Pizzazz- South Philly's Triple Word Score
Updated: May 2, 2022
If you expect me to believe that somewhere tucked away on the narrow streets of South Philly, five guys named Petey, Little Petey, Jimmy, Tony and Duong are huddled around a table stuffing their faces with slices of sauceless pizza topped with American cheese, tomatoes and banana peppers, I might be inclined to call youse a friggin’ liar. Afterall what half respectable pizzeria knowingly puts Land O’Lakes on a pizza, right? I know a lot of purists are shaking their heads up and down in agreement but the reality is, mozzarella isn’t the only cheese game in pizza town.
Plenty of regional pizzas use different cheeses. Detroit’s deep-dish gets covered with mounds of Wisconsin Brick, the St. Louis Style cracker crust gets a liberal sprinkling of Provel and in the case of the 5 fellas aforementioned; they are munching on a micro-local pizza known as Pizzazz made with American cheese. This creamy, spicy pizza alternative is not only delicious but also only available within a tiny subsection of South Philly.
South Philly is my foodie Disney World except Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean are replaced with Angelo’s and John’s. It is the birthplace of the cheesesteak and the equally omnipresent roast pork, broccoli rabe and sharp provolone sandwich. It’s a neighborhood steeped in tradition; where a roast beef sandwich dipped in gravy and served on a paper plate with a draft beer is considered Monday night dinner. A handful of 100-year-old bakeries with their multi-generational secret recipes and an assortment of old school red sauce joints line the streets that Rocky Balboa once jogged through. Add a growing Southeast Asian and Central American population, along with a longstanding African American community and you have yourself one hell of a culinary treasure trove that is second to none. That’s why it’s not entirely unreasonable that a Frankenpizza like Pizzazz has become a local sensation.
I THOUGHT AMERICAN CHEESE WAS A TYPO
No, you read it right. Inside the city’s oldest Italian neighborhood, there is a thriving style of pizza that is served with sliced tomatoes, pickled banana peppers and white American Cheese. Celebre’s, a Packer Park institution since 1961 is responsible for creating this Italian faux pas. According to the book “Dinner at the Club- 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club, Pizzazz was made some time in the 1980’s when co-owner Ronald Celebre was feeling nostalgic. He had a yearning to make a pizza that tasted like the grilled cheese that he and his brother ate as kids. He layered white American cheese onto a round pie, held off on the sauce and added sliced tomatoes and onions. The processed American melted to a cheesy browned goo, and the moisture from the fresh tomatoes kept the pizza from drying. He encouraged his staff to taste test and they loved it. Shortly thereafter he tweaked the recipe switching out the onion with banana peppers, a common Philly hoagie accoutrement. It’s been on the menu ever since.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and like most really good food, other people copied the recipe. Today many of the pizzerias and bakeries within a 20-block radius of Celebre’s carry their own version of specialty pizza. I stopped by Cacia’s, a neighborhood bakery since 1953 for their delightful square rendition. As I entered the storefront, the smell of Tomato Pie (NOTE- Not to be confused with Trenton Tomato Pie) and freshly baked bread aroused my nostrils. A rainbow of colors, the red and neon yellow of the warm Pizzazz, cheesesteak, veggie and plain pizzas sat behind a protected plexiglass waiting to be gobbled up- the ancient oven in eye shot. I purchased a box of slices, just $1.80 each and couldn't wait to take a bite as I walked back to my car. An initial hit of heat was quickly muted by the creaminess of the New Yorker White American. The crust maintained it's chew as the ripe August tomatoes squirted sweet juice with each bite. This pizza efs.
Other neighborhood favorites like Uncle Oogie’s (round) and La Rosa Pizzeria (square) have their own ferocious fan following which is fitting as this area sits in the shadow of Philadelphia’s Sports Complex. The next time you are looking for an authentic taste of Philly, skip the cheesesteak line and grab a couple slices of Pizzazz, you won’t be disappointed.
Shout to out fellow foodie JL Jupiter TV's review of Cacias Bakery for introducing me to this micro-foodigenous.