The subtitle of the book “Totally Pizza” is “The Wild Story of the World’s Most Famous Food.” It leads the reader to believe there’s just one long, wild story in its pages. Not so.
The author, Mark Masker, acknowledged he was being modest in using the singular.
“It being my first book, I didn’t want to make big claims,” the veteran magazine writer/blogger said in a phone interview from his home in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Inside are many wild stories of culinary history – and anecdotes, trivia and pop quizzes – served in bite-sized portions. Masker’s humorous writing style helps makes the book appealing.
The funnies start in the preface. Masker tells about his own pizza addiction, starting in the 1970s when his parents fed him frozen pizza:
“It was win-win for everybody. I liked it because pizza shut me up quickly when I was hungry, and my folks liked it because it shut me up quickly when I was hungry.”
Next is the introduction (“Mom, where do pizzas come from?”) which addresses two of three basic ingredients of pizza – cheese and sauce.
Bread comes later.
Masker writes that mozzarella, provolone, cheddar and Parmesan are the most popular pizza cheeses. Often-added toppings are Emmental, Romano or ricotta cheese. Other processed cheeses are used for mass producing pizza.
Pause a moment. Here’s part one of a two-part quiz. True or false; some estimates state that only 40% of all pizza cheese in the United States is actual mozzarella cheese. Answer: False. It’s 30%.
Back to the narrative. Masker claims tomato sauce is the unifying element of any pizza, though true Neopolitan-style pizza sauce is marinara, with herbs, garlic and onion. He says that to a Neopolitan (someone from Naples), you use San Marzano, the queen of tomatoes.
The intro jumps to the subject of meat, specifically pepperoni, with the author’s welcome, funny commentary. Masker says pepperoni is “the most traditional of pizza meats, with its distinct molten reddish grease and little spicy kick. Oh, how I love you. I just wish you’d drop the act and stop letting everyone think you come from Italy.”
Most likely, he speculates, pepperoni was “invented” by Italian immigrants in the United States in the early 20th century.
Masker alleges the word “pizza” came into use in the year 997 A.D. but it wasn’t until centuries later that the so-called “modern” pizza was born in Naples. Considered a staple for Naples’ poor, it was topped with salt, lard, garlic and maybe pepper.
Masker mentions several venerable 18th century Neopolitan pizzerias. One of them, Pizzeria Brandi, created three different pizzas for Queen Margherita and King Umberto of Savoy in the late 19th century, Masker writes. The queen favored the pizza with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil, representing the tricolored Italian flag, he adds. To this day it’s called a Margherita pizza.
The book considers regional categories of “American Pie” – foldable New York slices, deep-dish Chicago pies and California’s gourmet pizzas. The section “Franchise Pizza” zeros in on the histories of Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Chuck E. Cheese and store-bought frozen and kit pizza.
There’s a hefty chapter in yet another section, titled “Extra Cheese.”
In part, it discusses the involvement of organized crime in illicit pizza ingredient enterprises, with some pizza parlors in the Northeast and Midwest as fronts for the mob’s drug operations.
The book moves on from the mob to look at the rise of gourmet and artisan pizza, and at international perspectives of the pie. In the final chapter, “Pizza in Pop Culture,” Masker mentions pizza referenced in the movies. Two 1989 films are “Mystic Pizza,” set in a Northeast pizzeria known for its special sauce starring Julia Roberts, and Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing,” in which Lee’s character delivered pizza.
The author lastly brings up a batch of “Pizza Quotes,” what some have said, or sang, about the dish. Notable is crooner Dean Martin, of Rat Pack fame, who popularized the song “That’s Amore.” It has this rhyming silliness, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” Ciao.
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“Totally Pizza” is the debut publication of Sunbelt Editions, the imprint of Albuquerque-based Sunbelt Shows Inc., a producer of trade/consumer shows. Author/food historian Dave DeWitt is Sunbelt’s publisher. Masker is associate publisher.
Copies of the book are available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.