The World is Flat
International versions of pizza mix the exotic and familiar
Italian-style pizza is ubiquitous in America, but there’s more out there in the pizzaverse. Chefs are not only adding globally inspired flavors to traditional pies, they’re importing dressed-up flatbread traditions from around the world.
“We experiment with different flavors and cultures, but it usually comes down to the cheese as a starting point,” says Thomas Berry, culinary director of COJE Management Group in Boston. The group’s portfolio of restaurants includes Yvonne’s, which serves a Mediterranean take on pizza inspired by Turkish pide that has a thin, crispy crust.
“We have cycled through endless cheese variations on the pitas, such as the kasseri that’s on our current Greek-inspired pita (chicken souvlaki) and the Gorgonzola dolce that’s on the Venetian-inspired pork belly pita,” he explains. “Past iterations range from Korean fried chicken with kimchee and gruyere to crab Rangoon with fontina.”
COJE Group’s Mariel, meanwhile, specializes in Cuban street pizzas with toppings such as crumbled chorizo and charred maitake mushrooms. The difference is in the dough, which was formulated by pastry chef Liz O’Connell to ferment for three days, yielding a thicker, chewier crust.
“Our street pizzas were inspired by the famous peso pizzas of Havana. We ate tons of them on our research trip,” Berry recalls. “In Cuba, they consist of a slightly sweeter, thicker dough, with a very thin, sweet tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella and gouda, cooked in pie tins.”
The culinary traditions of Germany, France and Switzerland come together on a cutting board at Black Forest Brooklyn, with two New York locations. There, guests munch on flammkuchen, a flatbread adorned with a variety of toppings.
“It’s an Alsatian dish,” explains Ayana Holler, a native of southwestern Germany, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Tobias. “Alsace historically was sometimes German and sometimes French, so everybody feels like they invented it.”
As with many beloved recipes, it comes from humble origins.
“In the old days, it was what bakers did to see if the oven was hot enough before they started baking their bread,” she explains. “We make a big version that’s the perfect appetizer for a group to share and should be eaten fresh, right out of the oven.”
The classic flammkuchen is adorned with sour cream, smoked bacon and caramelized onions, but Holler has developed several new versions to keep up with demand, including one that’s a nod to her adopted borough.
“We make a Brooklyn version that has citrus kale with toasted almonds and butternut squash,” she says. “And because people love our sausages so much, we have a bratwurst pizza, which has homemade tomato sauce, salami, bratwurst and fresh mozzarella.”
Variations on pizza are popular across Asia as well and can be found in numerous U.S. restaurants. Indian-style “desi pizza,” which gets a kick from curry, is on the menu at Curry on Crust in Canton, Mich., and Tandoor Pizza in Sunrise, Fla. Chinese cong you bing—a doughy scallion pancake that some claim was the inspiration for Italian pizza—can be found at numerous restaurants, including Royal China in Dallas. And then there’s okonomiyaki (literally, “as you like it”), a Japanese savory pancake that flies off the griddle at Manhattan’s Otafuku x Medetai.
“We use shredded cabbage, tenkasu flakes, scallion, shrimp and ginger,” says T.I.C. Restaurant Group owner Bon Yagi. “When it's cooked, we add the sauce, mayo, dried seaweed flakes and bonito flakes on the top.”
With lines that frequently spill onto the sidewalk, it’s safe to say that pizza-mad New Yorkers have found ample room in their hearts—and stomachs—for this unique take on everyone’s favorite handheld treat.