Pizza Obsessives: Daniel Zemans, Slice Contributor

Pizza Obsessives

Slice interviews with folks who are mad about pizza.

We're finally strapping our man from the Windy City, Daniel Zemans, into the hot seat. Get to know this discerning, deep-dish loving Midwesterner a little bit better through the Pizza Obsessives Q&A! —MS


Daniel with his pup Phred sharing a post-pizza moment at Ranalli's. [Photograph: Andrew Stamm]

Name: Daniel Zemans
Location: Chicago
URL: Twitter @zemanation

So tell us, what type of pizza do you prefer?

I'm an equal opportunity pizza lover and at various times I crave any number of styles. I suppose deep dish and the loosely defined "American artisanal" are the ones I find myself salivating over most frequently.

The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?

I categorically reject* the idea that most people are tied to their first slice of pizza or that their first pizza memory remains the definition of pizza. Exhibit A: The explosion of popular Neapolitan pizzerias all over the country.

As far as my personal tastes, they absolutely have evolved. Growing up, pizza for me meant stuffed pies from Giordano's or Edwardo's, with the occasional pan pizza from Connie's and Medici. I'm sure I had Midwestern thin crust pizza and I've long been a fan, but I can't say I have any particularly early memories of it. And I know that I never had deep dish pizza until after college, but as I mentioned above, it is among my two favorite styles. When I lived in New York (2001-2004), I was regularly exposed to New York-style, and eventually the pizza overcame my regional chauvinism. In the years since, I have embraced traditional Neapolitan pizza as well.

* More on this later.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

Sausage, ideally in large chunks and with lots of fennel.

I know you don't like to name favorites, but what are your most visited spots for pizza?

My most common stops are Lou Malnati's, Great Lake, Pizano's, Dough Boys, and Pequod's.

Do you make pizza at home? If so, what recipes do you use?

A couple of times, but I've yet to fully catch the pizza making bug. And judging by how obsessed people get over it, that's probably a good thing for my sanity. But given that I just ordered a special pan for making deep dish pizza and I bought the Tartine cookbook with an eye on thin crust pizza recipe in there, it looks like my resistance was futile and the baking will commence soon.

Well when that happens we'd love to see some of your results over on My Pie Monday. Next question: What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

If someone else thinks a topping goes well on a pizza, I'm not going to tell them they're wrong. For me, I have no use for the taste or crunchiness of green peppers. I've yet to meet a topping I won't try.

I have to agree with you on the green pepper front. Never could get behind them. What's the most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?

The most unusual pizza that jumps out at me was the one with Korean sweet potatoes, pineapple, cubed ham, corn, onions and green and red bell peppers at Cheogajip, a Korean pizza chain with an outpost in Niles, Illinois.

That sounds like a Hawaiian shish kebab pie. Leave it to those wacky Korean pizza chains! What do your friends and family make of your pizza madness?

I'd like to think they're more amused by it than anything, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. They certainly don't complain when I invite them to join me for Slice "research".

What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

I don't really travel without getting pizza (see my reviews on Slice from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, California, and Washington), but the farthest I've gone solely for pizza was the 46-mile drive to Crystal Lake so I could try Georgio's.

Can you give us a little backstory on how you wound up writing pizza reviews?

I've always loved pizza, though not with quite the intensity I do today. I used to work with a member of the Chicago Pizza Club who invited me to join. Once I was in, I was like a zealous convert to a new religion who couldn't get enough. I started researching pizza, following other pizza blogs and I set up various Google alerts related to pizza. Other members were happy to let me write more than my share of reviews. Then when Adam posted that Slice was looking for a Chicago correspondent, I jumped at the chance.

How do you respond to people who say you're too forgiving in your reviews?

My first response is that it's the only context in any aspect of my life where I'm accused of being too nice. My second response is that I love pizza and I enjoy eating most pizzas. When I review them, I tend to focus on what I liked about the pizza because that's a lot more important to me than what I didn't like about it. I get the sense there are some people out there in Sliceland who have a mental checklist of what a pizza is supposed to be like and when they encounter a pizza, either in person or online, they go through their list and ding the pie each time it doesn't measure up. That's no way to judge a person and it's no way to judge a pizza.

Preach it, brother! Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?

The Pizza Cognition Theory is a cute name for a common phenomenon and has been grossly overplayed on Slice.

Most people have strong food memories from childhood, period. And leaving aside the psychology behind what drives a lot of us to return to childhood favorites and hold those versions up as the gold standard, there's also the commonsense reality that the first time we encounter any food, that bite becomes what that kind of food "should" taste like because we have nothing to compare it to. Basically, I think the pizza cognition theory is a clever bit of language, but it's no different from my recent inventions, the "Shrimp and Grits Cognition Theory" and the "Key Lime Pie Cognition Theory."

That said, there are surely some people so tied to their first pizza memory that the Pizza Cognition Theory is accurate, but I think the psychological ties to those first pizzas are actually weaker that the ties to certain other foods for the simple reason that most people did not grow up in homes where their homemade pizza was put on the table. Paul Fehribach, the chef-owner of Big Jones, a Southern restaurant in Chicago, has talked about how customers have criticized his shrimp and grits (which are outstanding) because they don't taste like the kind their mothers made when they were children. I don't see that kind of thing happening with pizza.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

I'd like you to find someone who's food tastes most people would generally find reliable (perhaps a well-known chef or a respected food writer) who does not like pizza and have them explain why. That might not qualify for "Pizza Obsessive" but it could be fascinating. As far as obsessives go, I'd like to see what Nancy Silverton and either Milke Ilitch or Tom Monaghan have to say.

Well lucky for me those are all really accessible people. I'll see what I can do. Maybe I can combine double-dip and do your Ilitch and Monaghan interviews when I get around to penning the evolution of their pizza chains (as recommended, coincidentally, by our last Pizza Obsessive, and the man who got you into this mess, Lance Roberts). But you've been great! Thanks for honoring his request! It's been a pleasure getting to know you better.