A Love Letter to Northeastern Pennsylvania-style Pizza
Welcome to The Pizza World, occasional essays from pizza experts and enthusiasts dedicated to exploring and extolling the culture of pizza. This essay and the accompanying recipes from Jim Mirabelli, owner and “Chief Pizza Officer” for NEPA Pizza Review (@nepapizzareview), are an open love letter to northeastern Pennsylvania-style pizza.
Dear Northeastern Pennsylvania-style pizza,
No, no, let’s dispense with formality; we’re too well-acquainted. Let’s start again.
Dear NEPA pizza,
From my earliest days, I can remember the pungent aroma as we walked as a family into our local wood-paneled NEPA pizza shop on a Friday night. The welcoming smile of the pizza lady behind the counter cutting an Old Forge pizza with a machete-like knife heightened the anticipation of a piping hot tray on its way to our ‘70s-style bright orange booth.
I recall anxiously watching the tray of pizza (always “tray,” never “pan” or “pie”) as it was served onto a plastic cafeteria tray alongside red tumblers fizzing away with RC Cola. I remember my mother warning, “Wait! Let it cool down,” not listening, then taking a bite and molten lava cheese sticking to the roof of my mouth, removing layers of skin. This was a pain I would become unavoidably familiar with, habitually unable as I was to resist the pleasure of a hot slice — or as we call it in NEPA, a “cut” — of your incredible pizza.
I love how you offer so many varieties to try on Pizza Friday (and every day of the week). There are hundreds of pizzerias to experience, a seemingly limitless offering of unique pizzas. Each tight-knit town is like a distinct little country with its own customs and flair. Still — as we both know, dear NEPA Pizza — there are three major styles you’re known for: Old Forge, pan-fried Sicilian and pagash.
I’m grateful to our region’s deep history of coal mining for its role in your origins in Old Forge, that tiny town just five miles from Scranton where miners needed something to eat after long days deep underground. Legend has it that an enterprising grandmother whipped up a snack for hungry miners one evening, the first tray of a pan pizza that would become known far and wide, putting this tiny town on the map as “The Pizza Capital of the World.” With its medium thickness and light crust, tight crumb like a sponge, crisp bottom, sweet, marinara-like sauce, and blend of cheeses, this rectangular tray of 12 cuts proved the perfect meal after a hard day’s work.
Old Forge may be small — just 3.4 square miles and a population of 8,497 — but that has just made it mighty when it comes to pizzerias per capita. Its 11 pizzerias give the town a ratio of 129.4 pizzerias per 100,000 people, far surpassing each of America’s top pizza cities. Here, pizzeria owners frequently work together, rather than competing for a larger slice of the pie. With so many pizzerias bunched together on Main Street, it would not be unusual to see an employee of Revello’s Pizza Cafe run across the street to borrow dough or a bucket of cheese from Arcaro and Genell on a busy Friday night. It’s that spirit of camaraderie that makes me proud to echo Old Forge’s self-appointed nickname without irony.
I’m grateful for the 50 or so pizzerias in Northeastern Pennsylvania that serve pan-fried Sicilian pizza in the back mountain and greater Luzerne County areas; to Victory Pig BBQ and Pizza for creating this style; and to places like Pizza L’Oven and Pizza Perfect, both of which make versions of this delicious pan-fried pizza. Now, a tray of PFS might not be the healthiest option you provide, NEPA pizza. We both know it generally involves baking a thick crust in a pan coated with copious amounts of peanut oil (or an oil blend of some kind), a slathering of simple and chunky tomato sauce with or without chopped onions, all covered with sliced white cheddar. But it’s undoubtedly the most delicious variety and can only be found within your rolling hills and mountains.
Some may get squeamish at the mere thought of potatoes as topping, but you embrace it, NEPA pizza. We slather crusts with mashed potatoes for Lent every year; your potato pizza, which we call pagash, pogash, pierogi pizza or the more traditional “pagach,” is a carb-laden treat that comes in many forms, but always includes a ton of mashed potatoes and cheese. Your NEPA-loving admirers wait hours at places like Ferri’s Pizza in Moscow and Happy Pizza in Plymouth for a taste of this seasonal favorite.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, we talk about you like others talk about the weather. You’re what we’re known for! You’re so fundamental a conversational topic, you landed a recurring role on a major TV sitcom. The cast of NBC’s hit TV series, The Office, set at a fictional paper company in Scranton, adopted nearby Alfredo’s Pizza Cafe (“the good Alfredo’s”) as their favorite pizza on the show. Alfredo’s serves its own version of Old Forge pizza, which locals call a “square tray” despite its rectangular shape.
From Scranton to Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and beyond, you, NEPA pizza, are loved. Those who move away long for you. They pay dearly (but without complaint!) to ship you cross country in your frozen state. You’re often a first stop en route to visit friends and family (or the first meal shared with them). There’s just nothing else like you.
Your sweet red sauces, swirls and cheese blends are unique. Who uses scamutz’s melting superpowers for extra stringy cheese pulls like you do? And who besides you has generated an affectionate name like “scamutz” for scamorza (a criminally underused cheese on pizza)? From Hazleton’s embrace of a typo (“pitza”) to a tradition like Senape’s Tavern’s cold boxed pitza, you do things your own way.
You’re more than just a delicious and affordable way to feed a family. You’re a community of mom-and-pop shops that sponsor Little League teams, buy dance costumes, and host fundraisers for those in need. You foster deeply personal feelings and relationships. A cut of Angelo’s Pizza in Wilkes-Barre or a tray of Andy’s Pizza in Peckville can trigger decades-old flashbacks to the fondest of childhood memories.
Global pizza chains have taken over much of America. Still, in our corner of the world, we take comfort in your quirks, NEPA pizza, and the culture of independently operated small businesses that proudly serve you.
I’m so grateful to the owners who have invited me into their kitchens, where I’ve learned the craft and hard work that goes into making you, and to my fellow NEPA pizza lovers for our shared passion and endless conversation about you. Each pizza adventure offers yet another opportunity for fulfillment. Thanks for the joy, culture and community you’ve provided us. Your rich history, tradition and delicious dedication are always there to bring us together around a tray.
I want everyone to know about you, and I’ve made it my mission to share your story. I’ve spent years perfecting my skills to replicate your nuances and present these recipes to my fellow pizza lovers with dedication and respect, and all for one simple reason: I love you, NEPA pizza.
Very truly yours,
Learn how to make iconic NEPA pizzas yourself using these recipes:
Old Forge-style pizza:
Pan-fried Sicilian pizza