Pizza’s most essential topping is a piece of plastic. Floating above the greasy circle of molten cheese, a small white sphere often stands on three narrow stilts. Placed directly into the pizza while hot, the stilted objects can get covered with red sauce, some cheese, and a lot of grease. My sister and I used to take these small white things and rinse them in the sink. They were just small enough to work as dining tables for Polly Pockets, or stepping stools for Barbie. They were fairly stable, and over time the box that held our toys accumulated them.
Worst case, the toppings on your pizza become lodged onto the box’s roof — and stay there when the box is opened.
The thingy, though, isn’t just for decoration. Like all great inventions, it was a marvel of brilliant thought hiding in plain sight. Simple, easy to construct, and absolutely necessary, the "pizza saver" (also known as a "package saver," "pizza stack," "box tent," and "pizza nipple," among other names) was the brainchild of a Carmela Vitale, a 46-year-old woman living in Dix Hills, New York on Long Island.
Vitale was a doting mother, a loving wife, and an active member of her community who served on the city council. She never had a career as a scientist, or even as an engineer. But she was, quite literally, an inventor.
In 1983, Vitale submitted a patent request for what she dubbed a "package saver." The artist rendering shows a small tented piece of plastic with three arms extending from a central circle not unlike the Mercedes Benz logo. It is carefully shaded and precisely shown sitting delicately on top of a lumpy, line drawing of a pizza.
The patent (#4,498,586) was approved two years later, on February 12, 1985. That package saver proved to be a masterful addition to the art of delivering pizza, which comes in giant corrugated cardboard boxes. Vitale, who had two daughters and a husband to feed, was probably buying the large pizzas from one of Long Island’s many pizzerias, and kept seeing the same exact problem. As she wrote in the abstract for her patent filing in 1983:
"[Delivery products] require a relatively inexpensive and disposable box or carton. Cartons of this type, and particularly those used to deliver pizza pies or large cakes or pies, comprise boxes with relatively large covers formed of inexpensive board material. Due to the quality of the board and their large size, there is a tendency of the covers to sag or to be easily depressed at their center portions so that they may damage or mark the pies or cakes during storage or delivery."
Pizza boxes, in particular, often have this sagging problem. Most pizzerias make thousands of pies per day, shuttling them quickly from oven to pizza box to delivery bag to the back to a delivery person’s car. Because they need to reach your front door hot, the pizzas cool off inside their square cardboard home, meaning they continue to produce steam while inside the box. Pizza box cardboard is pretty cheap, so the steam often wilts the box, and by the time it’s placed in your hands, the bottom of the box is slightly damp.
That sogginess applies to the box top, too, and without Vitale’s invention, that steam-soggy lid sags down toward the pizza. Best case, a piece of cardboard, which has certainly not been washed, is touching your pizza. Worst case, the wonderful toppings on your pizza become lodged onto the box's roof — and stay there when the box is opened.
The best solutions are often the easiest, most simple ones. And in that regard, Vitale’s "package saver" is certainly an elegant design. Made of one piece of plastic and according to the patent able to "resist temperatures of as high as about 500° F," Vitale’s package saver became a standard across the United States.
According to Bob Conrad, the owner of Shadow’s Ridge Inc., a small Virginia-based plastics company, the cost of materials to create the pizza saver are "at most a penny" for the FDA-grade plastic. But the production of the pizza savers carries a hearty price tag. Conrad, whose company does not produce pizza savers, said Vitale would have needed a molding machine, a manufacturing space, conveyors, robots, storage, forklifts, and more to create the invention herself. He estimated the minimum cost to be somewhere between $500,000 and a million dollars.
"I think for a seemingly simple product, it is better to buy it from companies which make this and other products [...] to justify all the investment," Conrad said. And he’s right. Most companies hawking pizza savers today are also selling dozens of other plastic supplies, like utensils and those sticks that keep your coffee from spilling. Pizza savers are only one piece of a much bigger revenue pie: Royal Paper Company, the largest distributor of the pizza savers in the United States, makes its savers (like the ones for sale on Alibaba) in China, an export of labor Vitale definitely couldn’t have afforded.
Currently, designs like Vitale’s sell for less than one cent a piece. A 1,000-pack of pizza savers from a restaurant supply store runs around $8. That doesn’t seem like it would be worth paying to keep the patent updated, except that in the United States, approximately three billion pizzas are sold each year. Even assuming that only half that many are delivered and only 2/3rds of those have a pizza saver, we’re talking about a billion pizzas a year with a pizza saver on them. At $8 for 1,000 pizza savers, that would be about $8 million dollars in pizza saver revenue a year.
Vitale’s role as an inventor and creator of this piece of delivery magic is almost entirely lost.
But Vitale didn’t have a massive company with machines at the ready; she only had an idea. There’s no evidence that Vitale ever manufactured enough pizza savers to sell them herself.
I called the lawyers who helped Carmela file this patent — they have since changed firms — but no one I talked to remembered helping Carmela write or file her patent. Though the patent was granted, Vitale’s role as an inventor and creator of this piece of delivery magic is almost entirely lost. Her husband, who still lives in Long Island, her daughter, and her granddaughter all did not return requests for comment for this story. After four years as the patent owner and inventor of the pizza saver, Vitale’s patent lapsed in the early '90s. According to patent records, a reminder to pay the patent fee was mailed to Vitale on September 17, 1992. She didn’t pay it. On April 27, 1993, Vitale’s patent lapsed.
Since then, almost a dozen patents have been filed for variations of Vitale’s original idea. Dopaco Inc. was granted a patent for an "internal support for cartons" in November 1994. Jonathan Maultasch got one for a combined lid support and cutter in January of 1996. Irene Marotta took Vitale’s idea one step further in 1997 and created a pizza saver that also functioned as a serving spatula. But Vitale’s original design, with its table-top structure and plastic body, is still by far the most iconic. Today it’s made by dozens of companies with the infrastructure to produce them en masse.
Carmela Vitale died on September 2, 2005, just a week after her 68th birthday and 20 years after she saved pizza. She might not be a household name, or a famous American inventor, but maybe she should be. When you order a pizza at the end of a terrible day and eat it in front of the television with a beer, thank Vitale that it doesn’t taste like cardboard.