Rhodeside Diaries: Pizza Strips
Cold pizza without cheese? Seriously? People eat that?
Indeed they do. In fact, every day in Rhode Island thousands of the tomatoey treats fly off bakery shelves, destined for birthday parties, corporate functions, school lunchrooms, holiday get-togethers and kitchen tables across the state. It would seem that no region in the world holds bread slathered in tomato sauce in such high esteem.
Well, perhaps—but I’ll address that in a moment. First, though, I’m compelled to give you some background.
Long-time Rhode Islanders don’t need to be told what pizza strips are. It’s in their DNA. For the rest of you, let this be an education.
Pizza strips, otherwise known as party pizza, bakery pizza and, in some circles, tomato pie, are rectangular slices of focaccia-style bread topped with spicy tomato sauce.They have no cheese (unless you count an optional sprinkling of grated Romano) and are properly served at room temperature.
Pizza strips are a comfort food that probably predates what we now think of as pizza. Food historians trace pizza’s origins to Naples, Italy, in the 1800s, and note that it wasn’t until 1889 that cheese was added as a topping. A pizza without cheese is today recognized as one of the three official authentic Neapolitan pizzas and is called pizza marinara.
Home cooks, in an age before kitchen appliances, employed this variant because it was an inexpensive and easy-to-make snack that could be left out for a number of days without spoiling. Sometime around the end of the 18th century Italian immigrants introduced the dish to America’s Northeast.
I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but just as the Ocean State is not the only place Italian immigrants settled when they came to our shores, Rhode Island does not have a corner on the pizza strip market. Other pizza strip—or tomato pie—hot spots includeTrenton, New Jersey, (Joe’s Tomato Pies, established 1910); Utica, New York (O’scugnizzo’s Pizza, established circa 1914); and Norristown, Pennsylvania (Corropolese Bakery and Deli, established 1929).
We can console ourselves with the knowledge that one of the very first ventures to sell a product based on pizza marinara is still in business right here in our capital city.
Palmieri’s Bakery on Ridge Street in Providence, perhaps the longest continuously operating bakery in Rhode Island, has been turning out crusty breads, wine and pepper biscuits, zeppoles, and yes, pizza strips, since 1898 (and incorporated in 1901).
The business began on Ledge Street and moved to its present location in the 1940s. In late 2005 the third generation of baking Palmieris, Anthony and Marianne, facing retirement and without an heir, sold the business to Steven and Theresa Meresi. Along with the business came all the original recipes and equipment, as well as two of Palmieri’s longtime bakers.
The Meresis both grew up on Federal Hill and pizza strips have always been part of their lives. Steve says his mother would buy three strips on Fridays for each of her kids to take to school for lunch, and that the tradition continues today: The lunch room at Holy Ghost School has a standing order for several sheets of pizza that they serve their students on Fridays.
Steve was born in Italy, and his mother, Adele, who also works in the bakery, remembers making pizza strips exactly the same way when she was a child in the old country in the 1950s. At Palmieri’s the dough is made from flour (unbleached, with a little bit of semolina), water, salt and yeast. It’s the same dough they use for focaccia bread, and while some other bakeries use preservatives, Palmieri’s does not.
The sauce is equally simple: “good” tomatoes, salt, pepper, oil and garlic. There is at least “one special ingredient that can’t be duplicated,” says Theresa Meresi, and she isn’t afraid to say what it is: “My old seasoned ovens with the original hands and ingredients that made the ‘Rhode Island favorite.’ Sorry, that part belongs to me!”
The pizza strips at Palmieri’s are smaller than most at only about 3 by 4 inches. The sauce is wonderfully garlicky and peppery, and the crust is nice and chewy. They’re a bargain at three for $1.65. TheMeresis say they’ve been surprised by the number of people who travel long distances to seek out pizza strips from Rhode Island’s oldest bakery.
Some would argue that pizza strips are not pizza. I personally think that anyone beginning such an argument is a pedantic culinary hairsplitter, but just for fun I’ll list the main points pro and con:
Anti–pizza strip people say that pizza strips aren’t cut from a round pie into wedge-shaped pieces, that they are served at room temperature rather than hot, that they have no cheese and that they are made with focaccia dough rather than pizza dough.
Pro–pizza strip people point out that not all pizzas are cut into wedges from a round pie, that a pizza that has cooled off is still a pizza, that pizza strips are sometimes sprinkled with grated cheese (and that not all pizzas have cheese anyway) and that variation within a class of foods is a thing to be encouraged, not disparaged.
Pizza strip loyalists don’t only pledge allegiance to their favorite bakery, many (if not most) are very particular when it comes to ends and middles. Ends are the pieces from the edges of the pie. They include a portion of chewy, crunchy crust.Middles, of course, come from the center of the pie and have no edge crust.
“Customers are very picky when it comes to ends and middles,” agrees Theresa Meresi. “I get orders for boxes of pizza; they want all ends or all middles. And we accommodate them. I have customers who have been coming here since before I was born. I have to keep them happy!”
Before I finish I’d like to try to give my idea of the perfect pizza strip. First, the crust should be moist and chewy. It can be just a little crispy on the bottom but it shouldn’t be crunchy, nor should it be so soft as to be like generic white bread. If you’ve got an end piece, the edge should be even more al dente; it can even be a little crunchy.
As for the sauce, I prefer a thick portion of zesty, tangy, tomatoey goodness. If it’s too sweet, or if the sauce is so thin that all the moisture was baked out in the oven, that’s a problem. All that olive oil on your hands? It’s good for your heart.
I’ll bet you didn’t know there was so much to be known about pizza strips. If you’re a long-time fan, I hope I’ve given you a new appreciation for this unsung foodstuff. If you’re new to the whole pizza strip concept, I hope I’ve inspired you to give ’em a try.
Cold pizza without cheese? Gimme some of that!
Pizza Strip Bakeries - The Short List
Buono’s Italian Bakery
559 Hartford Ave., Providence
401-421-4554 • www.buonosbakery.com
Calvitto’s Pizza and Bakery*
1401 Park Ave., Cranston
401-464-4200 • www.myspace.com/calvittoscranston
Crugnale Bakery and Pizza*
567 Reservoir Ave., Cranston • 401-781-8800
1251 Chalkstone Ave., Providence • 401-351-5826
DePetrillo’s Pizza and Bakery*
1073 Park Ave., Cranston • 401-432-7612
D. Palmieri Bakery
624 Killingly St., Johnston
401-621-9357 • www.dpalmierisbakery.com
147 Ridge St., Providence • 401-831-9145
DePasquale Plaza, Providence • 401-861-2253
Silver Star Bakery
150 Ives St., Providence • 401-421-8013
1594 Cranston St., Cranston • 401-942-9840
1234 Oaklawn Ave. (Route 5), Cranston
401-738-6444 • www.superiorbakery.com
*please call for additional locations