My Father Is an Amazing Chef and the Only Pizza He Loves Is from Costco
I never understood the fascination nor success of Costco pizza in New York. In other parts of the country, where selection is more limited and style has less of a fanatical cult following, sure — a consistent-quality 18-inch pie for $9.95 (unchanged since 1989!) made fresh to order is hard to argue with, and part of why it’s risen to become one of the nation’s biggest pizza chains. But like most New Yorkers, I took great pride in being one. And part of that identity is that of “pizza snob.”
“We have the best pizza in the world!” I proclaim with the best of them, proud to be in a sea of mom-and-pop parlors, whose thin, crispy crusts have been the white whale of pizza-makers across America; whose 18-inch-standard diameters have been the dinner heroes for families for roughly the same price at Costco (sometimes less with a coupon from the Pennysaver). On Long Island, where I’m from, every shopping center is anchored by a pie-slinger fabulous enough to hack it in a competitive landscape, and I stuck as stubbornly to this sentiment as dough to an unfloured peel. Despite having had pizza in various forms across Italy, I still swore by the distinctly downstate grandma pizza at Gio’s in East Islip (not to be confused with the multitudes of other unaffiliated Gio’s across the area) as the pinnacle of all that is pizza.
So yeah … Costco pizza? I just didn’t get it. However, my dad was a solid Costco pizza convert. And it not only boggled my mind, but also made me question everything I knew about his culinary judgment.
You see, my father is a chef. He’s a chef with an amazing palate, able to discern complex Asian spices and ingredients from one another with a single slurp of a sauce; one who can reverse-engineer a dish and unlayer it by taste alone, and can identify condiment brand differences blindfolded. He butchers and grinds his own meat, makes his own doughs, hand-picks every vegetable, and cooks like it’s his diner’s last meal. And yet … Costco pizza is his favorite.
“Why?” I’ve asked, with embarrassment and chagrin. His knee-jerk reaction answer is always a phrase in our family’s native Fuzhouhua that translates as tremendous value — a defining buzzword in my thrifty family, one so often used to denote approval or disapproval that it was the first recognizable phrase my English-speaking boyfriend picked up.
But that wasn’t good enough for me. I pressed this man of few words for more. “It’s soft, and there’s so, so much cheese. No extra cost,” he shrugged, as my mom would silently nod her support, another traitor to the state. “Here, just try it,” he offered, every time I indignantly asked why.
And always, I declined. How could I trust his taste anymore? It looked machine-made, with those little puncture marks through the dough. The cheese was laid on thick, sure, but it was pock-marked with brown rounds reminiscent of national chain pizzas, an indicator of a conveyor belt system that Costco is actually particularly proud of for its roboticized precision. How could this electric oven baking be superior to the flame- and gas-powered ones in our local pizzerias?
And the perfectly uniform, impersonal crust — I distrusted that, too. Where were the flaws that marked it as made-for-you? The bubble-ups and the misshapen edges? Speaking of the edges, they didn’t crackle and shatter, and the base visibly flopped with a heavy flaccidity when you picked it up, draped and steamed with the weight of a distribution of 24 ounces of mostly mozzarella cheese. And not in the fragile way that parlor pizza did when it was fresh out of a box; more in a denser, moister manner that clearly toed the line for what could be defined as “thin-crust.” This softness that my father so enjoyed seemed like nonsense when you simply get Sicilians, Grandmas, or Brooklyns if you want something with chewier heft.
Offended on sheer principle alone, I tried — very hard — to topple Costco from its throne. I raved about my favorite local pizzerias, brought over pies with extra cheese. I took him to Italy — all over Italy, in fact, to expose him to how pizza was elsewhere. We had cracker-thin al taglio slices in walking the streets of Rome and slices from electric oven-baked floppy pies in Venice. He said the first was good and shrugged at the second. I pointed out the leopard-spotted traditional, authentic Neapolitan-style of southern Italy; he scoffed at the lack of value in the wide rim, the meager sauce, and the overly light smattering of cheese.
It was in Milan that I was finally able to make a breakthrough — at Spontini’s, an Instagram darling and famous local chain based in that city. Their specialty was a pan-baked, extra-thick, oil-rich “sfincione” crust, risen to voluminous heights of plush doughiness before being lightly sauced, generously cheesed, and cooked in a wood-fired oven.
His eyes lit up when he saw the height of it. To him, despite becoming a New Yorker at 18, this was pizza. A dense, gloppy blanket of cheese slicked with a subtle golden sheen of rendered milkfat with no burn marks to mar its virginal surface, a coating that oozed with pure white pleasure from the new cuts made when the server cut it in bite-sized pieces.
“That’s good pizza,” my dad said, his lips pursed in a magistrate’s serious semi-frown even as he nodded in approval. He loved it enough to insist on one last slice for the road before flying back to New York. We rushed to the closest one to the train station and arrived minutes before it opened, milling awkwardly about the front with our luggage until they unlocked the doors for this family of silly Asian tourists and made him his last taste of Italy. He fork-and-knifed a bite, chewed it with a deep sense of satisfaction and a beatific absorption. Then to my chagrin, he said “Mm, so soft … as much cheese as Costco.”
I recently moved away from Long Island, New York, to Georgia, right outside of Atlanta. Before I did, I brought over a Sicilian pie from my beloved Gio’s, where the dough is thick but the edges crisp; the cheese generously scattered and melted just so; and the sauce was pure magic. I told him it was the closest to Spontini he could get on this side of the ocean, and he agreed. I was delighted with this small concession and took it for a win for New York pizza.
So when I arrived to Marietta, I made a concession of my own: Knowing there was no hope for Gio’s anytime soon, I ordered myself my first Costco pizza. And you know what?
It was soft! The pillowy crust finished sweet and the edges crisped up just enough in the toaster oven to better balance the damp center. It was cheesy! The top speckled layer created a fragile protective seal for the gooey eruption dormant underneath it, like the meniscus on a glass of water — a very, very large glass of water. There was no questioning the bang for your buck my family so valued.
And perhaps most importantly, it made me think of my mom and dad and the years I spent denying and fighting against what they’d been telling me all along: It was actually pretty fricking delicious. Damnit.