Fresno, CA

In Search of Great Pizza

Mark-John Clifford

photo of N.Y. style pizza courtesy of Wikipedia

There comes a time in a writer's life when they must decide to be bold in their writing and make a statement that they believe is factual and ready to weather the storm they are about to cause.

And this is one of those times. I'm ready.

Pizza in General

When it comes to pizza, California has nothing on New York (just about every nook and cranny), Connecticut (New Haven, Hartford, in particular), Boston (North End), Rhode Island (Providence), Chicago, and Detroit.

Sorry for being so pointed about certain states and their inner cities.

If you were to break it down by which coast, the east coast blows the west coast away when it comes to pizza. Italian food is another story in itself.

photo of Detroit Style Pizza courtesy of Pinterest

Being half Sicilian and half Irish, I have some expertise in this area. Growing up in Sicily and working in a few pizza parlors over the years, and eating at more than I care to count gives me even more expertise.

I knew moving to California, I would lose that great-tasting pizza I grew up with, but I didn't care.

Yesterday, I read an article (click here) that talks about the best pizza in the United States. New York First, Chicago next, and then in a tie for last was Detroit and California.

photo of Chicago Pizza courtesy of Wikipedia

I would have guessed there wouldn't have been a tie with these four states mentioned, but who am I to judge?

If you haven't been to New York or the other east coast cities, I mentioned you don't know what you're missing, but if you have visited one of those states/cities, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

From a clam pizza from a wood fire brick over in New Haven to a coal-fired pizza in Boston, are you smelling that yet?

How about pizza made in a wood fire over with fresh basil and mozzarella cheese only? Or possibly a pizza with fresh Roma tomatoes and sauteed anchovies over a basil-infused crust?

These are just a few pizzas to consider. Gone are the Hawaiin variety, the buffalo chicken pizza with ranch dressing, and more.

On the topic of ranch dressing, I had never heard of ranch dressing for dipping your pizza into until I came to California. Culture shock, yes!

Here in Fresno


You may have noticed above, and as you move further down the page, I am not mentioning restaurants. I'm doing that on purpose. I'm not a food critic per se, just a pizza critic part-time, which I feel doesn't allow me to identify any owner or their restaurant.

To get more specific, let's talk about Fresno, my adopted hometown, and where I have entrusted my pizza tasting tongue to reside.

I've been here 15 years now, and I have yet to find a pizza place that can come close to any of the east coast cities I've mentioned. I'm not the only one who thinks that either.

I've spent a great deal of time over those 15 years querying others, many of who have tried east coast pizza, and most if not all agree with me, Fresno pizza doesn't come close. That even goes for the few pizza shop owners who have moved here from the east coast.

photo of California Style Pizza courtesy of WIkipedia

The pizza here is different. Whether it's the sauce, the crust, or the toppings, it's just different. It smells different. It looks different, and it tastes different.

Toppings are in the eye of the be-taster, but there are some general rules of thumb, at least for me: no avocados, no pineapple, and no cauliflower at least to start.

The rest I need to figure out since there are so many.

The sauce is bitter, which I can't figure out when there are some sumptuous tomatoes grown in the valley. I guess it's in the recipe.

Then the cheese. Why don't most pizza shops use a good dry mozzarella instead of fresh? Don't they know that fresh mozzarella is wet and make the dough touch and soft instead of crisp on the bottom?

Come on guys get with the program.

From what I can gather, after speaking with pizza shop owners and restaurant owners, all of who are either Italian or Sicilian cooking in California forces the chef to reconsider their roots.

Toss aside the way you were taught to cook by your grandparents, parents great grandparents, and anyone else from the old school, this is California, and we do things differently here.

One central point is you cannot blame the people who frequent these pizza shops or restaurants. The owners are to blame. They went California crazy, flipped the script on traditional foods, and the people came.

I remember going to one of my favorite Fresno Italian restaurants one night and asking what the special was. The next few words I heard had my grandmother rolling over in her grave and thinking I may vomit. Those words? The special tonight is pumpkin stuffed ravioli with a pumpkin-cheese sauce. That was enough for me.

After eating a steak to be safe, I asked my friend, the owner, about an idea for a small Italian soup restaurant. His exact words were, "forget it. People here won't get it." He went on to say that he changed his entire menu to fit in with the idea of Italian food people had in Fresno.

I didn't understand that since there is a large Italian population in the city and neighboring Clovis, why wouldn't they get it?

I walked out of his restaurant that night, defeated in the idea I had of a specialized soup restaurant and figuring I'd never get an excellent Sicilian or Italian meal again.

In the end, it's all about taste. Your taste buds are different than mine. What you consider to be the best-tasting pizza ever here in Fresno will most likely not match up in my eyes to a New York pizza. Then again, if the table were reversed and you were in New York, you might think the same as I did about Fresno pizza.

Buon Appetito!


P.S. To Be Continued

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Patti, my wife, and I write about life here in Fresno, California, and the Central Valley. We especially enjoy writing reviews about restaurants we've dined at, along with the food that is served. From time to time, we also write about and share recipes that we are fond of and hope you'll try them and let us know your thoughts. We are not traditional food critics. We don't have to worry about restaurants making unique dishes for us. We're just the average customer going in to dine, and then we write reviews.

Fresno, CA

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