To most of us, a pizza box is simply a vessel in which our pizza is conveyed, something to be discarded immediately after we have scarfed down the pie within.
But Scott Wiener, a self-described “career pizza enthusiast” who takes people on pizza tours in New York City and writes about pizza for the trade magazine Pizza Today and other outlets, has a greater appreciation for those cardboard boxes. In fact, with the limited-edition pizza boxes he just received from Pizza Hut, Wiener’s pizza box collection is now at about 630, and some of his most prized boxes can be seen in his new book Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box.
“I’m fascinated that two-thirds of the pizza we eat in the U.S. is served from boxes yet nobody seems to know very much about them,” Wiener says. “By collecting boxes, I learned about the art, engineering, and use of pizza boxes.”
Wiener’s fascination with pizza box art in particular began when he was traveling through Israel and spotted an unusual pizza box. “Pizza boxes in New York are red ink on a white box, but I managed to spot a yellow box with blue writing. It was like that movie Pleasantville where they see in color, and everyone feels liberated,” Wiener says, noting that he hasn’t actually seen Pleasantville. “But you catch my drift. Once I saw that box I started noticing them everywhere.”
He found one of his favorite pizza boxes while visiting a pizzeria in Amsterdam. “When the guy at the counter found out I’m a collector, he ran to the back to get me this box with characters that look like Bart and Homer Simpson, but they’re clearly augmented to avoid trademark infringement. I shrieked so loud when I saw the box in that pizzeria. I hope I didn’t scare away any customers,” Wiener says.
While the pizza box can be found all around the world these days, it is a relatively new invention. “There was a time not very long ago when pizza didn’t even need boxes. It was eaten by hand wrapped in paper,” the author says. “The box came in as pizza became larger and purchased more as takeout or delivery. The post World War II boom really sent pizza via delivery to households across the country. That’s when pizza boxes became necessary, and printing on them was used for marketing purposes. The first printed pizza boxes were extremely simple, but the late 1990s brought on four-color process printing, so now, anything is possible, albeit expensive.”
Due to that expense, most pizza places stick with one color and rely on generic stock box images. “The classic winking overweight chef is the absolute essential pizza box character. Overused? Sure,” Wiener says. “But I love him anyway.”
Some pizza places do invest the money it takes to create a one-of-a-kind pizza box, realizing they’ve got a big chunk of real estate that can be used to differentiate their pizza joint from all the others in town. “It’s a valuable space because it’s inside the house for at least the duration of a meal,” Wiener says. “If people took the time to notice how it’s being used in the home, I think we’d see a better use of the box for marketing.”
Wiener credits Pizzanista! in Los Angeles with doing lots of interesting projects with pizza box design and points out that Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco once had Ed Hardy design a box for them.
But Italian artist Luca Ciancio is the Michelangelo of pizza box art. “He’s an independent guy designing hundreds of pieces of box art. He’s my favorite,” Wiener says of the artist whose body of work includes incredible pizza box illustrations of the likes of Sophia Loren.
Ciancio, who has created more than 250 pizza box designs thus far, proudly signs all of his pizza box art. “All of the other artists are churning out simple designs every day with no credits on the box,” Wiener says, pointing out, “It’s rare to find an artist’s signature on a pizza box.”