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The Dunkin’ Donuts empire. The assumption of white clam chowder. The word “Hamburg.” As a former New York Stater now living in Massachusetts, there are some things I have just had to accept. Chief among them? Massachusetts pizza.

Growing up, I took good pizza, in all its thin crust and bubbly cheese glory, for granted. Bad pizza came from Pizza Hut, convenience stores, and mall cafeterias. Everywhere else the pizza was, reliably, pretty solid. Case in point: one of my favorite pizza joints was in a strip mall next to (my mother’s) weight watchers class.

In Massachusetts, you can make no such assumption. Most New Englanders, it seems, are content to create a doughy, pizza-inspired product, skipping that mysterious element that converts modest ingredients into capital-P Pizza.

Characteristics of the dreaded Massachusetts Bread and Cheese Pizza (MBCP) include a thick and slightly soggy crust, a generous helping of lumpy marinara sauce, and a topping of melted (not bubbly/burned) cheese. Adding insult to injury, many pizza joints serving MBCP don’t even offer slices. A pizza joint without slices? What’s up with that?

After MBCP, the most common type of pizza to encounter is the novelty slice. Think: endless varieties of unlikely toppings and “themed” slices. Taco Pizza. Cheeseburger Pizza. Turkey Club Pizza. As you may have guessed, novelty pizza establishments are typically found adjacent to bars in college towns. And they’re not all bad — Antonio’s in Amherst, MA, makes a pretty nifty Salad Pizza, which trades both sauce and cheese for a deft combination of fresh spinach, tomato, artichokes, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, and a balsamic vinegar and oil infusion. It’s pretty tasty, but a far cry from the slices of my youth.

Traditionalists on a quest for an old school slice will find the task hard but not impossible.

Some general advice:
1) Under no circumstances rely on Yelp reviews. They are written by people who have no problem marrying the phrase “New York Style” with “3 inch crust.”
2) Be suspicious if the pizza joint in question serves coffee or has an extensive sandwich menu. Delis are not pizza joints.
3) Ask yourself: do I want traditional greasy slices or a something fancier? Many trendy restaurants can provide a high-end, if not traditional, interpretation of pizza. Baba Louie’s is at the top of the list for quality wood-fired Massachusetts pizza with fancy ingredients. If you do go the chichi route, watch out for “fake gourmet pizza,” which is usually just flatbread with a handful of arugula on top.

Real deal gourmet pie from Baba Louie’s. Famazing.

4) Look around. Are there old, possibly broken, arcade games? Fluorescent lighting? Vinyl booths from the 70s? These are all good signs, as the best, most classic, slices come from what I would term “Dirty Pizza Caves.” Get past the ambiance (or lack thereof) and you’re usually rewarded with thin and crisp slices (with no need for novelty toppings).

An example of a “dirty pizza cave.” Note the faded sign made with a stencil. There’s probably an old cigarette machine inside.

Follow this advice and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect Bay State slice. And, god willing, there might even be a table-top Pacman game in your future.

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Vacations are all about shaking up the day-to-day routine, and pizza is no exception. This year’s family vacation brought us (once again) to the hills and valleys of rural New York, and the many gritty pizza joints along the Susquehanna River. If you avoid the gas station pizza (see image above) and college student pizza (large, usually cut into square pieces, thick, doughy, etc.), it’s easy to find a classic dirty slice. As for box designs, it was a mixed bag of old and new. Let’s begin.

America’s Favorite Design: Creepy Genre Scene with Threatening Chef

In documenting pizza box graphic design between MA and NY, this box is a clear standout. I’ve found it everywhere — from family restaurants to gritty pizza joints next to bars. Why is it so popular? It’s got all the elements — an Italian Stereotype, a brick pattern, a generic product claim, and the classic pizza box red — but that doesn’t really account for its ubiquity. Are restaurateurs drawn in by the center chef and his menacing eyes? Maybe the graphic is in the public domain? Internet research yielded no explanation, but it did turn up a Flickr Group dedicated to Pizza Chef Caricatures: http://www.flickr.com/groups/1420109@N22. Maybe those peeps will have a theory.

Chubby Chefs Do It Better

Oh, yes. This delightful slice came from a counter-only pizza joint right off the highway. We braved a detour for several miles to get there, and it was definitely worth it. As a bonus, I snagged a nice new box design, too:

Overall Design Assessment: The opaque red is bold and eye-catching, especially against the large expanse of white. However, the uppercase (shouting?) fonts make me feel like I’m being cat-called (“HOT”).

Generic Product Claims: A threefer: “Oven Fresh,” “Hot,” and “Delicious.” Four if you count “Pizza.”

Italian Stereotype: Definitely a favorite. Key details include the bulbous belly, snappy apron, and twirly mustache. Usually pizza box chefs are throwing dough in the air, but this classy example is revealing the pie on a silver platter. Don’t I feel special!

Mwah!

Lastly, we have a non-box entry for the anthology. I’m a sucker for phonetically spelled Italian-American accents (“Da Best Meal-A Deal-A in Town”) and classic finger-and-thumb pizza chef gesturing. Therefore, I did my best imitation of a bossy tourist and cleared the sidewalk to get this shot. It worked.

Finally, after weeks of nothing but modern, Luigi-less pizza boxes, we have a return to oven fresh classicism:

Thank goodness. This really kicks the pants of that boring Kashi box, right?

Since he’s the clear focal point, I’ll start my analysis with the cowboy-booted Italian stereotype. What’s not to love? He’s jaunty AND well-dressed: flashy oversized bow tie/scarf, giant chef’s hat, striped apron, and a well-groomed mustache. Sartorial elegance.

Question: I’ve noticed these bow tie/neckerchief things on several other pizza box chefs, but I’m too ignorant of fashion in general to understand what they’re referencing. Is this an article of clothing an actual chef or Italian person would wear? Seriously, peanut gallery, chime in if you know the answer. It’s important for TAOPBGD (which is real).

Other Design Notes: The fonts? LOVE. I’m going to make a design confession: I know that minimalist sans-serif fonts are all the rage these days, but I have a soft spot for old-school crazy typefaces. While the vintage fonts on this box are kind of aggressively tacky, they’re also making a bold design statement — and I can get behind that. Double love to the “Pizza” font for the roller coaster inspired swirls and loops. It’s like an amusement park ride for your pupils!

Generic Product Claims: Oven Fresh, an old favorite. We also see the return of the mysterious ellipsis (…) between “Thank you” and “for your business.”

Overall Rating: Truly a vintage box. Makes me want to order a whole pie and play Sega Genesis games all night like it’s 1995.

How much pizza can I eat? Apparently, a lot. Rather than slice up the last few months of pizza eating into a whole bunch of individual posts, I’m stringing a bunch of them together into the blog equivalent of a whole pie. Bon appetit!

First, some entries for The Anthology of Pizza Box Graphic Design:

Kashi Frozen Pizza


A perfect example of bland big box health food marketing, with prominently displayed nutrition/diet information and a big, boring photo of the food you’re about to buy. But then, Kashi’s marketing has always annoyed me. Is there anything more smug than, “7 whole grains on a mission”? It’s convenience food, people. Not a commitment to world peace.

Box gets a failing grade. The pizza itself was just eh.

Enrico’s Brick Oven Pizza


We picked this one up in Sturbridge after a day of gawking at antiques.

Overall Design Assessment: The box is definitely more casual restaurant than vintage pizza joint. Disappointingly, it doesn’t feature a cartoon Italian stereotype OR a generic product claim. It does, however, possess several traditional pizza box design elements — namely, the wacky title font, green and red color scheme, and repeating brick pattern.

My favorite element, though, is the insecure use of Italian:

“Excellent Italian Insalatas (salads)”

Parentheses to the rescue!

Pizza Amore


Food with heart. And a pizza box design with a wall o’ text.

Overall Design Assessment: There’s not much to comment on here given the (almost) complete lack of graphics. The little heart is cute, though.

Generic Product Claims: Instead of a generic product claim, there’s an awesomely redundant one: “daily homemade fresh pita.”

And now, an announcement of sorts…

Along with the help of a hand-me-down pizza stone and an elderly electric oven, I have begun to experiment with homemade pizza. Behold: Baby’s first three pies.

Attempt #1: Frozen Dough


I avoided the mistake everyone makes (too much sauce) and embraced the one that involves scraping your pizza stone for 20 minutes (too much cheese). Edible, but not yet sublime.

Attempt #2: Homemade Dough


Black olives and onions were my favorite toppings as a kid, so it seemed like a good choice for this, my first truly homemade pie.

I got the recipe for the dough from Jaime Oliver, omitting the optional cornmeal flour (I didn’t have any). The dough wasn’t rising at first, but a few minutes of googling revealed the problem: a chilly kitchen. I ran the oven for a bit and it popped right up.

The crust came out surprisingly good, especially given the elderly oven’s random hot flashes.

Plus I was able to restrain myself with the cheese. Inch by inch…progress.

Attempt #3: Highbrow Pie


My best attempt by far. This pie has a blend of mild cheddar and mozzarella and a topping of heirloom cherry tomatoes. The homemade dough seems to fare well in the freezer, which is good news since I didn’t notice until after I dumped all the dry ingredients into a bowl that the dough recipe makes 8 DOUGH BALLS. Oops. Guess we’ll be eating pizza for a while.

This pizza/box combo came from a little place called Dial-A-Pizza. You heard me right: Dial-A Pizza. I totally love it when a business chooses a novelty name (say, to capitalize on the new and exciting concept of pizza delivery) without realizing they’ll be stuck with it FOREVER. We did in fact dial the order in, so I guess at least it’s still accurate.

The meal itself was enjoyed among rum and friends, making it one of my favorite pizza experiences. But this is a serious design blog (cough) so we should get to the box analysis.


Overall Design: I’ll come right out and say it: this is somewhat of an ugly pizza box. The colors, the generic font, the sloppy linework — it just doesn’t do anything for me. Another issue of concern is the pizza toppings. I’m seeing line drawn mushrooms and…abstract blobs. Having gone to art school, I know artist’s fatigue when I see it: You’re drawing some boring still life (like pizza toppings) and getting kind of tired. So you stop rendering and start slopping on geometric shapes, telling yourself it will look good once you step a few feet back. It doesn’t but you’re so sick of it you just hand it in anyway.

Yes. That’s what has happened here.

Italian Stereotype: I looked long and hard at this one. My conclusion is that, even though there’s a puffy chef’s hat in play, this is NOT an Italian Stereotype. The chiseled jaw…the mostly straight hair…this is a white dude. Maybe when the graphic designer went for the folder of rotund chef clip art he accidentally grabbed the one of 50’s milk delivery men.

Generic Product Claim: One of my favorites: Oven Fresh. Not only is it incredibly generic, but it’s also essentially meaningless. All pizza is not only made, but also reheated, in an oven. By the logic of modus ponens: If the pizza is hot it must be oven fresh. The pizza is hot. Therefore, the pizza is oven fresh.

Ideally, it goes something like this: it’s dinner time and you decide to skip the bla-ness of cooking your own food and eat out. You remember there’s a brick oven pizzeria just minutes from home. You choose something classic and classy – a Margherita or a white pie with garlic. You pop open a bottle of cheap wine and, voila, inexpensive perfection.

But then there are those times when you’re trying to leave the house for a long weekend. You’ve overslept and haven’t even begun to pack. You’re throwing a bunch of stuff into your toiletry bag and hollering at the cats to stop chewing on the suitcases and thinking,  “We cannot be any more late than we are right now…”

…until Mr. Max tells you that a wild animal has somehow gotten into the attic and died, and you’re looking at three hours of unplanned DIY decontamination before you can even think about leaving.

For times like these, there’s Original Pizza of Boston.

Why? 1) It is food and 2) It’s right on the highway.

Mr. Max thought it tasted like the pizza you get at Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve never been to Chuck E. Cheese, but it did remind me of pizza I had once at a roller rink. Because it was late afternoon and we hadn’t eaten anything all day, it was automatically delicious…in a gross, rubbery sort of way.

The box is what you would expect from highway fast food: thin, disposable, and single use.

Visual Assessment: Red and white = classic pizza. Red, blue, and white = Dominos. Red, green, and white = Sbarro. This pizza was basically a Sbarro knockoff, so the packaging was accurate, if a little derivative.

Italian Stereotype: There’s no generic product claim (Hot, Fresh!), but the Italian stereotype’s got enough character to make up for it. He’s fat, he’s got a chef’s hat, and he’s throwing a pizza pie (with sauce, no less) into the air.

Wait, what’s that?

Is that a little…QUESTION MARK hidden in the sauce pattern?

Wherever you are, subversive graphic designer,,,you rock.

Won’t you take me to…Pizza Town? Why, there’s plenty to do! We could roll out some dough, or trellis some tomato plants, or even take a stroll down to the pizzeria. The only thing we can’t do is…leave. </Twilight Zone>

Visual Assessment: Well, it’s another weird exterior scene. And why are there no people on the street? Is everyone inside, huddling in fear of the mutant giant pizza pie? And what about those M birds flying in the sky? You know, M birds — the tried and true artistic technique of showing distance by…drawing an M and saying it’s a bird.

The overall impression is that someone blew up Word clip art (see also: Clip Snark) and affixed it to the box.

Final Observation: Have you ever seen an artist’s signature on pizza box design? Now you have.