Author/Chef Interview: The United States of Pizza
Get to Know Craig Priebe, Pizza Expert and author of The United States of Pizza
By Sharon Palmer, RDN, nutrition consultant for the Tomato Products Wellness Council
Craig Priebe is one of the leading pizza experts in the United States. Dubbed the “pizza miracle worker” and the “pizza expert” in the press, Craig has won numerous awards for his culinary vision in the pizza world, including “the Nation’s Top 100 Pizzerias” for five years in a row by Pizza Today, and Best International Pizza of the Year at the Pizza Expo. He is the coauthor of Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas and his new book The United States of Pizza, which has just been released. You can read more about him at his website.
We sat down with Craig to learn more about his own unique appreciation for pizza, his best tips for the best pizzas in the country, and his view on the wonderful role that tomato products play in one of our most beloved foods.
Sharon Palmer: Tell us about your journey to becoming “the pizza expert”
Craig Priebe: In 1995, I was working as a chef at the Westin Inn at Atlanta, and I purchased a book from George German—he’s responsible for coming up with grilling pizza. I was very interested in leaving the hotel industry and starting my own place. So, I opened my own pizzeria for 8 years, and I won all sorts of competitions and accolades. I closed it in 2002 for personal reasons, and came back to Chicago. I wrote the book Grilled Pizzas & Piadeinas shortly after I closed my place.
During my whole career I’ve been amazed with pizza, and I’ve been so fascinated with the way it has changed across the country—yet it’s still pizza. Since 2010, I started to study it in a really hardcore way. It’s always been a passion of mine; I was born in a wonderful Italian family, with a Tuscan grandmother. Pizza is my hobby.
SP: Tell us about your new book, United States of Pizza.
CP: Mostly it’s a book about the regional differences of pizza, and that really says something across the US. It has nothing to do with who has the best of the best pizzas. I wanted to find out which regional differences there were in the country. I researched the story about a particular place—what they were doing and what’s going on around them. And then I wrote a short story about that place with a pizza recipe. I have 75 recipes like that.
The book is divided up into chapters that are organized by the pizza dough—there are 8 different doughs and 8 different chapters. Every pizza in that chapter uses that kind of dough. I have lots of pictures and I list techniques. I made the recipes very simple. You don’t need any advanced knowledge of cooking to make the recipes. I made them very accessible so that it was easy to make these iconic recipes in your home oven.
The book is a lot like a travelogue, with stories about pizza, and the recipes emulate the pizzeria. I traveled to most of the places; I worked on it for more than 5 years. I am always traveling, and I never forget a good pizza.
CP: My book has three kinds of tomato sauce. It is wonderful to use tomatoes on pizzas in many different ways, which I include in the book. Tomatoes are one of the most nutritious foods there are, and cooking makes them even more nutritious. That’s why tomato sauce on pizza is a very healthful thing.
SP: What are the origins of pizza?
CP: It’s a food as old as time; as soon as we had fire we’ve been making grains that were pressed into patties, which were seasoned and cooked on rocks. Pizza is a food of the people. It started off in Italy as food for poor people, yet you could really enjoy it and it was healthy. Tomatoes were added to pizza around 1,500 AD, when they decided tomatoes were appropriate and that they could eat them—the upper class had thought they were poisonous. If the queen could eat pizza it was good enough for anybody. The Margherita pizza shortly thereafter came to the US. It came to New York as a big pizza cut into small pieces that people could afford. It was street food—a simple food served in a simple way.
But people have always loved pizza, and we changed it into so many different styles. I don’t know of any other food that transforms so well, with different fillings, thickness, consistencies, and toppings. It’s never going to stop. It’s been really big in the US for about 100 years. We have done more with pizza than anywhere else in the world. Italy is very strict with their interpretation of pizza. America is more freewheeling. Every region of the US thinks their pizza is best—it’s a thing of pride, because it inspires a lot of competition. I like it better the way we do pizza in the US, where we have large pizzas that we share instead of individual pizzas, as they have in Europe. Our style is a gathering; it brings people together.
SP: Why do you think people feel guilt over eating pizza?
CP: Sometimes pizza is pretty oily and greasy, so it has gotten a bad name because it may have a lot of cheese and saturated fat. But I think many people are starting to realize that it’s still a wonderful food to eat. You can make pizza as healthy as any food on earth, but if you want to eat a really greasy Chicago-style pizza, then you can consider it as a treat. You can make a grilled pizza on a whole wheat thin crust, rich in complex carbs, light in cheese, with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, and make it very nutritious.
SP: What are ways that pizza can be a healthful food?
CP: Pizza is something we can eat every day of the week. You can make it very nutritious and healthy for your family, and it’s very simple and easy to prepare. Start with good ingredients, such as whole wheat flour, artisanal stone ground corn, extra virgin olive oil, a little bit of dried cheese, and put toppings, like roasted zucchini, tomatoes, herbs, and pesto on a pizza so that it is filled with flavor and is nutritious. If you make it at home, you can make it much healthier than what you get at a restaurant. You can make it nutritious, healthy, delicious, and use organic foods, and no preservatives. I like to use a simple tomato sauce with a few herbs and sea salt.
SP: Please share the best pizza you’ve ever experienced.
CP: My favorite pizza is a simple sourdough crust, with tomatoes, basil and cheese. I use a pizza screen, which is an aluminum disc that allows the full flow of hot air and makes it a crispy pizza.
However, I have a great pizza story. I had the opportunity to prepare a TV show in Kona, Hawaii. We were going to invent a pizza with the essence of the island and culture and create this wonderful pizza wrapped around Kona, Hawaii. We used this sea salt mixed with red clay (red alaea salt) from Kona, and lomilomi mahi mahi—this is a massage that people use for themselves or with fish—it cures the fish with lime juice so it is not cooked and is like ceviche in a way. And then caramelized pineapple. So the pizza had the lomilomi mahi mahi and the pineapple on top—it looked like the island itself. We worked with it on the lava beach of Kona, and we went to the sea salt factory where the salt was naturally made by sea, and we went to the beehives to get honey from the white kazzabe tree—which is the same as mesquite. We learned about the culture and created a pizza on the seashore on a black lava beach. I had such a good time doing that pizza, which featured the essence of Hawaii, which we called the Lomilomi Mahi Mahi Pizza. It was incredibly healthy, with fresh fish and lightly glazed with a little bit of honey.
We did something similar for Oregon. We did a video of a pizza inspired by the Oregon Trail. We took pork belly and corn meal—the two ingredients that the people arriving to Oregon lived on for two years while crossing the US. They ate nothing but those two things, but when they arrived in Oregon they had an abundance of berries and shellfish. So we added smoked oyster and marionberry jam with pork belly on a cornmeal crust to this pizza.
Every pizza has a story.