White Pizza

The glory of Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley

There are something like five to seven regional styles of pizza found in America's pizza belt between Hazleton (where the dish was introduced to the area in the 1930s) and Scranton, Pennsylvania. They range from the disgusting (deep-fried pizza, available at the Victory Pig in Kingston) to the sublime (white pizza, found in numerous outlets). The sort of pizza most Americans are familiar with, the round kind, is known as "Brooklyn style," and is not very popular. Most pizza is made the way it's always been made here, in a baking tray. Thus, pizza (all kinds of red pizza) is ordered by the tray, or, for a snack, by the cut. Fierce debate rages over red pizza: should the cheese be on the top or the bottom of the sauce, and where do the toppings go?

The very best white pizza can be found, of course, at the place where it originated, Arcaro and Gennel, in Old Forge, just outside of Scranton. This place is worth a pilgrimage, not just for the pizza, but for the rest of the menu, which is archetypal Italian-American at its best. The roasted red peppers alone are worth the journey: I've had better, but it was at a farm in Piemonte where they were squeezing the olives for the oil and roasting the peppers outside the barn where the retail part of the operation was located. If you can't go there, try Arcaro's.

Pizza was introduced to this part of the country during the Depression, which started early when the coal mines caught on fire just before the stock market crashed. Introduced at a church fair in Hazleton by a young baker who was amazed that an everyday snack every Italian-American kid was familiar with because it was something Mom made in the backyard brick bread oven would sell so well, it soon spread to the bars where the owners were concerned that the unemployed miners weren't eating.

Red pizza was the first to be introduced. Nobody's quite sure where white pizza came from. There are allegedly five cheeses involved: Brick, Mozzarella, Scamorza ("scammuz'," in local talk), maybe Jack, and the one nobody will divulge. I haven't been able to find anything like it in the literature on Italian food, so it may just be an Italian-American invention, one which remains almost unknown today. Arcaro's offers two variations, white with spinach, and white with broccoli. At its best, this latter involves finely-chopped broccoli florets which have been sauteed in olive oil saturated in garlic. The pie illustrated had much larger pieces, and the garlic wasn't as noticeable. All white pizza features a crumbly crust, and the top is wiped with olive oil and dusted with powdered rosemary and oregano before baking.

The pie illustrated was half broccoli, half regular white. For more details see  http://www.arcaroandgennel.com .

Okay, let's eat.

This is a cut of white with broccoli. Note the string of cheese, the roasted red pepper, and the anchovy left over from the antipasto. Shirt and hands by my brother-in-law, Frank.

This shot shows the tray. I think the whole thing costs around $8. Note the top crust with the powdered herb topping.

Another view, this one showing where Frank's cut came out. It doesn't show the plain white side of the pizza very well, though.

Photos taken Mar. 30, 2002, at Arcaro & Gennel, Old Forge, Pa.

White pizza is one of America's most fiercely localized foods. I don't think it's available anywhere but in the "pizza belt." Frank and Louise's kids didn't believe that when they move to Philadelphia in May they'll never see this stuff again. Not only that, they won't see pizzerias and bars serving pizza every fifty feet, like you can in the small towns between Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. I once did some math, and discovered that in the Wilkes-Barre phone book, there was a pizzeria for something like every 300 people. Some of them are gone now, but this tradition lives on.

-- Ed Ward

Text and photos copyright (c) Ed Ward, 2002.