Despite living most of my life in the U.S., I grew up in a deeply Brazilian household. Along with greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek, binging novelas with my grandmother, and wearing only white on New Year’s Eve, that meant we ate nearly everything — even the occasional cheeseburger — with a fork and knife. Most notably, though, this includes pizza.
When I recently asked a family member about why she eats her pizza with a fork and knife, she responded, “Well what else would you eat it with? Your hands?” As a dual citizen, I’ve learned to enjoy my pizza both with cutlery and without, but there’s something about burnt fingers, greasy hands, and tomato sauce stains that does have me siding with the utensils, a move that, especially during my two-year stint in New York, risked me being labeled a “pizza-forker” with the likes of former Ohio Governor John Kasich and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. But in my and the entire nation of Brazil’s defense, there’s a pretty good reason for it.
Brazil’s first brick-and-mortar pizzeria opened in 1910 in São Paulo, following a wave of Italian immigrants who had settled there at the end of the 19th century. Brazilian pizzaiolos took creative liberties with the dish, incorporating nontraditional and often bulky toppings that run the gamut from hard-boiled eggs to canned tuna to brigadeiro, a sticky chocolate mousse made with condensed milk. Brazilian pizza became, well, Brazilian, and over the decades its popularity throughout the country boomed to the fanaticism we see today.
Modern Brazilian pizza menus are like a journey into my grandmother’s kitchen, with everyday ingredients like chicken, ham, tuna, eggs, olives, broccoli, onions, and requeijão (a softer version of cream cheese) available as standard toppings. Take the Portuguesa, for instance, a staple topping combo with hard-boiled eggs, onions, peas, ham, and loads of cheese. It’s gravitationally impossible to lift a slice without losing an ingredient or two. The only way to keep the slice’s topping mix — and thereby culinary integrity — intact is to use your fork.
Another example is the quatro queijos, an extra-cheesy concoction of mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, and the soft catupiry cheese. It comes piping hot, and lifting it with your hands can set off an avalanche of gooey cheese onto your lap. I would never attempt to eat such a slice without utensils, and if you happen to find yourself in a Brazilian pizzeria, you shouldn’t either.
I will also note that most Brazilian pizza crusts are nothing like the firm New York slice that’s easy to hold or fold over like an envelope — which explains why slice culture doesn’t exist here. You’d never see President Jair Bolsonaro casually eating pizza on a sidewalk with his hands in Brazil, as he recently did in New York. Back home, the crust structure is thinner and softer and almost crepe-like toward the very bottom. If he or anyone tried to pick up a fresh slice overloaded with toppings, it would quickly flop over.
Yet even as lighter, Neapolitan-style pies and gourmet pizzas multiply across Brazil, most diners continue reaching for their utensils. It can be a tough pill to swallow, especially for outsiders. Chef and native New Yorker Sei Shiroma had to come to terms with this when he opened his first pizza restaurant, Ferro e Farinha, in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. Shiroma’s pies are made with naturally fermented dough and cooked in a wood-fired oven, which, unlike traditional Brazilian pizza, results in a light and crispy crust. “This is the kind of pizza I recommend you eat with your hands,” Shiroma tells me.
The chef, who moved from New York to Rio a decade ago, used to give this advice to all his diners, and when he opened his first pizzeria, forks and knives weren’t part of the picture. Diners often asked for them, and Shiroma says he would use that as an opportunity to educate them on the “best way” to enjoy his pizza — i.e. with their hands.
Shiroma has since given in to Brazilian pizza-cutting culture and is well on his way to opening a fourth location. He says he’s not here to tell diners how to eat, but rather, serve them really good pizza. And at all his restaurants, the tables are now outfitted with forks and knives. “Pizza doesn’t have to be the kind of pizza that New Yorkers think of as pizza,” says Shiroma. And it doesn’t have to be eaten that way, either.
So the next time you order a pizza in Brazil, or New York, or wherever your favorite sit-down pizzeria lives, feel confident reaching for a knife and fork if the slice calls for it. And if you ever see anyone else doing the same, cut them some slack. They might just be from Brazil.
Carla Vianna is a travel writer and photographer living in Rio de Janeiro. Nicole Medina is a Philly-based illustrator who loves capturing adventure through her art using bold colors and patterns.