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Custom and Wine: The Pizza Conundrum

What eating pizza can teach us about wine
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 14, 2014 1:50pm ET

Victor Hazan's late wife, Marcella, whose cookbooks have afforded me no end of pleasure, taught many of us about Italian food. Victor often supplied the wine-half of the equation, but he was no stranger to foodways himself. Since Marcella's death last year, he has been writing occasional posts to thousands of followers of her Facebook account. At first he penned eloquent reminiscences about Marcella. Lately he has been commenting on cuisine.

This past week he stirred up a bit of a reflexive firestorm among his Facebook friends. Inspired by a photo of New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, eating pizza with a knife and fork, he waded into the age-old debate over the best way to consume Italy's signature flatbread.

"It's done like this," he wrote. "The pizzaiolo slices the pizza into pie-shaped quarters—or if he forgets, you do it with your knife—you pick up a slice with your hand and, while holding it between the thumb and middle finger, you fold it lengthwise over your index finger."

At last count this had drawn 110 comments, many of them from indignant Italians who insist that the only proper way to eat pizza is with a knife and fork. In my experience, that is the way I see most Italians approach pizza. Victor characterized this as a bourgeois affectation. Pizza started as street food, he argued, and it simply tastes best when you fold it over.

I've always known Victor as a dapper, thoughtful man. He and Marcella have long been accustomed to folks listening to them raptly and following their lead. So the adverse reaction to his pizza advice must have come as a shock. He followed up Monday with a post that began, "It is obvious that I should never have stuck my neck out on the best way to eat pizza."

Actually, I think he was right about eating pizza and wrong to apologize. Having seen most Italians in Italy eating their pizzas with metallic implements, I too thought that was the right way to go. However, I have enjoyed the experience much better whenever I picked up a slice of perfectly prepared, thinly topped, soft-crusted Neapolitan pizza than I have when I cut it up bite by bite. Like Victor, I appreciate the way folding the pizza doubles the thickness of the thin layer of topping and how that balances with the folded-over layers of crust. It's juicier. It has more going on.

On the other hand, when the pizza is molten-hot, cutting off a bit and letting the air cool it a bit en route to my my taste buds saves burns to the roof of my mouth.

Call me a pizza agnostic. It's the same for me in the wine world, always bedeviled by long lists of "shoulds." When I first started to get serious about wine, I was told that only France and Germany could produce wines worth paying attention to. Then I discovered Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Hanzell Chardonnay, and all bets were off.

Today the "should" and "should not" list is long. Some say we should avoid popular wine categories such as Chardonnay or regions such as Bordeaux in favor of relatively obscure varieties and appellations. Others focus on producers. Some denigrate well-known, accomplished vintners who achieved success by making delicious wines, using techniques such as alcohol adjustment, cultured yeasts and practices designed to impede the development of the spoilage yeast brettanomyces. A loud minority wants us to reject those wines in favor of producers who refuse to intervene in the process, and if that results in odd, stinky flavors, that's just added complexity.

And don't get me started on the anti-alcohol freaks who insist that no wine can be worth drinking if the alcohol content exceeds a certain number.

I have no quarrel with anyone who suggests unfamiliar wines and regions. I always want to broaden my horizons. Nor do I have any animus toward those who prefer lighter wines. I too like delicate Rieslings and lighter-style Pinot Noirs, but not to the exclusion of other styles. It's when preference morphs into denigration, as happened with Victor's antagonists who waved away the use of hands with pizza, that it crosses the line.

A recent New York Times article on new-wave sommeliers quoted several of them as dismissing their customers who want to drink something familiar, and something delicious, and have no interest in exploring wines with offbeat characteristics. 

There's no point getting indignant about whether to fold the pizza or eat it with knife and fork. Likewise, we all have the right to choose the wine we want to drink at that moment without having our preferences mocked.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco, CA USA —  January 14, 2014 5:14pm ET
Growing up in New York City I never saw anyone eat pizza in a different manner than Victor Hazan described. It was only when I lived in the Chicago area for a few years and saw people eat thick-crust pizza that I observed people eating it with a knife and fork, but I couldn't bring myself to eat it that way. Having lived in San Francisco for 39 years I observe people eating it both ways, but I still cling to my childhood habits and it irks me to watch people eating a round thin-crust pizza with utensils. It's a little too precious for my taste. Last night I saw Jon Stewart's take on Mayor de Blasio's and enjoyed the audience's reaction to it. Of course, it's a question of to each his own, but it's fascinating to watch the media blow this whole issue out of proportion. Let's spend our time dealing with issues of more importance such as taste in wine.
Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  January 15, 2014 11:31am ET
I'm confused as to how one can create stinky flavours in a wine. Aromas perhaps, but not flavours.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 15, 2014 12:03pm ET

Our tongues can only taste sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Aromas are what we smell through our nostrils. Once through our noses, these aromas combine with the various taste sensations from our tongues to produce what most of us call flavor.

Thus, flavor = taste plus aroma.

Kelly Carter
Colorado —  January 15, 2014 11:01pm ET
Harvey I agree you should drink what you like. Exploring is a personal preference. I have learned what I like by drinking and experimenting, and that has changed over time. It is a journey, not a destination, and we all learn and adjust along the way only if we want to walk that path.
Joseph Byrne
CA —  January 15, 2014 11:09pm ET
It also depends on where you go for Pizza. Compare Delfina and Una in San Francisco, both excellent pizza.
One serves it cut and cooked in typical gas ovens, the other traditional and not cut and cooked in a Stefano Ferrara shrine. With the no-cut (Una) you end up using the knife and fork to cut a slice, but can do and most do the fold over after. You can also be tempted to cut the end of the slice once you are now holding the knife, then finish the rest by hand as Mayor de Blasio did.
Bottom line you have to agree that good pizza places that pay attention to wine, always have impressive wines from Campania and Sicily that are hard to find in other restaurants.
Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  January 17, 2014 4:33pm ET
I know all of that, but the word "stinky" is an adjective that generally is defined as something "having a strong or unpleasant smell" (i.e. an aroma that comes through one's nostrils). While it may be one aspect of flavour, it is not a flavour in and of itself.
Annemarie Marti
Valparaiso, IN —  January 18, 2014 11:30am ET
My comment is not about pizza but I did learn something from your post. The new-wave sommeliers must love me. Recently I have been giving the sommelier a price point, what we ordered, and tell him/her to pick something off the beaten path that lights him/her up and wishes to share that wine.
BTW, I eat pizza with my hands!
Daniel E Salazar
Lawrence, NJ, USA —  January 19, 2014 11:45am ET
It's like arguing about the best glass for a good chianti to go with the pizza. By hand or utensils will not have much effect on bad pizza nor will fine Chrystal change vinegar into good wine. I would be more interested to hear about new pizzas and interesting wine combinations.
Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  January 20, 2014 6:07pm ET
I'm betting Marcella is laughing somewhere, bewildered and amused by the amount of time people have spent debating this subject!
Mark Reynolds
Halifax, Canada —  January 29, 2014 10:40am ET
Don't much care how I, or my table mates consume a good pizza just as long as their is a decent, but not overly serious red around say along the lines of Sedara from Donnafugata. A tomato based pizza and a little Nero d'Avola can be a good thing!
Ronald G Ress
Naples, Italy —  January 30, 2014 12:05pm ET
Ron here, living in the birthplace of pizza, so I claim just a bit of authority on the subject. Knife and fork, at least for la vera pizza Napoletana. It's too moist and too thin at the center to eat with the fingers. And the genuine mozzarella di bufala isn't as stringy or hot as the kind made from cow's milk. Which wine with pizza? Ah, that's too big a subject for this discussion but you usually can't go wrong with a basic Aglianico or Piedirosso. Buon appetito!

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