“Pizza culture is one of the nerdiest of food cultures,” says author Scott Wiener. (He would know. After all, Wiener possesses the world’s largest collection of pizza boxes.)
The foodstuff’s long-time association with late-night fuel for programmers and engineers glued to their computer screens certainly supports that idea. But watching contemporary masters like Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana elevate the craft into an almost solemn art form speaks to something even more relevant—that pizza breeds fanaticism, plain and simple. That type of singular, monomaniacal obsession is supported by insider’s-only jargon, as a way to distinguish the true pizzabois from the mere pretenders.
The fact that pizza arrived to America as an immigrant food probably created the need for its own vernacular, says NYC-based pizza tour guide Alexis Guerreros. “The furious competition, back-stabbing, family feuds added to it too.”
But as much as we love feeling a part of this ritualized language, the reason for slang, some believe, is really to sustain the folks grinding it out in front of the oven, churning out pie after pie, seven days a week.
“Having a handful of code words and cherished symbols you use among your fellow comrades is something that’s not for the customers, or even the owners,” says Brian Dwyer, who heads marketing for the Pizza Brain pizza museum. “It’s for the people in the shit, doing it every damn night.”
To salute the tireless work of these pizza-makers (and attempt to gain deeper access into their world), we called upon several pizzeria owners, historians, and writers to draw up a comprehensive vocabulary sheet. Our panel includes:
- Mark Bello, Pizza A Casa Pizza School in NYC
- Brian Dwyer, PR for Pizza Brain, the world’s first pizza museum
- Frank Pinello, owner of Best Pizza
- Scott Wiener, author and founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours
- Adam Kuban, proprietor of Margot’s Pizza pop-up, founder of the now-defunct pizza blog Slice
- Brian Hernandez, PMQ‘s test chef
- Miriam Weiskind, tour guide at Scott’s Pizza Tours
- Alexis Guerreros, tour guide at Scott’s Pizza Tours
- Kenji López-Alt, managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats and creator of The Food Lab
- Jamie Slater, GM at Big Daddy’s Pizzeria
The result of somebody picking up a slice of pizza fresh out of the oven and all the toppings sliding right off of the crust.
The leftover pieces of crust that are discarded on a plate.
That stringy connection of cheese from a slice to the pizza, or mouth of pizza eater. Typically used in TV ads for extra-cheesy pizzas.
Prince St. Pizza, Sicilian slice. Photo courtesy Adam Kuban
When cheese pulls of the top of a slice.
The placement of cheese on top of the toppings so they won’t slide around.
Exposed sauce between end of cheese and beginning of crust.
A raised lip on the circumference of a pizza’s crust. Typically used in reference to the rim of a Neapolitan-style pizza. A way of differentiating the crust around the perimeter from the crust on the bottom of a pie.
Dom DeMarco of Di Fara. Photo by Chris Schonberger
What a slice is referred to in Old Forge, PA. Best exemplified by Salerno’s Café.
A hole in the dough (typically panic moment, as you don’t want the sauce and cheese to leak onto the oven).
Used when portioning balls of dough for service. It’s the act of taking dough from one’s main mix and working it into a undersized ball to make it the correct weight/size for a single pie.
This phrase signals that you need a pizza fast because of some sort of error with the first attempt.
The main opening of a coal-fired brick oven
Colony Grill in Stamford, CT. Photo by Liz Barclay
A customer who wants a drink.
The kind of pizza made at home in a sheet pan before the days of the pizza stone. The dough is pushed out to the edge, and then topped and baked. The major characteristic is that the crust has not had time to proof, unlike the Sicilian slice, which has more air in the crust. Grandma slices are thinner and more dense, whereas Sicilian slices are thicker and puffier.
Hole structure, or crumb
The network of gluten fibers in a crust that create a lattice-like net in the interior of the crust. This term is shared with the larger bread-baking world.
A slice from a perfectly cut pizza.
The phenomenon whereby small bubbles along the rim of a pizza puff up and are burned black. Mostly happens in the intense heat of a wood-fired oven (but sometimes in coal-ovens or other blazing-hot ovens). If done right, the spots aren’t acrid or bitter, and they are actually a desirable trait among many pizza fans and pizza-makers.
Term used to describe low-moisture mozzarella cheese.
Pizzas ready to be loaded into the oven.
A circular pizza cut into squares. Mostly found in St. Louis.
Word commonly used to describe an entire pizza; the term tends to be used more on the east coast
Pie in the sky
Passing stretched dough to the other side of the line (applies to spaces with a bigger kitchens).
Dani’s in Kew Gardens, NY. Photo by Liz Barclay
When an order is up and ready to be taken to a table.
A.k.a., pizza burn or roof burn—a burn on the roof of your mouth from pizza that’s too hot.
Pizzaiolo/pizzaioli (masculine) & pizzaiola/pizzaiole (feminine)
Italian for pizza maker. Note the masculine and feminine forms; a lot of people mess this up. Also, like cornicione, it’ll make you sound like an ass if you’re using it outside the Neapolitan context.
If you order a “plain” in New Haven, it means no cheese. In NYC, you say slice for a regular cheese, not “can I have a cheese slice.” Depending on where you are in the country, the word takes on different meanings.
Another name for ricotta, often used in Newark. “Let me get a slice with pot cheese on top.”
A warning that lots of tourist types just walked in. Be advised: bad tips, clueless ordering, messy tables, lots of questions about ‘how the menu works.’
Slice taken for the road.
A mezzaluna or curved blade for cutting Chicago deep-dish pizzas.
A pizza-slicing wheel.
When the crust gets damp from too much liquid on top, or from enclosure in the pizza box.
Sauce ’em all, cheese ’em all
An instance where a bunch of plain pies have just been ordered. Means treat everything on the line the same way.
Newark parlance. When a pie comes out perfectly (i.e.. golden color on the edge of the crust, sauce peeking out from the edge of the cheese, cheese is evenly toasty, orange oil glistening), it’s called a Sinatra.
Slap out some skins
The act of stretching out dough balls.
Snag ‘n’ drag
The action of taking a slice of pizza from the tray—you must snag, then drag, horizontally to ensure nothing slips off the crust
Usually used in connection with an inexperienced dough thrower. Sometimes the skin is uneven, and the dough tends to have thin spots in the center of the pie from carrying a heavy load of toppings. When it’s loaded in the oven it may develop a small hole, which must be cut so the the hole doesn’t sit in the middle of a slice. Sometimes called a holey (holy) pie, this type of amateur-hour pizza is commonly referred to as a Sunday pie.
When the guy running the oven is swinging a hot pie out of the heat and doesn’t want to hit someone. So if a person calls “swingin’ hot,” everyone freezes until the pie touches down on the “LZ” (landing zone).
Pie is cut in unequal size slices. (Momma Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Bear slices—too large, too small, just right)
“Tip Jar Time,” meaning, a bunch of customers just walked in—figure out how to free up some of their loose cash.
Upskirt, or under the hood
Checking out the bottom of the crust to inspect char marks.
Refers to fresh mozzarella.
White House (a.k.a., The Obama)
Used to describe whether a pizza is to-go or for the house. The best selling pie at Best Pizza is the white pizza. So if they’re cooking white pizza for the house, they call it a white house, which then became the Obama. “I need an Obama!”
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