“Pizzazz” is spelled with two Zs, like jazz and snazzy and terrazzo and, well, pizza, but for the purposes of this story, it will be spelled with only one. Robert Celebre’s boat was called Pizzaz, and that vessel is what gives Philadelphia’s strangest, greatest, regional pizza pie its name.
I’ve been eating pizzaz pizza all my life, or at least since I was old enough to appreciate its trinity of sliced tomato, pickled pepper rings, and American cheese. An unholy trinity, some might say. American cheese on pizza? That was the reaction of about half a crowd of 170 people at the Philadelphia Free Library’s auditorium on a recent October night. Joey Baldino and I were there talking about the cookbook we co-wrote, “Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club.” Baldino is the chef and owner of Palizzi, and the book is filled with recipes from his restaurants, his family, and his culture, which also happens to be my culture. We both grew up in Italian American families in South Philly, and when we were brainstorming dishes to include in the cookbook — ones that were emblematic of where we come from — pizzaz appeared like a lightbulb above our heads, neon yellow as the gallon-size glass jugs of pepper rings that line the walls of every South Philly deli.
When the moderator at our library discussion asked us about pizzaz, the audience divided. Half smiled and nodded knowingly. The other half…recoiled, as if we had suggested making lasagna with ketchup. American cheese on pizza? I’ll tell you what I told then: Don’t knock it till you try it.
All the time, immigrants are navigating the food available to them in the context of their own culinary traditions, and that carries on through the generations.
I was born in 1984, too late to experience the actual genesis of pizzaz firsthand. By the time I was old enough to eat pizza, and decided that I liked pizza that wasn’t just tomato sauce and cheese, pizzaz was just there, part of the garlic-salted fabric of Philadelphia pizza society. So when we decided to include a pizzaz recipe in “Dinner at the…