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The Story of the Calzone

The calzone at John's by Robert Sietsema

Most of us walk into a neighborhood pizzeria with the intention of buying a slice from one of the pies working on the counter. But there's usually a separate case — really just a glass box with shelves — that contains other entities considered to be the province of the pizza parlor. In it you may find garlic knots (wads of dough bathed in olive oil, crushed garlic, and parsley), stromboli (thin sheets of dough rolled up into flattened sleeves filled with sausage, cheese, onions, peppers, and other pizza toppings), "hippie" rolls (thicker dough cylinders stuffed with pizza toppings), meat patties (the only thing not made with pizza dough, really Jamaican empanadas colored with yellow annatto and fabricated elsewhere), and, oldest of all, the calzone, a half-moon purse of pizza dough, filled with the brilliant combination of ricotta and mozzarella, plus other ingredients.

Did the calzone, like the pizza, originate in Naples? And why the hell would you want to order a calzone rather than a slice?

According to Waverly Root, in his exhaustive Foods of Italy (1971), calzoni, like pizza, originated in Naples. Translated "pants legs," it represented a sort of "walk-around" form of pizza that could be carried out and eaten without utensils, while the damp-in-the-middle pies made in the same pizzerias had to be eaten on the premises with a knife and fork. Calzoni were most often made with standard pizza fillings like mozzarella, tomatoes, and anchovies, but also could contain more complex fillings: "One recipe calls for chopped chicory hearts, unsalted anchovy fillets chopped fine, capers, pitted sliced black olives, currants, garlic, and an egg yolk."

Calzoni (sometimes styled "calzone" in the clipped southern Italian dialect) typically had a half-moon shape, indicating they were probably made with a single round pizza crust folded over. And remember pizzas in Naples are one-person pies, so our current American calzone is usually the same size as the calzoni back in its city of origin.

But what if you simply made a calzone with a much bigger American pizza crust folded over? That seems to be the case at John's of Bleecker Street, one of the city's (and the nation's) oldest pizza parlors, started by one of the bakers at Lombardi's, John Sasso, in 1929. The calzone there is in the usual half-moon configuration, only it's humongous, filled with vast amounts of ricotta, mozzarella, and pizza toppings of your choice from the pizzeria's limited roster (the best of which are pepperoni and Italian sausage, or both). This mega-calzone easily feeds three, and comes with a mild tomato sauce on the side for dipping, an improvement on the usual practice predicated on the realization that nobody can pick this baby up and carry it around.

Another reason for the giant calzone: it was a way to stick it to the old country, by showing how lush and generous our adaptations of Italian dishes could be.
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John's of Bleecker Street

278 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10014