The pizza system May 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm

One of the inspirations for this blog was Italian coffee. I mean that both literally – quite a lot of my posts are written with the aid of an espresso – and more theoretically; coffee in Italy is wonderful, cheap, and available very widely. I was curious how they managed it, and that lead to the very first post on this blog, over six years ago.

Today an article in the Guardian made me think about another incredibly efficient system in Italy, that of pizza. Again we have something that is cheap, readily available, and world-beatingly good*. Indeed, some of the finest pizza is also the cheapest. A meal and drink at the multi-award-winning Da Michele in Naples, for instance, will cost you less than ten euros. If you are anything like me, you will also think that this is the best pizza you have ever tasted.

The Guardian now says that there is a trend for gourmet pizza with exotic ingredients; figs, for instance, or truffle oil. That’s fine. People will always try to find a way to charge more for something that is less good. It worked pretty well for Starbucks, after all, so it might work for some of these ‘ultra-pizza’ chefs. But I strongly doubt that it will influence true Italian pizza, just as I doubt Starbucks will ever make much money in Italy. The original is just too good for a challenger to be that successful.

This robustness is a characteristic of good socio-economic systems. So too is the property that everyone profits, but no one makes too much. There isn’t much growth – a small town only needs one decent pizza joint – but there is solid demand for good quality. Tasty tomatoes and buffalo mozarella goes in, pizza comes out, and everyone – including the tomato grower and the cheese maker – is happy. Moreover, because everyone knows what good pizza is like, there is little demand for bad pizza. Thus there is a positive feedback loop which keeps average quality high, at least in much of Southern Italy.

Another good thing about the pizza system is that it is democractic. You can’t get a better pizza at Da Michele by paying more; you can’t jump the queue by slipping the Maitre d’ a hundred, not least because there isn’t a Maitre d’. The system serves a broad spectrum of interests, not a narrow one. Long may it continue.

*One of the most absurd claims I ever heard was that there was better pizza made in Brooklyn than in Naples. This is akin to claiming that the AMC pacer is a better looking car than the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta.

3 Responses to “The pizza system”

  1. As italian i agree in full. Interesting arguing.

  2. Thumbing your nose at the idea that Brooklyn’s pizza could be on par with Italy’s defeats your larger argument (which I mostly applaud). The magic of Italian pizza comes from the culture and the mindset that surrounds it (which should be transferable) not from special ingredients or talent that are particularly hard to source elsewhere.

    Actually, pizza in NYC is generally (and universally) very good…and cheap enough. The overall economics surrounding it are probably pretty similar to what you describe in Italy. You have to really try to get a bad slice. A better contrast would have been Boston which has a long tradition of universally crappy pizza. Many a visiting, late night Boston reveler has marveled at how shops run by Indians in New York can consistently turn out delicious pies but the slice you just bought in the North End (Boston’s Little Italy) is tasteless, plastic glop.

    However, there is probably more variety and niche market servicing in the NYC vs. the Italian pizza markets. So, the Brooklyn pizza lover is likely “talking his book” and implicit in his top pick is whatever uber-hipster qualities/toppings/styles/ingredient provenance he thinks are most important. His favorite pizza joint probably looks like a Starbucks.

    The whole point of living in many parts of Brooklyn these days is to conspicuously set yourself apart from everybody else in all matters related to lifestyle and taste – not to celebrate the fact that everyone has access to near-perfect, affordable foodstuffs.

  3. Unfortunately my interlocutor illustrated his point by taking me to his favourite joint. It was rustic rather than Starbucks like – which would have been fine if the pizza hadn’t been merely indifferent. Probably there are places in Brooklyn that use authentic ingredients and have the right mindset but this wasn’t one of them…