Ugly Delicious recap: Pizza


Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s Netflix show, is an intriguing exploration of food. Episode 1, pizza, shows that this food isn’t quite as simple as it seems.

In David Chang’s Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, he explores different types of food- their definition, cultural meaning, and history. Episode one covers pizza- which seems like a simple comfort food to many but turned out to be surprisingly complex and even controversial.

At the heart of the show is the question- What is pizza? Do ingredients have to come from specific regions in Italy? What can you put on a pizza before it stops being pizza and turns into a flatbread? Who can decide what counts as pizza?

David and others- food writers, chefs, comedians- travel the world looking for answers to these questions. They meet with pizza makers in New York, Connecticut, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Beverly Hills, and Naples. In the end, it seems to boil down to pizza as identity versus pizza as commodity or pizza tradition versus pizza innovation.

Photo Credit: Ugly Delicious/Netflix Image Acquired from Netflix Media Center

The show opens with David Chang (chef) and Peter Meehan (food writer) visiting Mark Iacono’s pizzeria in Brooklyn. Mark is Italian American. For him, pizza is part of his cultural identity and his personal family history. He explains, as he rolls out dough with a wine bottle, about having to call his family for help with his dough when he first opened. Mark had been a marble cutter, but when the candy store from his childhood was closing down, he decided to open a pizzeria in the spot. It was important to him to continue a small, Italian American business for his neighborhood.

Mark feels that Italian Americans perfected pizza, and New York pizza is best. For him, only sauce and cheese should be on a pizza. Anything else becomes a flatbread.

The same feeling is expressed at Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitana, located in Coney Island. Opened in 1924, they use the same recipe to this day. They claim to be the oldest pizzeria in the world owned by the same family. They also claim to have brought pizza to America. And they have very definite opinions that you can’t get good pizza in California. Pineapple, chicken, and clams should never be on a pizza, and Chicago style just gets a “No!”

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With a little pressure, Mark Iacono agrees to go visit the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven Connecticut. I have to admit that I had no idea that there was great pizza to be had in Connecticut. Mark shared some yummy looking pizza with Gary Bimonte, owner of Pepe’s. Gary’s grandfather started selling pizzas off the top of his head (literally, out of a special hat) and eventually opened the restaurant in 1925.

Over pizza, Mark and Gary talk about the way that traditional Italian neighborhoods have gotten “watered down” and that people aren’t Italian-American anymore. Now they are American Italian.

Mark then travels with Peter Meehan, the food writer, to Naples. Down the narrow cobbled side streets, they talk about the “romantic story” of the birth of pizza in Naples. Peter says, “I don’t buy the idea that bread topped with things came from one place, one time.”

Cut to the Association Verace Pizza Napoletana. Founded 32 years ago, their purpose is “guaranteeing the authority of pizza to the City of Naples and to spread all over the world the right way to make a Neopolitan pizza,” according to their President, Antonio Pace. For the association, it’s not proper pizza without San Marzano tomatoes (flavored by Vesuvius!) and buffalo mozzarella from Campana. They visit a cheesemaker who explains that this mozzarella was first created in a monastery around 1000 AD.

Photo Credit: Ugly Delicious/Netflix Image Acquired from Netflix Media Center

So here we have the most extreme version of pizza as identity and tradition. Pizza can only be made with certain ingredients in a certain way to be certified as authentic. For Antonio, pizza is an edible manifestation of Naples’ history and culture, their contribution to world cuisine.

For the Italian Americans interviewed, being certified as authentic didn’t really matter. What mattered was their family tradition and their place in the community. Still they claim pizza as an important part of their heritage.

On the other hand, we have pizza innovation. David and Aziz Ansari (comedian and actor) go to Tokyo to meet with Ryu Yoshimura, the chef at Savoy. He makes pizza with mayonnaise, corn and lots of tuna, with wasabi on the side. As far as he is concerned, this is not fusion food; it is Japanese because it uses all Japanese ingredients.

They also visit Susumu Kakinuma at his restaurant, Seirinkan. He went to Naples to experience the food and when he first opened his pizzeria in Japan, he used all imported ingredients. Ultimately, he decided that it was more true to the spirit of Naples to use fresh, Japanese ingredients.

This is the same philosophy of Christian Puglisi in Copenhagen at Baest. (Who knew you could have a philosophy of pizza?) Christian says he wants “to do something authentic by not trying to be authentic.” He explains that authentic Neopolitan pizza is supposed to include only specific Italian ingredients but he can’t get any of those ingredients fresh. So, he taught himself to make mozzarella on YouTube. He bought his own cows. He makes a sourdough crust instead of a quick rise yeast crust. For him, fresh, local ingredients are more authentic than imported, older stuff.

Photo Credit: Ugly Delicious/Netflix Image Acquired from Netflix Media Center

David goes to Beverly Hills to the famed Spago with Wolfgang Puck. While making a smoked salmon pizza, Wolfgang tells David that you don’t give up craftsmanship when you get creative. You can’t really be creative until you have the fundamentals of craftsmanship nailed down. Wolfgang then tells him the story of his frozen pizza line. Johnny Carson used to order 10-12 pizzas and freeze them. Wolfgang was horrified until he tried it himself, and thus his frozen line was born.

This leads into pizza as commodity. Here pizza isn’t about cultural identity or craftsmanship or innovation. It’s about convenience, availability, and money. The show explored two examples- Dominos and a trade show. The trade show, held in Las Vegas, looked like a weird pizza amusement park, exactly what I would expect in Vegas. Flashes of a pizza tossing competition, pizza mascots, a man in a pizza print suit, a pizza vending machine, and lots of companies trying to strike deals. The show briefly reminds us of the existence of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their love of pizza as well as Pizza Hut play dough sets.

David explores the ultimate in pizza industry at Dominos. David marvels at their pizza science. They know the exact number of pepperonis to add for consistency. Their app will track the pizza from order to oven to delivery. They can make up to 34 million different pizza combinations. David says “I don’t even think of Dominos as a food company any more. I think you guys are a technology company.”

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Ugly Delicious, pizza, closes with shots of people we’ve met around the world, all wielding their pizza peel and making remarkably similar looking pies. So what is pizza? How is a pizza different from a flatbread? Who can make authentic pizza? Is there a right way to eat pizza? Is Chicago deep dish still pizza? Fun questions to debate with family and friends, along with if a hot dog is a sandwich (it’s not).