You Don’t Know How Bad the Pizza Box Is
The delivery icon hasn’t changed in 60 years, and it’s making your food worse.
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Happiness, people will have you think, does not come from possessing things. It comes from love. Self-acceptance. Career satisfaction. Whatever. But here’s what everyone has failed to consider: the Ooni Koda 12-inch gas-powered outdoor pizza oven.
Since I purchased mine a year ago, my at-home pizza game has hit levels that are inching toward pizzaiolo perfection. Like Da Vinci in front of a blank canvas, I now churn out perfectly burnished pies entirely from scratch—dough, sauce, caramelized onions, and all. By merely looking at a pie, I can tell you whether the cornicione is too puffy or just right, if the crust could use a bit more leoparding, and whether the dough should have spent another day in the fridge. I am now, in a word, pizza-pilled.
But enlightenment is not without its consequences. The pies from my usual takeout spot just don’t seem to taste the same anymore. They’re still fine in that takeout-pizza way, but a certain je ne sais quoi is gone: For the first time, after opening up a pizza box and bringing a slice to my mouth, I am hyperaware of a limp sogginess to each bite, a rubbery grossness to the cheese. The cardinal rule of restaurants is that to-go food is never as good as the real deal, but even when my homemade pizzas sit around for too long, they don’t taste anywhere near that off.
Pizza delivery, it turns out, is based on a fundamental lie. The most iconic delivery food of all time is bad at surviving delivery, and the pizza box is to blame. “I don’t like putting any pizza in a box,” Andrew Bellucci, a legendary New York City pizza maker of Andrew Bellucci’s Pizzeria, told me. “That’s just it, really. The pizza degrades as soon as it goes inside,” turning into a swampy mess.
A pizza box has one job—keeping a pie warm and crispy during its trip from the shop to your house—and it can’t really do it. The fancier the pizza, the worse the results: A slab of overbaked Domino’s will probably be at least semi-close to whatever its version of perfect is by the time it reaches your door, but a pizza with fresh mozzarella cooked at upwards of 900 degrees? Forget it. Sliding a $40 pie into a pizza box is the packaging equivalent of parking a Lamborghini in a wooden shed before a hurricane.
And yet, the pizza box hasn’t changed much, if at all, since it was invented in 1966. Then, boxes were shallow cardboard squares with flaps to lock them into place. Today, boxes are shallow cardboard squares with flaps to lock them into place. You’ll see the same design both in dinky spots for drunken college students and in the country’s most sought-after Neopolitan joints. Since the introduction of this corrugated vessel, humanity has landed on the moon, rolled out the internet, created cellphones, and invented combination air fryer–instant pots. But none of that matters: Ye olde pizza box refuses to die.
The problem with the pizza box starts with the pie itself. Let’s consider what makes the pizza so perfect—not the alchemy between sauce and cheese, but the texture. A classic hot pizza will have a tender and gooey center with a crust that’s as dry and crispy as an eggshell. Even a single slice of freshly cooked budget pizza can deliver a textural kaleidoscope that is unparalleled for its price.
None of these qualities fares well in a box. Unlike a Tupperware of takeout chicken soup or palak paneer, which can be microwaved back to life after its journey to your home, the texture of a pizza starts to irreparably worsen after even a few minutes of cardboard confinement. “You’ll never get a pizza out of a box that tastes as good as it would have before it went in,” Scott Wiener, a New York pizza-tour guide and the author of Viva la Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box, told me.
The basic issue is this: A fresh pizza spews steam as it cools down. A box traps that moisture, suspending the pie in its own personal sauna. After just five minutes, Wiener said, the pie’s edges become flaccid and chewy. Sauce seeps into the crust, making it soggy. All the while, your pizza is quickly losing heat. After 15 minutes, the cheese has congealed into dollops of rubber. And after 45 minutes, your pizza deteriorates into something else entirely. “It’ll be chewy and dry at the same time,” Anthony Falco, a pizza consultant and the author of Pizza Czar, told me. “And there’s nothing you can do to fix it.”
How to get a hot pizza from the oven to your doorstep is a centuries-old dilemma. When pizza was merely winter sustenance for paupers in 19th-century Naples, pies were loaded into stufas, copper containers that young lads would balance on their heads. Things got weird fast when pizza made its way to the U.S. At Lombardi’s in New York City, perhaps the country’s first pizzeria, lore has it that lukewarm pies were rolled up with twine and reheated on factory furnaces by famished laborers. After World War II, when to-go pizza began to take flight, we finally got the progenitor of the pizza box: flimsy paperboard containers similar to today’s cake boxes. By 1949, when The Atlantic sought to introduce America to the pizza, the package was already something to lament: “You can take home a pizza in a paper box and reheat it, but you should live near enough to serve it within twenty minutes or so. People do reheat pizza which has become cold, but it isn’t very good; the cheese may be stringy, and the crust rocklike at the edges, soggy on the bottom.”
And then came the modern pizza box. In 1966, the owner of a small Michigan pizza chain called Domino’s enlisted a local packaging company to construct a box out of corrugated cardboard that would better withstand takeout and delivery. Think about any recent Amazon box you’ve gotten in the mail, and you’ll see what makes this box different: Corrugation produces a layer of wavy cardboard between a top and bottom sheet, sort of like a birthday cake. The design creates thick, airy walls that both protect the precious cargo within a pizza box and insulate the pie’s heat while also allowing some steam to escape.
This new take on the box ushered in a takeout-pizza revolution. “It was a pleasure to hand one to a customer and feel confident that it wouldn’t sag open and drop the pizza on his porch,” Tom Monaghan, Domino’s founder, wrote in his 1986 autobiography, at which point the chain already had several thousand stores worldwide. And these boxes do have a lot going for them: They are dirt cheap to mass produce, can stack on top of one another without compromising the pizza within, ship flat to nestle into cramped shops, and are deceptively easy to fold. (At the World Pizza Games 2022—yes, a real thing—the first-place winner folded five boxes in 20 seconds.)
We’ve gotten a couple of pizza-delivery innovations in the past few decades: the insulated heat bag—that ubiquitous velcroed duffel used to keep pies warm on their journey—those mini-plastic-table things, and … well, that is mostly it. No pizza box in widespread use today is significantly better at keeping a pizza fresh than the one Domino’s invented all those years ago. Indeed, if any pizza holds up well in the old-fashioned box, it’s the chain variety. These pies run drier to avoid a case of the pizza slops. But there is a lot more to pizza than Domino’s and Pizza Hut.
With no better options, some pizzerias are now rejiggering their recipes to better survive the box, dropping their oven temperatures and adding the cheese beneath the sauce. “Every single pizza that I put in a box I know is going to be, let’s say, at least 10 percent not as good as it could have been,” Alex Plattner, the owner of Cincinnati’s Saint Francis Apizza, told me. Others dream of better days. “After smoking a lot of weed, I have come up with a lot of ideas for a better box,” said Bellucci, the New York City pizza maker.
If there is a single food item poised for some technological ingenuity, it’s pizza. Food trends come and go, like Quiznos and kale, but to-go pizza is timeless, even immortal: When the pandemic wrecked the restaurant industry in 2020, pizza sales managed to tick up; billions of pizzas are delivered in this abomination of a box every year. In other words, the pizza box is a market failure that is screaming to be, well, disrupted. We are simply eating a worse version of one of the most popular foods around, all because of the deficiencies of something that seems so eminently fixable.
The thing is, though, an improved box exists. “There are products out there that are better,” said Wiener. “But all of them have problems.” And he would know. Wiener’s Brooklyn apartment includes a Guinness World Record–winning collection of 1,750 pizza boxes, which have been meticulously cataloged by spreadsheet and stuffed into a closet. Just about all of these boxes are the common corrugated kind, but a special few are honest attempts to move beyond it. “Some of them are weird prototypes—I have an inflatable pizza box from Denmark,” he said. “I have a pizza box that becomes a spatula. It’s the weirdest.”
Corporate America and garage inventors alike have sought to pioneer a better box. In 2015, one cash-flush Silicon Valley start-up, Zume, created the Pizza Pod™️: a round, two-piece spaceship of a container made from compressed sugarcane fiber. Let a pizza sit inside it and the fibers will absorb the errant moisture better than cardboard, keeping the pie crisp. Last year, the German brand PIZZycle debuted the Tupperware of pizza containers, a reusable vessel studded with ventilation holes on its sides. Even Apple—that Apple—has patented its own round pizza box exclusively for its famished Cupertino office workers. And perhaps the most ingenious container I’ve found is from an Indian company called VentIt. The box takes the normal corrugated vessel and thins out part of the cardboard at the top and bottom, creating venting channels that, at least according to VentIt’s own research, achieve something miraculous: reducing steam inside the box by an additional 25 percent while also maintaining the pizza’s temperature.
So we know it’s not a question of ingenuity: We can construct better pizza boxes, and we already have. The real issue is cost. No superior pizza box—from VentIt, Zume, wherever—can come close to matching the price of simple corrugated cardboard, and in a restaurant industry with such tight margins, the math is hard to deny. Until customers overcome their Stockholm syndrome, why would pizzerias fork up more money for something that immediately lands in the trash? “The problem is that everybody expects this box and nobody’s too offended by it,” Wiener said. “There hasn’t been enough push for something different.”
For now, we’re still waiting for the perfect box—one that is as cheap, stackable, foldable, and sustainable as its corrugated brethren. “When ALL factors are considered, corrugated cardboard has proven to be the best available material for packaging pizza,” John Correll, a pizza-packaging inventor with 43 patents, told me over email. “For years, other materials have been suggested and tried, but they each have problems.”
There are other issues too. Five companies control 70 percent of the cardboard market in the U.S., a level of consolidation that is rampant across the American economy. Independent pizzerias are everywhere, but the pizza chains still dominate takeout and delivery. Domino’s alone accounts for nearly 40 percent of delivery-pizza sales in the U.S.—on par with all regional chains and mom-and-pops combined. Perhaps these big companies are stifling real pizza-box innovation. “We have a solution that, for the most part, delivers the hot product to a customer in a way that also works for our operations,” Zach Halfmann, Domino’s director of operations innovation, told me. “We haven’t found a need to rethink it.”
And so we must find peace with this cursed container. Its simplicity is its value, and precisely why it’s so hard to give up. Like a Christmas tree or a cast-iron pan, what the pizza box lacks in perfectly engineered function, it makes up for in familiarity, tradition, and even populism.
Your life is different from your grandparents’, but this is quite literally your grandparents’ pizza box—and also Elon Musk’s pizza box, and Joe Biden’s, and Oprah Winfrey’s. It is a custom that brings us together in a kind of communion—sogginess and all. “There’s no wealthy-person version of the pizza box,” Carol Helstosky, a University of Denver professor and the author of Pizza: A Global History, told me. The pizza box is just the pizza box. But hey, at least we’ve moved past the stufa.