue in a way we can all digest. “Would I recommend someone eat it everyday? No. However, if someone wants to enjoy a high quality, personal-sized pie or slice once a week, go for it! Life is about living. Food does not need to be either/or.”

It’s time to reclaim pizza’s reputation from the judgmental clutches of food-shamers and wellness hucksters. It’s become an easy shorthand for “junk food” and “poor choices” and “giving up,” but you could argue that’s all based on a bad-faith reading of the facts. With pizza, as with anything else, moderation is key. So let’s all unlearn our programming and try savoring every bite.

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New York's Highest. Sicilian AF. Artist, writer, wicked witch. @realdanhell on Instagram

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DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

“There’s a war on pizza, but pizza is good!”

I don’t know if I am more impressed at the strawman in the first phrase or the raw courage (sarcasm) in the second.

Also, “A traditional plain slice contains...little to no vitamins or minerals.”

Niacin in the dough (probably). Vitamin A and C in the tomatoes. Calcium in the cheese.