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Joshua Scott

A Day in the Life of a Pizza Guru

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Joshua Scott

This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Two minutes into a conversation with Scott Wiener you can tell the man is obsessed. The 32-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn, loves pizza like nobody else. He loves it so much he’s made a career and a life out of it: He’s the author of the definitive book on pizza box design, holds the Guinness World Record for largest pizza box collection (775 and counting), writes for Pizza Today magazine, judges pizza competitions, and founded the only tour in the country—maybe the world—solely dedicated not to pizzerias but to “pizza itself,” he says of the aptly named Scott’s Pizza Tours.

When Wiener was growing up, it had been a joke among his friends that he was “that into pizza,” he says. But he never considered it a career path: He worked in TV and music and spent some time as a caretaker living on the only surviving Ellis Island ferryboat. Then, in 2007, for his 26th birthday party, he went all out: He rented a bus, put together pizza-related goodie bags, and invited a group of friends to join him on a pizza-eating tour of New York City. It was a day that would change his life.

Six months later, he’d taken his pizza-party concept and made it his profession, offering bus and walking tours in New York to paying customers. Around that same time, he traveled to Israel, where he noticed “some stunning pizza box specimens.” Collecting them, too, became an obsession.

It’s hard not to look at a self-made pizza expert without a sense of awe. Hungry to find out if his daily life is as delicious as it sounds, we tagged along with Wiener on a busy day over the summer, through a Skyped meeting for his pizza-box art show in London and Berlin, a walking pizza tour in Greenwich Village, a meeting with a Japanese online magazine (pizza is having a moment in Japan), a comedy show that Scott’s Pizza Tours sponsored, and other random pizza business that came up. Here’s what we saw. 

Joshua Scott

9:01 a.m. Most mornings, Scott starts out with a swim at the YMCA, followed by a bowl of oatmeal to prepare for a day of pizza eating. (He limits himself to 15 slices weekly, which he tracks with an app.) Settling into his office full of pizza boxes, he fires off a few emails. As his Skype call begins, Scott remembers it’s his mom’s birthday. He jumps up to call her quickly, telling her, “You’re the most important one!”

Joshua Scott

9:43 a.m. It’s no surprise that the majority of Scott’s frozen foods fit a certain theme: People are always sending him pizza. There’s also some brisket his mom made. He digs through the foil-wrapped items to show us a pizza he made in January 2013. (Shortly after our visit, he threw it out “to make room for more frozen pizza.”)

Joshua Scott

10:30 a.m. People just “give me pizza things,” says Scott. This pizza umbrella was made by a friend and has pizzeria locations noted—with tiny plastic pizzas—on a map of downtown Manhattan that can be read from the inside, in case of a rainy-day pizza-mergency.

Joshua Scott

11:50 a.m. Before our Greenwich Village tour begins, a man walks by eating pizza. “That’s the second person I’ve seen eating a slice!” exclaims Scott, who’s changed into his official tour attire. There are nine of us, including two couples from New Jersey and a woman from Korea. Tours vary widely; whoever is there defines the day, says Scott. There have even been marriage proposals and one wedding, which he officiated.

Joshua Scott

12:07 p.m. Being buddies with pizzeria owners all over town means Scott gets to play chef every now and then. At Keste, a Neapolitan pizzeria with a dome-shaped wood-burning brick oven heated as hot as 930 degrees, Scott encourages us to touch the dough. “Dough is alive, and pizza is all about how hands interact with the dough,” he tells us as we ooh and ahh over its softness. He shovels it into the oven; within seconds, a focaccia emerges.

Joshua Scott

12:55 p.m. “I move fast in the morning,” Scott explained earlier. He also moves fast in the afternoon. There’s a lot to cover where pizza is concerned, so he walks and talks, dropping facts. Here’s one: When pizza chefs practice making pizza, they often use rigatoni (yes, the pasta) instead of cheese—it’s cheaper than fresh mozzarella and weighs about the same. Here’s another: A pizza oven can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.

Joshua Scott

1:06 p.m. At a break between pizzerias, Scott pulls out a binder and gives us a mini lesson on grains. Wheat sourcing impacts flour options, and historically, pizzerias have had to depend on local flour. Some flours are much finer than others; “00” flour is the finest grain you can get and what’s used in Neapolitan pizzas (which is why the dough is so soft). Generally, the coarser the grain, the more time the pizza will need in the oven.

Joshua Scott

1:28 p.m. Scott’s infrared thermometer comes from an online tool shop and is typically used to check heating and air conditioning. He pulls it out on tours to demonstrate oven and pizza surface temperatures and “to avoid pizza burn,” which happens when slices are more than 175 degrees. When he checks a few seconds later, the temperature reads 168, and “this pizza is open for business.”

Joshua Scott

1:32 p.m. Among Scott’s many pizza hacks is a tip for divvying up a just- baked pie: Just insert a fork between the sliced sections at the crust and twist to separate. (For more hacks, visit mentalfloss.com/pizzahacks.) He shows us this at Fiore’s, where a gas deck oven is used, meaning a longer bake time. Quickly, we eat. As Scott says, “If there’s one thing I respect in the world, it’s the sanctity of fresh pizza.”

Joshua Scott

4:40 p.m. The tour completed, we hit Staples, where Scott cuts Slice Out Hunger fliers to pass out at the comedy show. The Slice Out Hunger annual pizza-eating event began six years ago as an anniversary party for Scott’s Pizza Tours. Each slice is $1, and all proceeds go to Food Bank for New York City. Last year, $20,000 was raised, funding 100,000 meals for the needy.

Joshua Scott

7:25 p.m. At the comedy show, talk again turns, of course, to pizza. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Scott if he ever got annoyed being asked so many questions about pizza. “That’s what I’m there for,” he said. “If my 12-year-old self thought I would grow up to think ‘What’s your favorite pizza?’ is the worst question, well, that’s still the best.”

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12 Cheesy Facts About Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! Program
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Pizza Hut

If you went to school in the U.S. in the past three decades, you were probably exposed to BOOK IT!, the reading reward program by Pizza Hut that has kids devouring books by the dozen in order to earn free pizza and other rewards. According to Pizza Hut, more than 14 million students across 620,000 classrooms (or roughly 1 in 5 Americans over the past three decades) have participated in BOOK IT! Here's what you need to know about the delicious—and educational—program.

1. THE PROGRAM WAS INSPIRED BY THE SON OF PIZZA HUT'S THEN-PRESIDENT.

Inside a Pizza Hut restaurant, a woman pins a blue Book It button on a boy's shirt. Based on the hairstyles and clothing, the photo dates from the mid 1980s.
Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program was created in Pizza Hut's Wichita, Kansas, offices in 1984. According to a video created by Pizza Hut, the program was created after President Ronald Reagan put out a call to America's businesses, encouraging them to get involved in education. Arthur Gunther, then-president of Pizza Hut, thought of his son, Michael, who had had trouble with reading due to eye problems when he was growing up. Gunther—who later told the Los Angeles Times that he was "truly motivated by my son and my love for him"—met with educators in the Kansas area with the goal of coming up with a program that would encourage kids to read and help them develop reading skills; what was developed became Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program.

The idea behind BOOK IT! was simple: Reward students with certificates, stickers, buttons, and a single-topping Personal Pan Pizza for reading books. It was tested in Kansas schools before it—and its signature blue button—was rolled out nationwide in 1985.

Just over a month later, more than 7 million grade school students had participated across 233,080 classrooms. Gunther reported that three-quarters of students in the program exceeded their regular reading level. It also cost the chain an estimated $50 million in free pizza, plus $2.7 million in printed materials.

2. ITS CREATORS GOT A LETTER FROM PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN.

On June 2, 1987, Reagan sent a message to BOOK IT! organizers, reading, in part:

"During this 'Year of the Reader,' we can all reflect that reading is essential to the vitality of the mind and to the success and accomplishment of almost every endeavor. As the Book-It Program prepares for yet another tremendous year of bringing the gift of reading to youngsters, I want to commend all those associated with the program for the outstanding work you do. Your efforts give help and inspiration to many and strengthen our Nation. I salute you."

3. BOOK IT! POPPED UP ON TV.

In a 1988 episode of Small Wonder, Vicki's class participated in BOOK IT! In the episode, two students have to finish their reading assignments. This being late-'80s primetime TV, one of the students creates a hip-hop book report comparing Robin Hood to Mr. T. They earned that pizza.

4. BILL CLINTON DECLARED AN OFFICIAL "BOOK IT! DAY" IN ARKANSAS.

October 3, 1988 was a very special day. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton issued an official proclamation declaring it "BOOK IT! Day," stating that the program was "an effective tool in motivating elementary students to read." He further noted that across Arkansas that year, 5711 classrooms with 142,775 students participated in the program.

5. PIZZA HUT COFOUNDED NATIONAL YOUNG READERS WEEK ...

Pizza Hut extended BOOK IT! in 1989 with a week-long reading event that brought "celebrity" role models into schools to demonstrate the importance of reading to kids. ("Celebrities" are often local figures like school principals, though can include pop stars—see item 11 below!) Dubbed National Young Readers Week, the event was created alongside the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Pizza Hut proceeded to issue a challenge to school principals "to become shining examples for literacy by choosing one day to read their heart out all day long, from first bell to the last during National Young Readers Week." The event runs during the second week of November each year.

6. ... AND THE "BATMAN PRINCIPAL" WON THE CHALLENGE IN 2016.

Principal John Rizzo of Jonestown Elementary in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, won the National Young Readers Week principal challenge in 2016. He dressed up as Batman and visited classrooms in his school, promoting reading. Rizzo then went on the roof of the school to read to students. "We try to develop lifelong learners, especially lifelong learners of books and reading," the Bat-Principal told ABC27 News.

7. BOOK IT! IS FOR HOMESCHOOLERS, TOO.

While many students are exposed to BOOK IT! in public schools, it's available to homeschoolers too. The program runs from October 1 through March 31 each year, and students ages 5 to 12 (grades K to 6) are eligible to participate. BOOK IT! prohibits clubs and other such non-school groups from participating, suggesting that this could dilute the value of the rewards. The program is also available to virtual and online schools, with the proper paperwork.

In its first few decades, BOOK IT! kids recorded their reading with paper logbooks—and that's still an option. But there's an app for that, too. The app syncs student progress with a teacher dashboard, allowing teachers to keep track of ongoing participation.

8. CLASS PIZZA PARTIES ARE STRICTLY PROHIBITED.

The BOOK IT! FAQ explicitly prohibits "group redemptions and parties," including class pizza parties. The guidelines say:

"An important part of the BOOK IT! Program is individual recognition of your students for meeting their reading goals and our team members are trained to provide individual recognition."

9. LOTS OF PEOPLE SELL THEIR OLD BOOK IT! BUTTONS ON EBAY.

A vintage BOOK-IT pin from 1985.
The 1985 BOOK-IT! pin.

Vintage BOOK IT! promo items appear to be slightly collectible, especially the logo button which debuted in 1985. eBay has dozens of pins dating from the '80s and '90s—you can even see how the logo design changed over the years.

10. THE OFFICIAL BOOK IT! STORE SELLS SOME WEIRD STUFF.

For a brand based on reading and pizza, the official BOOK IT! store takes the merchandise to a slightly odd place. With USB car chargers, magnetic fridge clips, and squeezable dart rockets, you'd be forgiven for thinking BOOK IT! was aimed at grownups.

On the other hand, they also carry the "retro" t-shirt design and reader awards, which are great for kids.

11. BOOK IT! WAS EXAMINED IN A RESEARCH STUDY

In 1999, a paper studying BOOK IT! was published. Entitled "Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students" (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B. [PDF]), the paper examined how pizza functioned as an extrinsic reward for reading. In other words, although reading carries intrinsic rewards like enjoying the story, the addition of extrinsic motivators like pizza or money (not part of the BOOK IT! program) can affect students' reading behavior. The study sought to determine whether those extrinsic rewards negatively affected later reading behavior—the concern being that perhaps without pizza or cash, students might stop reading.

From the paper's abstract (emphasis added):

Neither being reinforced with money or pizzas increased or decreased the amount college students read nor influenced their intrinsic motivation for reading. Answers to direct questions about BOOK IT! and parental pay for reading suggest that when a child is extrinsically reinforced for reading the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not yet know how to read fluently, the programs may help the child to learn to read. These results provide no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading. Rather, extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop.

12. JUSTIN BIEBER READ THE CAT IN THE HAT FOR BOOK IT!

In 2011, BOOK IT!'s "America's Biggest Bedtime Story" program presented Justin Bieber reading The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. The program exists to encourage parents to read bedtime stories to their kids. Bieber read the story to benefit the Pencils of Promise charity. The next year, BOOK IT! recruited Tim Tebow to read Green Eggs and Ham. (Back in 2007, John Lithgow kicked off the trend, reading his own kids' book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride.)

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When Was the First Pizza Delivery?
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iStock

Long before Hawaiian pizza divided the masses and before trendy flavors like buffalo chicken came into vogue, the delicious simplicity of Margherita pizza captivated the world.

Legend has it that when King Umberto I of Italy and Queen Margherita of Savoy were on business in Naples in 1889, she became sick of eating stuffy meals, so she requested to dine on something that the common Italian would eat. According to Food & Wine, renowned Napoli pizza chef Raffaele Esposito was summoned to supply the royals with a pie fit for a king—and a queen, of course. He and his wife went above and beyond, making three different pies, including one with stripes of white mozzarella, green basil, and red tomatoes, resembling a rather delectable Italian flag.

Of course, Queen Margherita and King Umberto wouldn’t possibly deign to visit Esposito’s pizzeria, so the chef took the piping hot pizzas to the couple himself. As far as we know, it’s the first pizza delivery in recorded history. When the pies arrived, Queen Margherita took one bite of the basil, mozzarella, and tomato creation before proclaiming it one of best dishes she had ever eaten. Flattered, Esposito named it after her.

We don’t know if Esposito received a tip for his speedy service, but we do know that he received kudos for a job well done. A few days after inventing pizza delivery, the chef received a thank you letter from the head of table service of the Royals’ Household. It read, “Most Esteemed Raffaele Esposito, I confirm to you that the three kinds of pizza you prepared for Her Majesty were found to be delicious."

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