It sounded like something I’d order when I was drunk. Hot dogs and French fries on pizza? No sober mind could consume such a thing, I reasoned, much less put it on a menu. Yet, to my surprise, I found out that it was a popular offering at one of the most authentic Neapolitan restaurants in Manhattan, a place called Ribalta.
While it didn’t sound all that appetizing to me, it’s my duty here at MEL to leave no pizza stone unturned, so I hopped in my car and headed to downtown Manhattan, about 90 minutes away from me.
Ribalta is a swanky joint, but I’m still wary of dining indoors during COVID, so I ordered the “Americana Pizza” to go. I’d later find out that the pizza takes a mere 90 seconds to cook, so I was in and out of Ribalta within 10 minutes, off to the luxurious dining of my driver’s seat.
Right away, I was disappointed, but more so in myself than anything else. I made the rookie mistake of grabbing the pizza when it was too hot, and everything immediately slipped off the thin slice of pizza, leaving me with a bare triangle of bread. After cursing profusely, I gathered up the bits with my hands — because I had no utensils in the car — and clumsily reassembled it.
Overall, the experience was okay. Before I get to the toppings, I’d like to note that the pizza itself was an incredible wood oven pizza: The crust was airy and chewy and the sauce was a light margherita, while the cheese was perfectly gooey. As for the toppings, the hot dog slices were really enjoyable and kind of seemed like they made sense. After all, pepperoni and sausage is perfect for pizza, so it was pretty much like that, just a bit more hot-doggy (so a word).
The fries, however, threw me off. There were just too many of them and the sheer volume of potatoes overpowered the rest of the ingredients. The fries also seemed a bit undersalted to me, but, being in my car, I didn’t have any salt to add. Also, pouring salt on a slice of pizza reaches a level of hedonism that I don’t believe I can live with.
The second slice went much better. I waited until things cooled down and munched on some fries before eating it. This struck me as the best way to consume the pizza — some of the fries first, then the slice. By the time I had my second slice, the French fries were far less of an issue, as I’d eaten about half of them. It was also cooled down enough where it didn’t fall apart, so that was better too.
The biggest problem I had though — aside from too many fries — was that I wasn’t drunk. My initial reaction to the pizza was that it seemed like something someone would order when drunk or stoned, yet there I was, stone-cold sober, sitting in my car and eating this ridiculous pizza as I listened to a Stephen King audiobook — hardly an ideal experience for such a combination.
Honestly, I liked the Americana Pizza well enough, but I didn’t love it, and it was only later that I would gain a true appreciation for it.
Not long after, I called Rosario Procino, the owner and co-founder of Ribalta, who explains to me exactly why such an odd food combination is available at an upscale pizza place. Before getting to that, though, Procino tells me a bit about Neapolitan pizza, explaining that it’s generally done a certain way. The dough, for one, has no eggs or sugar, just flour, sea salt, natural yeast and water. Traditionally, Neapolitan pizza’s sauce is margherita style, which is uncooked and consists of just crushed tomatoes and salt — that’s it. Finally, it’s topped with mozzarella cheese and cooked in a wood-burning oven on very high heat (like, 900 degrees) which causes it to cook super fast.
That’s called pizza Margherita, but there’s also pizza marinara, which is basically the same, but with marinara sauce, which is cooked. Those are the two major kinds of “pizza Napoletana” as Procino calls it, but he insists that isn’t all there is to Neapolitan pizza. “Many people feel that, if it’s not pizza Margherita or pizza marinara, it’s not pizza Napoletana. A lot of people like to be like the police of pizza, but it’s not like that in Naples. While the pizzas are made a certain way, we’re very creative with the toppings. There’s pizza with the pasta on top, pizza with the potato croquettes, everything really. The only thing we don’t put on it is pineapple. That would be too far, I think.”
As for the hot dog and French fry pizza, he says that it’s extremely popular in Naples and it has been since he was a kid there in the 1970s. Generally speaking, while Procino says kids menus aren’t really a thing in Italy, the hot dog and French fry pizza is usually enjoyed by children.
Looking into this a bit myself, I found that this pizza goes by a number of different names in Italy, including “Pizza Americana” and “The American.” Also, “Pizza Viennese” is pizza with just hot dogs, but it seems that some people add fries to it but still call it Viennese. That name, to explain, refers to the Vienna sausages on the pizza, which seem to be used just as often as proper hot dogs. In addition to Naples, hot dog-covered pizza is also popular in Italy near the Austrian border, though Taste Atlas says it’s rare just about everywhere else in Italy.
Although we know it originated in Naples, I was unable to track down an exact origin for the pizza, but Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, tells me, “Hot dogs were put on pizzas to appeal to German tourists. That’s been a practice around Italy for decades. I don’t know when the first pizza topped with hot dogs was, but I do know restaurants catering to tourists offered pizza with wurstel [hot dogs] and speck [bacon] as early as the 1970s and possibly earlier.” Although I can’t be sure, it seems that pizza with hot dogs and French fries was a variation on pizza Viennese, and because hot dogs and French fries are synonymous with Americans, some took to calling it “Pizza Americana,” and that’s why Ribalta calls it the “Americana Pizza.”
So beloved is this dish that Taste Atlas ranked pizza Viennese as the 8th most popular Neapolitan pizza, and on Twitter, you can find a great number of Tweets from Americans marvelling at finding hot dogs and fries on pizza when in Naples, the birthplace of pizza. Back at Ribalta, however, Procino notes that the people who order it the most, by far, are people from Italy. “It reminds them of when they were kids,” he tells me.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t fully appreciate the pizza when I tried it myself: I didn’t grow up eating it, so it didn’t fill me with any warm sense of nostalgia. That, or maybe I just needed to be at least a little bit drunk at the time. That probably would’ve helped.