The Rust Belt’s Claim to Pizza Fame

Exploring the importance of regional foodways in Old Forge, PA—the self-proclaimed "Pizza Capital of the World."

All photos by Liz Barclay

All photos by Liz Barclay

Which American city has the best pizza?

As far as food fights go, few topics can ignite a room as quickly as this one. Gourmands and regular joes from Chicago, New York, and New Haven defend local styles with the ferocity of a Cane Corso. And, as prerequisite, all articles about pizza must remind of us the great pie debate to contextualize this obsession: Pizza in America (unlike, say, chili) demands that everyone have an opinion about the coast-to-coast rankings.

But beyond the deafening chatter about the first and second cities, there are some sensational regional secrets that never make it past their small pocket of the country. Rather than being shilled at countless storefronts boasting “New Haven-style” or Chicago-style” pizza, they require travel to seek out and enjoy.

oldforge7 The Rust Belts Claim to Pizza Fame

The editors of this site once published a public service announcement that read, “The Best Pizza in Connecticut is NOT in New Haven.” Stamford is home to Colony Grill, a dive with its own thin-crusted, bar-style pizza. It is a pizza born that was born out of practical concerns—how to feed drinkers?—but which has grown in the hearts and minds of diners to become a pizza of distinction. It’s just one example of countless pies that never get national recognition, but are no less critical to the national pizza landscape than a Chicago deep dish or a New York slice.

Some say the first pie one tastes becomes the ideal, which explains why pizza’s regional iterations are intrinsically tied to local identity and value. St. Louis’ cracker-like crust and favored Provel cheese hasn’t traveled far and wide (though Speedy Romeo serves a version in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn). In Detroit, parlors serve a distinct deep-dish square that—though famously emulated by Little Caesars—doesn’t have strong name recognition outside of Michigan as a regional style.  These three towns—Detroit, Stamford, St. Louis—are like most American places: There is a particular style of pizza, but nobody has bothered to champion it in other markets.

The small town of Old Forge, PA (pop. 10,000), five miles from Scranton, is no different—in fact, it even proclaims itself “The Pizza Capital of the World” on local signage. A lofty declaration, but one that’s focused on identity rather that superlatives—even if it doesn’t live up to Naples or New Haven in quality, it is a place defined by a love of pizza. “It’s really a matter of taste,” local pie-maker Pat Revello told CNN in 2008.

oldforge4 The Rust Belts Claim to Pizza Fame

Revello is co-owner of Revello’s Pizza, founded in 1967 and now the most well-known and well-manicured of the town’s dozen cafes, boasting ample natural light and bright-red vinyl seating. Catty-corner from Revello’s is Arcaro & Genell, opened in 1962. In any other place, the proximity might evoke a Geno’s versus Pat’s–scale rivalry. In Old Forge, there seems to be a harmonious upkeep of local tradition—it’s a team effort, not a showdown.

Old Forge-style pizza, cooked and served in trays, has regularly been described as “neither thick nor thin” by bloggers and journalists. This is true. It is also crisp on bottom and soft up top. The defining flavor of individual cafes is mostly a product of distinctive cheese mixtures: mozzarella, provolone, and more are used. In overall effect, Old Forge’s red pizza represents the platonic ideal of toaster-oven favorite, Ellio’s (which has no historic connection to northeastern Pennsylvania, instead hailing from Great Neck, Long Island).

The town’s other dish, white pizza, resembles a giant calzone, with a five-cheese mix stuffed into the top and bottom crust. Menus at Old Forge cafes are anchored by pizza, but they also include typical American bar food (jalapeño poppers, buffalo wings); standard Italian-American fare; and, as nod to the region’s other large ethnic group, pierogies.

oldforge6 The Rust Belts Claim to Pizza Fame

Salerno’s Cafe, another Old Forge favorite on nearby Moosic Road, features a dark bar with four flat-screen TVs and two tight booths. At lunch on a recent weekday, the spot buzzed with a diverse clientele—business casual mixing with blue collar uniforms. Salerno’s homemade fusilli is long and dense, and the pasta comes with a thin red sauce and house-made sausage. The sauce, in shocking contrast to its appearance, has depth of flavor and a peppery bite, and the dish makes sense in the context of Old Forge dining: While pizza is central, “cuts” (don’t ask for a “slice” in Old Forge) are best enjoyed as complement to a full meal.

At Salerno’s, the pizza has a light crunch, and if you order it with meatballs as a topping, they come crumbled on top. For the sake of comparison, Revello’s slices meatballs for pizza topping, and its cheese covering is not as a thick as the one at Salerno’s.

oldforge1 The Rust Belts Claim to Pizza Fame

There is no good, better, or best in Old Forge.—as Revello said, it’s all a matter of taste. The town’s style is so singular that a grand tour is hardly required. Each pie has a crisp crust. Each has an oniony sauce. And, as noted, the primary difference hinges on how one likes their cheese. However, that singularity is the glory of Old Forge.

Old Forge will never compete with New York. And unlike Chicago’s deep-dish, the town’s style has spread to only one far-flung outpost—Vail, CO’s Old Forge Pizza. Yet Old Forge is a fine poster child for the importance of regional foodways. The town is special because the style of pizza is point of universal pride, but one that doesn’t require a national behemoth (in the Uno’s model) to spread its gospel—Main Street does all the talking, and for locals, that’s enough.

oldforge3 The Rust Belts Claim to Pizza Fame

Newsletter

Feed your inbox.

Subscribe