What it is:
There is just something about eating pizza on the boardwalk that might be as quintessentially summer as hot dogs and hamburgers in the backyard. Maybe it's because after you've indulged in the caramel corn and the frozen custard, it's the one offering that kind-of-sort-of seems like a meal - at least by boardwalk food standards. Or that when the ooey-gooey cheese snaps back in your face or the sauce oozes down your arm after that first bite . . . it doesn't matter because you are on the boardwalk and who cares where stuff drips? It's pizza that vacationers crave after they've dined for a few nights in fancy restaurants and they just want something simple - and delicious - for dinner.
When it got here: Pizza has been around since the 10th century, but consumption of the simple baked preparation of dough, tomatoes, and cheese really got going when Italian immigrants in the early 20th century brought it to the shores of America. Now, an estimated 13 percent of the U.S. population consumes pizza on any given day, according to the National Association for Pizzeria Operators in Louisville, Ky. Pizza shops started springing up in New York City in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s, pizza - as a grab-and-go eat - had found its way to the Coney Island Boardwalk. Soon after, the trend spread south along the New Jersey Shore. By the 1950s, what would become pizza dynasties such as Manco & Manco in Ocean City, Mack's Pizza in Wildwood, and Maruca's Tomato Pies in Seaside Heights began establishing the boardwalk pizza tradition we pay homage to every summer.
Why it's so tasty: The ingredients are pretty basic: dough made from bleached flour and yeast that has been allowed to rise, tomato sauce that is more on the sweet side than it is piquant, and cheese. But as with anything distinctive, it's all in the nuance. How hot is that oven? Just what kind of plum tomatoes are in that sauce - are those San Marzanos or plain old pomodori? Is that cheese on top a blend that will melt into a river of grease? Or is it a pure, full-fat mozzarella that'll melt into creamy puddles of goodness?
"I think it all comes down to tradition when it comes to boardwalk pizza . . . that and the quality of the ingredients you are using," says Anthony Zuccarello, 62, son-in-law of Sam Spera, 86, who opened Sam's Pizza Palace at 26th Street and the Boardwalk in Wildwood in 1957. Zuccarello said his family's pizzeria uses only mozzarella on its pies and that is what generations of its customers crave.
"We have people that'll come in and say that I served them a slice of pizza when they were 16 and now they are bringing their grandkids in for a slice." Zuccarello says he and Sam are both in the shop every day, kneading dough into that pizza-pie-heaven-on-a-paper-plate deliciousness they purvey all summer long.
Where boardwalk pizza is best: On boardwalks from Atlantic City to Wildwood, pizza places abound. Some pizza shops are famous, some are even infamous. Our favorites include: Sam's Pizza Palace, 26th and the Boardwalk, Wildwood, 609-522-6017; Mack's Pizza, 4200 Boardwalk, Wildwood, 609-729-0244; Prep's Pizza, 1004 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-398-0636; Manco & Manco, 920 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-398-2548.