Hello, Snackers. Does it matter how you cut your pizza? Is there a story to the square method (as opposed to triangles/wedges) you often see in the Midwest? Yes and yes.
If you’re new here (welcome!), this is the weekly free post for Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the cultural history of snacks. If you enjoy this, please share it and subscribe. Thanks so much.
Pizza is a great way to start a fight. Billions of people may agree that it’s delicious, but few of them can agree on which variety is the best and which ones should be approached only with a hazmat suit.
For those of us in pizza-eating places, personal preferences often get locked in early in life. Obviously, I enjoy a good Neapolitan-esque prosciutto + Gruyère + ricotta + brown butter + caramelized onion + arugula + pickled mustard seed pizza as much as any other middle-aged man with Warby Parker glasses, but it never satisfies in that same deep, nostalgia-flavored way as an old-school pepperoni pie, because that’s what I ate most often as a kid in Minnesota.
When we’re talking about pizza as comfort food, I’ll also usually favor square-cut pizza, that specialty of the Midwest. To be perfectly clear, I don’t mean Sicilian-style pizza or others in a rectangular format; I mean a circle cut like this:
Here in the Midwest, this is common. I mean, we also have triangle-cut pizza, but if you’re getting a large thin-crust pizza from an independent restaurant around here, there’s a good bet it’ll be cut in squares as the default. You’ll also hear it called “party cut” or “tavern cut,” the latter because it’s especially common as bar pizza. It’s cheap, it’s filling, it’s delicious, it has a reputation as something that’s been around forever and conjures informal, social vibes, which is not exactly true of, say, a prosciutto + Gruyère pizza (although, this being 2022, there are now hipster versions of bar pizza).
* * *
Some people hate square-cut pizza. This includes my older daughter, who won’t eat pizza unless it’s cut “the normal way”; it also includes actual adults, like a college friend of mine from Baltimore, whose phone orders to the pizzerias in our small Minnesota town always included a demand for wedges, not squares. And it includes a good many East Coasters on Twitter who regard square-cut pizza as not just a curiosity but a regional horror, like West Virginia’s Mothman.
There’s no accounting for taste and I can’t make anyone see the error of their ways, but I thought it would be worth investigating where square-cut pizza came from, in hopes of nudging the haters in the direction of wisdom.
* * *
There are several different origins to square-cut pizza—the thin crust American version—and they all point back to the same general broad moment of the 1940s and 1950s, when pizza was still novelty for most Americans. As with any curiosity, many people viewed it with both intrigue and confusion: What is this thing and what do I DO with it?
Here’s a story from 1947 about “Pizza, a New Arrival in St. Louis”:
If you zoom in on the last instructional photo, lower right, you’ll see that the chef is using scissors to cut the pizza into squares.
Because pizza was newly popular but still unfamiliar to many Americans, there wasn’t a real concern for what was “traditional” or “authentic” or “made sense in any way at all.” I found one newspaper recipe for something called “Sloppy Joe Pizza Pie,” which was basically a pizza crust baked in a pie pan with sloppy Joe meat on top. Another newspaper story, from 1961, offered curry shrimp (cooked in cognac) as a topping and, in the lede, the suggestion that you cut pizza into different shapes for different occasions, including “small squares with drinks.”
Square-cut pizza, in this era, was all about entertaining and sharing. It was something to nibble with your friends at a gathering or a bar (more on the latter in a sec). Pizza was even served this way at multiple galas thrown by diplomats. Here’s a party at the Argentine embassy in Washington, DC, in 1949, where it was an appetizer “after the orchestra had played the national anthem”:
Or here it is again on the hors d’oeuvres menu at the Liberian embassy (also in Washington) in 1961, part of a celebration of that country’s independence:
Pizza was a party food, something you prepared not on an everyday basis but as a special occasion, so it made sense to serve it like this. Square-cut wasn’t weird—it was festive.
* * *
There are also various origin stories that go back to specific bars and restaurants, with much the same logic: cutting pizza into squares is a crowd-pleasing move.
George says the squares were just easier for tavern patrons to eat with beer.
Steve Dolinsky, author of the upcoming Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago is America’s Greatest Pizza Town, adds, “These square pieces were intended as snacks, not meals. The boys stopping off at the bar on the way home had to save room for dinner with their families, so they had a couple of squares and a beer and headed home. That’s why it was important to be so cracker thin.”
In Dayton, Ohio, a similar tale comes from food historian Dann Woellert:
Even though pizza came to New York City from the Naples region of Italy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until after the war that it was brought to the Midwest, mostly by enterprising veterans who had seen it during their tours of duty coming through New York and Philadelphia.
When Vic Cassano did a bit of market research, he was told by women the one thing they didn’t like about pizza was that it was difficult to eat without looking foolish, or messing it all over you. Think of the gloved ladies of the 1950’s with pillbox hats and tea dresses going out for pizza. So he devised the idea of cutting it into squares and it has been done that way ever since.
Another reason for the square-cut was given by Ron Holp, a one-time franchise operator of Cassano’s, who broke off in 1964 and founded Ron’s Pizza in Miamisburg, Ohio. He said that early on, most Midwesterners didn’t know anything about pizza, so if you wanted to try it and tried a whole pie shaped slice and didn’t like it, you ruined that whole slice. If you tried a small square shaped piece, you could try a small bite before you dove in.
Over in Maryland, a chain called Ledo debuted in 1955 with a signature square-cut (though also rectangular, not circular) pizza. Imo’s started in St. Louis in 1964—more square-cut circles. Both claim to have come up with their concept independently, and I’m certain you can find even more pizzerias that have been doing it this way for decades after someone in the kitchen had the genius idea to try cutting the pizza into a shareable format. Immediately after typing that last sentence, I remembered visiting family in Northern Minnesota a few years ago and having Sammy’s Pizza, a regional chain. I just checked its history page: Established in 1954.
So many squares:
* * *
We ate that pizza from Sammy’s in the banquet room of some anonymous highway hotel, a dozen or more adults and an equal number of children sharing … I don’t know, five pizzas? It was a lot, or maybe it just felt like a lot because there were so many squares. It was greasy and it was glorious and whenever you felt like you just wanted one more bite, you merely had to open a the box and find a little piece. Or a large one! There were options. For the kids who didn’t like to eat crust at all, well, that was available, no problem; for those who demanded a crust to hold onto, there were plenty of edges. (If you close your eyes, it tastes and feels the same as triangles, or at least this is what I tell my daughter.)
This is the promise of square-cut pizza: it feeds a crowd. It’s egalitarian, it’s community-minded, it’s unpretentious. It’s a throwback to a time when few Americans had any rules for pizza.
I think that's all lovely, honestly. The mere fact that it has persisted in the Midwest doesn’t make it some oddity (I’m tempted to mostly-jokingly say that it’s a demonstration of the sharing spirit of this region I call home, but that feels a like a whole different topic for discussion and argument).
Square-cut pizza is great, no matter where you’re from. I could go for some right now.
* * *
Last thing: I don’t have space to get into it here, but in my research, I also found the amazing tale of the organ + pizza theme restaurants that were once a big deal around the USA. There were more 100 of them at one point and three are left now, one of which has the world’s largest Wurlitzer! You can read more in this excellent article. And you should definitely watch this:
Thanks for reading! I have a blast doing these posts but it’s also real work and paid subscriptions are what makes it worth my time. Paid subscribers get three posts every week, all for a mere $5 per month, which is less than you spend on actual snacks. If you’re already a paid subscriber, thank you so much!