Matthew Jones from Hudson and I share a common beef with New Hampshire: a serious lack of great pizza. Matthew reached out to us through our Only in New Hampshire project, in which we do our best to answer listener questions about quirks of the Granite State.
He wrote to us with a question (or three) about New Hampshire pizza:
Why does every town have a House of Pizza? And why is every House of Pizza exclusively the Greek style of pizza? And why is the Greek pizza so popular here?
If you’ve had pizza in New Hampshire, there’s a good chance that the pizza you ate was Greek. You may not even know it. But if you’ve lived elsewhere, you’ll probably recognize the difference.
Greek pizza is traditionally cooked in a shallow pan, and its crust is kind of chewy, like focaccia bread -– too thick to be a thin-crust and too thin to be a deep-dish.
According to many food writers, one of the problems with Greek pizza is that it’s mediocre pizza. And there’s a steep curve to making it great.
Matthew quotes his favorite food writer, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, when it comes to pizza appreciation.
"Pizza is like sex, even when it’s bad, it’s good," Matthew says. "Ah, yeah, but after being here for a few years I’m just so sick of that style of pizza where I just can’t eat it anymore."
Matthew is from Pittsburgh, Penn., and spent a handful of years in New Jersey. But his concern isn’t unique to New Hampshire transplants. Ask people what their favorite pizza place is and you might find there’s a lot of indecision. You might get a lot of answers like "whatever’s closest" or "whoever delivers the latest."
So, I’m gonna get to the bottom of this. Out of all the pizza this region could’ve adopted, why Greek pizza?
To start, I needed to figure out if every town really has a House of Pizza -- as Matthew claims? So I went to a man who knows a thing about facts, NHPR's News Director, Dan Barrick.
"So if you go to the state of New Hampshire’s website there’s actually a place where you can search by business name," he says. "If you go to the site and type in under 'business name' you want something that contains the phrase 'House of Pizza,' it’s going to pull up a list that includes 276 business names that include the phrase."
A lot of these are duplicates. Some have gone out of business, or changed addresses. But 276? That's a lot of Houses of Pizza, especially when you consider the number of towns in the Granite State: 221.
I asked Dan how he feels about Greek pizza.
"I’ll take it. I’m from New York and it’s kinda the same…"
"You’re being very diplomatic here."
"It’s very predictable," Dan tells me, "but there’s some comfort in that for some people. You know if you go into a House of Pizza you know it’s going to be kind of oily, the crust is not going to be too thick or too thin, it’s going to be round...so it’s good for kids...I’ve never had a kid turn down a piece of pizza.
But who decided that Greek pizzerias would all be called House of Pizza? And why?
I had to go out of state to find some answers on this one.
Liz Barret Foster is an editor with PMQ Pizza Magazine. That's right, there’s a pizza magazine. But that's not the only thing that gives Liz pizza credentials.
"I also wrote a book called Pizza: A Slice of American Pizza, and it’s all about the history of American pizza styles and where they came about and why do you find different styles of pizza all across the U.S."
Liz says that before understanding how we got to House of Pizzas all over the state, we need a little pizza history. While pizza reverence isn’t questioned today, she says that wasn’t always the case.
"When the Italians came over [around the late 19th century], they mostly stayed in their neighborhoods and things like that but history says when the soldiers went to Italy they gained a new appreciation for pizza. And then when they all came back in droves [post World War two] they still wanted that flavor, they wanted that pizza. And little did they know it was already over here."
Before long, pizza ovens gave way to mass pizza production, and soon after, pizza chains started popping up all over the place. Regions also started defining themselves with their own styles of pie.
"That’s the thing about pizza styles, is that sometimes they stay exactly where they started and other times they start spreading.
Think about the popular styles you’ve probably heard of: New York style, Chicago deep dish, Detroit and St. Louis style. These are places that were hubs for Italian immigrants back in the day.
Pizza distinguishes itself by a bunch of things like crust styles, sauces, and how they’re cooked. All together Liz says there’s close to 30 variations.
Which gets us back to our question. What does House of Pizza mean, and why are there so many in New Hampshire?
"House of Pizza, what we found in the research, is supposed to be a Greek restaurant where you’ll find - amongst other things like spanakopita and stuffed olive leaves - but you find other things too like pizza, burgers, and all kinds of things," Liz says.
So House of pizza signals a Greek restaurant, which makes some sense since two of the main touch-downs for Greek immigrants in the 20th century were metro-New York and Boston.
But there were also Italians in these communities already making pizza – really good pizza like Neapolitan style. So how did Greek pizza become our regional pizza?
"The Italians were the ones that were making all the pizza and then they ended up selling the pizzerias to the Greeks."
At that time, Italian families were more established and began to open full-service restaurants or started new careers altogether.
Liz points to histories that show after WWII, something like 70% of Greek immigrants were running pizzerias. And I have to assume that they named all - or at least most - of them "House of Pizza."
This left little old New Hampshire with lots and lots of Greek pizza.
But as a self-proclaimed pizza aficionado, I had one more question for Liz.
"I’m curious, what is your take on Greek pizza?"
"Um, yeah, when I’ve had it it's ok, it’s not really my favorite," she says. "I wouldn’t necessarily go seeking it out."
But I want to. Or at least, I want to want to. I want to find some Greek pizza that puts a jones in my bones. I know it’s not everyone’s favorite but it’s clearly working for a lot of people.
And then I found it, a House of Pizza with Google and Yelp reviews through the roof. A House of Pizza that’s won WMUR’s viewer’s choice award for best pizza the last three years in a row.
"My name is Tom Katsigiannis, one of the owners of Tilton House of Pizza and we’re at the Tilton House of Pizza in Tilton, New Hampshire."
This is the 20th year that the Katsigiannis family has been making pizza in Tilton. The space itself has a cafeteria-meets-family restaurant vibe. There’s a jukebox, arcade area, and photos of old New Hampshire landscapes and Boston sports teams hanging on the walls.
All that leads to the open kitchen with bar-top seating which is currently secured by a few regulars.
Tom tells me what really sets Tilton House of Pizza apart is family. He says his typical work week runs anywhere from 70-80 hours per week. But for his parents, who emigrated from Greece to Manchester decades ago, this is everything they could’ve hoped for.
"When they went to Manchester they worked at the mills like pretty much every Greek immigrant did back in the day – in the shoe textile business. And then decided they wanted to do something more appealing they wanted to get into the pizza business."
Tom's parents opened up their first pizzeria in 1990 in Manchester.
"I remember being young, getting out of school, doing our homework and helping out around the shop then going home and doing it all over again," he says.
Surrounded by pizza as a teenager sounds like a dream. But I wonder if 30 years of pizza starts to wear on you.
"Do you ever have cravings for pizza?"
"Believe it or not I do. I might go a week or two without a slice but at the end of the day, you can’t get too sick of a pizza."
Tom says his staff starts everyday making dough from scratch. Then it’s sauce time and mixing a three-cheese blend – all overseen by the Katsigiannis family.
As I'm talking to him, Tom’s positioned right in front of this pizza oven conveyer belt holding a bunch of naked pies sitting in pans, waiting for toppings.
After he dresses them to order, they go in the conveyer oven for about 10 minutes at 500 degrees. Then they’re finished in a brick oven without the pan to add some crispness to the cheese and the crust.
It looks, and smells, like award-worthy pizza. And while Tom's aware of the stigma that can accompany the "House of Pizza" name, he tells me he's worked hard to overcome it.
"We take pride in a couple things," Tom says. "We take pride that we’ve heard from those that’ve said ‘we’ve driven by you 100 times and we thought House of Pizza was just a typical House of Pizza.’ One person lived in town for about a dozen years before he tried us out and now he’s in here two to three times per week."
So, while there are a lot of Houses of Pizza in the state, that doesn’t mean there’s not great pizza to be had.
And pizza like Tom's is a solid reminder that New Hampshire’s regional pizza doesn’t just feed us, it tells us a story of who we are… and where we’ve come from.
Do you have a question about something that makes New Hampshire or your community unique? Submit it at our Only in NH project page, and we could be in touch to help you figure out the answer.