I have to pick up my partner, John, from Miami International Airport. His flight arrives past midnight, and while this may cause many locals to groan, I’m actually excited. Any reason to be in the western parts of Miami-Dade County is also a reason to have pizza cubana. The existence of two 24-hour Cuban pizzerias minutes from Miami’s airport also means that we've created our own tradition of treating ourselves to these cheesy, fluffy pizzas any time one of us flies into MIA.
This particular style of pizza is said to have originated on Varadero Beach in Cuba, a popular holiday destination for many people on the island. Allegedly, the originator moved to Miami after the communist revolution and reopened his famous pizzeria, Montes de Oca. Visit any of the handful of locations scattered across western Miami, and the sign will remind you that it is the original Cuban pizza.
The founder of Rey Pizza, another local Cuban pizza chain, contests that claim. Regardless of who you believe to be the true originator, most Miamians who are familiar with this style of pizza can agree that Montes de Oca and Rey Pizza are local institutions. But they aren’t the only Cuban pizzerias in town.
Since the Cuban exile community made Miami its home over 50 years ago, Cuban pizza has become ubiquitous in the city. However, it doesn’t seem to be as celebrated as some of our other Cuban specialties, like Cuban sandwiches, guava pastries, and espresso.
Growing up, we’d always drive past Rey Pizza, with its bright red and yellow awning and an illustration of a caped king holding a box of pizza. My father, who is Peruvian, would always joke about it, reciting what he thought was a gaudy ad spot on Spanish language television. I’ll never forget it: “Rey Pizza. Tu pizzería. Pizza de noche, pizza de día. ¡Y sigo siendo el rey!” ("Rey Pizza. Your pizzeria. Pizza by day, pizza by night. And I’m still the king!”). That last line was a reference to a famous Spanish ballad, and to the fact that Rey means “king” in Spanish, implying that Rey Pizza was the king of Cuban pizza.
We never actually ate at Rey Pizza. My father claimed to have eaten there once and was so put off by the experience that he was committed to recounting his torturous experience (he had a flair for melodrama) any time he could. My father’s unfavorable opinion of Cuban pizza may have been reflective of his views on Cubans, in general. He wasn’t alone on this in Miami. Many non-Cuban Latinos I knew shared the sentiment. Maybe it was that we envied Cubans for the influence their community had in Miami and the relative ease with which they could become legal U.S. residents. Or that we looked down on them for their informal Spanish, which sounded slurred to us. Or that they weren’t Peruvian like us.
As a result of these attitudes, I admit that I grew up believing there wasn’t much to Cuban culture or its rich cuisine. I never even thought to try Cuban pizza for myself until I started college locally at Florida International University. There was a Rey Pizza by my campus, and one night, I convinced my friends to drive me there to grab a large chorizo pizza in between running numerous errands. I didn’t get to taste the pizza until an hour later when we returned to campus. The cold, stale pie confirmed my father’s description of his experience. That was enough for me. I never revisited Rey Pizza or any other Cuban pizzeria for years.
Over time, I reconsidered my stance on Cuban food. I ended up working in an office with a large number of Cuban and Cuban-American employees and had lunch with a group of computer programmers who all attended the same high school in Havana. It was during our lunches that I gained a better appreciation of Cuban cuisine and its delicious particularities. One thing that fascinated me was how my lunch buddies would cut a ripe banana with their knives and forks and take bites of it in between rice, beans, and stew. This sophisticated balance of sweet and savory signaled to me that there was much more to Cuban cuisine than what I was raised to believe.
For a few weeks, I was the assistant to a Cuban-American woman who came from a long line of cooks and farmers. She told me about Cuban pizza, and how much of a treat it was when she was living in Cuba as a little girl. She had a faraway look when she described the fluffy crusts and stretchy cheese, how they were folded in half and eaten like sandwiches. I woke her from her reverie to ask where I could sample such pizza. She directed me to Pa’ Comer in Hialeah, which she insisted was closest to the pizza she had in Cuba and met the standards of her family’s discerning tastes.
My partner and I finally got around to visiting Pa’ Comer, a tiny pizzeria in a small strip mall along with a botánica (a store that sells Afro-Cuban religious articles). Inside, a menu board listed the types of pizzas on offer; almost all of them came in one size intended for individual consumption (fine by us). John ordered pepperoni; I ordered chorizo. We were asked if we wanted it folded or picada, a very Cuban way of saying “sliced,” though it actually means “diced” or “minced” in other Spanish-speaking countries.
I hung around to watch how our pizzas were made: Plump mounds of dough were already preloaded into deep pie pans with dark, lustrous patinas. Deft fingers bounced on the dough mounds, lightly stretching them to the edges of the pan, and the same fingers later grabbed a paintbrush to apply a light coat of tomato sauce to the crust before grabbing handfuls of cheese—a combination of mozzarella and gouda—and letting it fall all over the dough and sauce, covering the surface completely. The pizzas received an even distribution of their respective toppings before going into a conventional electric pizza oven. A few minutes later, when the sassy abuela manning the counter shouted that el chorizo and el pepperoni were ready, we grabbed our pizzas and sat down to eat.
The pizza was unlike any other I had ever eaten, yet it had familiar, nostalgic elements. The crust was thick, soft, and yeasty, almost as if it were made from a dinner roll recipe. It featured a brown halo of toasted cheese that resembled the crown of thorns on the life-size statue of Jesus at the botánica next door. It wasn’t like those gourmet pizzas that elicit highly detailed praises of chewiness and char, the sauce’s balance of acidity and sweetness, or the provenance of the mozzarella. It was simple, accessible, and extremely satisfying. It reminded me of something comforting from my past, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
While we both enjoyed our pizzas, I was paying attention to the clientele. What most of these patrons had in common, I’d say, was that they were “refs.” A ref, short for refugee, is a very Miamian colloquialism that refers specifically to more recent Cuban immigrants—those who had spent much of their lives in communist Cuba. Miami’s right-leaning Cuban establishment has traditionally treated these more recent arrivals with ambivalence, seeing them as fellow Cubans but also as communist traitors. There’s a class distinction, as well (which doesn't help).
What I’ve learned from my Cuban friends over the years is that while Cuban pizza had existed in Cuba before the revolution, it was actually much more popular with those who had grown up in the communist country than it was with the older Cubans in Miami, or with their first-, second-, and third-generation Cuban-American children. This explains the clientele at Pa’ Comer and, I think, why Cuban pizza has yet to catch on in a more significant way here in Miami, and even in America.
Newfound taste for pizza cubana in tow, I sought out other Cuban pizzerias whenever I had the chance, like La Cubanita, a newer addition to the local Cuban pizza scene. This pizzeria had a dining room, unlike Pa’ Comer. You could order a large pizza to share, as well as spaghetti, lasagna, and Cuban-style ice cream sandwiched between slices of yellow cake. This time around, I decided to go for something a little more unique on my pizza: sliced banana! I recalled those lunches with my Havana coworkers and figured that I should give it a shot. I was surprised at how well this worked on pizza. If you’re a fan of pineapple on your pie, then you should definitely give Cuban banana pizza a try.
My lunch buddies would cut a ripe banana with their knives and forks and take bites of it in between rice, beans, and stew. This sophisticated balance of sweet and savory signaled to me that there was much more to Cuban cuisine than what I was raised to believe.
Eventually I got around to visiting “la original pizza cubana,” Montes de Oca. The location on Miami’s famous Calle Ocho (8th Street) is definitely a little more “lived in” than the other Cuban pizzerias I had visited. There’s fake wood paneling on the walls that complements the bright red vinyl upholstery and strategically placed silk flower arrangements. Our waitress was sassy, not hesitating to comment on my friend’s order of a Coca-Cola and a Cuban espresso (“You’re going to leave here flying, baby!”).
After we had devoured a plate of garlic rolls and a bowl of the restaurant’s signature creamy cheese soup, we ordered a mixta pizza for the table. The mixta pizza is Montes de Oca’s version of a "supreme," containing ham, pepperoni, chorizo, ground beef, mushrooms, red onion, green and red peppers, and green olives between a fluffy crust and a thick layer of melted mozzarella and gouda. I became so enamored with Montes de Oca that I returned several more times, including once after midnight (it’s open 24 hours a day).
I even made it back to Rey Pizza with my partner in tow. The West Flagler location is designed to look like a castle on the outside, and inside the restaurant features branded napkin rings, straws, and Styrofoam cups that make nifty mementos. The selection of pizza toppings mirrors that of every other Cuban pizzeria I've been to: pepperoni, ham, chorizo, bell peppers, ground beef, shrimp, and sliced banana. This time around, I wasn’t going to wait a whole hour to dig into my chorizo pizza, and I also understood enough about this unique style of pizza to fully appreciate it. Again, this pizza tasted familiar, recalled the edges of a memory I still couldn’t quite put my finger on—until John said it reminded him of pizza day in grade school. He was right! Cuban pizza embodies everything I loved about school cafeteria pizza growing up. Few words were exchanged as we nestled into the warm, gooey comfort of what has become, to this day, our favorite style of pizza.
It’s not fancy pizza by any means, and pizza snobs may even argue that it’s of poor quality. In addition to Cuban pizza’s association with “refs,” this is probably one of the main reasons why few locals seem to tout it as a culinary specialty in spite of its ubiquity in Miami. New York and Italian standards largely shape our idea of what a “good” pizza is supposed to be. Snowbirds and transplants from the Northeast are quick to remind us how Miami doesn’t have good pizza, and our apparent status as a “pizza desert” has warranted Paulie Gee’s, Roberta’s, and Artichoke Basille’s to set up outposts throughout town. I welcome the additions to our dining scene, but I also insist that Miami is not a pizza desert by any means.
Cuban pizza is a far departure from the thin, floppy New York slices or the even thinner Neapolitan variety. In a sense, it's very much like my hometown. It has no parallel anywhere else in the United States. It has Cuban roots but has established itself in Miami in its own right. Pizza cubana is essentially Miami’s own unique contribution to American pizza styles, and it’s definitely something you should experience whenever you visit my hometown. I’ll take you.
Have you ever tried Cuban pizza? Let us know in the comments below.