Born and raised on Long Island, I guess I have abnormally high standards for pizza. I don't even mean the high-end ultra-refined pizza, if there is such a thing. I mean the pizza you get for $10 (it was $5 when I lived on Long Island) that is greasy and sloppy and unsubtle and delicious and makes you marvel at how much food and how delicious it is for so little.
I'd heard even back then about how New York pizza was the best pizza, but I had never had any other kind, except for the fast-food things like Domino's and Pizza Hut which aren't even trying to compare, any more than McDonald's is hoping to outdo the local diner at making a great burger. (The local Dominos and Pizza Hut on Long Island didn't get much business, apart from the "we deliver even when the other places don't" customers.)
When I moved away to Juneau, Alaska, I wasn't too surprised that the pizza there was just not up to par... heck, it's Alaska. Bullwinkle's had pretty good pizza for what it was, but it wasn't in the same class. But when I travelled a little, and then moved back to Vermont, I was struck by how true it is: you can buy "New York style pizza" in a lot of places, and it can be made by people from Long Island, and it can approximate New York pizza, but there's just something that doesn't come out the same no matter how hard they try to replicate it.
On the face of it, that seems impossible. Take the same people using the same ingredients making the same recipes... heck, you can even use the same ovens, and somehow it's not the same. A recent episode of Food Detectives demonstrated that the differences in tap water are an important part of it (Chicago and LA tap water were used in a New York pizzeria to make pizza, and the entire panel was able to identify the pizza made with NY water as the best of the three). But even water seems like you could potentially duplicate it... perhaps not cost-effectively, though, given how cheap pizza is. I wonder if some of the difference of the air also matters (notably, the difference in what species of yeasts are in the air, which is why breads and cheeses vary so much from place to place).
Siobhan thought I was engaging in that kind of gentle exaggeration of nostalgia people often have about the food and other things they grew up with, until our first trip to New York together. We went to an ordinary everyday pizzeria, and bought an ordinary everyday pizza, not even the best pizza within a ten mile radius, and though she went into it entirely suspicious, she came out of it convinced. (Same thing with New York bagels, but that's another story.) So I guess all the New York pizza purists are vindicated through her anecdote.
Here in Vermont the closest thing to New York pizza that I've had is Junior's in Colchester, though there's a pizzeria in Killington that's pretty close, too (can't remember its name). Junior's is awfully good, but even on its best days it still lags a bit behind an everyday pizza at Village Pizza in Centereach. Last night we tried another new pizzeria in Barre, Basil's, and it's the new best in the local area, but only just barely; it's still nowhere near as good as Junior's, but it beats Simply Pizza, and comes even with what Uncle Joe's used to be on its good days before it lapsed into inconsistency and mediocrity.
I can't help but wonder what the world will be like when someone finds a way to really replicate New York pizza at a price point that's competitive with local pizza, though. A dystopian might bemoan the loss of individuality, but did the revolution towards wood-fired pizza make pizza too uniform? I don't think so. The world is full of places claiming to be New York style pizza, and even if every single one of them genuinely were offering New York style pizza, that wouldn't drive Chicago deep-dish out of the market, nor the Californian white pizza and its millions of variants, nor the wood-fired pizzas, nor the pizza margherita style, nor all the other pizza niches that still have their places... even in New York.
But maybe it would drive Dominos and Pizza Hut out of business. Which is a prospect which I cannot find it in me to be sad about.