This Old School Pizza recipe captures the essence of all that was good in the school cafeterias of our youth. (Cafeteria ladies not included.)
Way back in the day, our Cafeteria Ladies served us up savory squares of school lunch pizza made with three distinct elements: a pourable crust, meat sauce topping, and government cheese. This old school pizza recipe perfectly recreates the memory; tender crust, meaty sauce, copycat cheese blend and all.
What's the Story on this School Pizza Recipe?
I was one of those kids who got hot lunch almost every day. Both my parents worked outside our home and mom wasn't the lunch-packing sort, so until I got old enough to where my mom would let me pack my own lunch, I was most often in the hot lunch line. From first through eighth grade, I figure I ate about 1000 hot lunches in our basement cafeteria.
Most days, the actual food served for hot lunch wasn't all that awesome, but ever so often, it was great. I mean, truly Good. My favorite was Chili & Maple Bar Day (I'll get to that here on the blog someday - you're gonna love it!), and my second favorite was Pizza Day.
In fact, square school pizza was my first pizza. You see, back in the day, my mom didn't go in for any fancy ethnic cooking, like Pizza or Lasagna or Tacos. We were strictly a chili-mac, roast beef, chip-beef-on-rice kind of family in those days.
Oh sure, by the time I hit my tweens, my mom had finally decided that she'd give the pizza at Amalfi's a try, and from then on we had it at least once a month. But even though I have had countless amazing, hand-tossed, artisan-created, wood-fired, rustic pizzas since those long-ago days, a slice of old school cafeteria pizza now and again is a comfortable, reassuring memory.
It's also a super easy, economical way to feed a ton of people!
What Goes into Old School Cafeteria Pizza
To recreate the unique flavor memory that is School Cafeteria Pizza, you need three basic elements: a pourable crust, a meaty topping, and copycat government cheese.
The pourable crust is arguably the most critical piece of the cafeteria pizza puzzle, because it gives school pizza its unique texture and bite. Every source I could find for pourable pizza crust made enough dough for at least eight full-size sheet pans. After some serious tinkering, however, I was able to adjust the recipe down so that it is just right for a single half-sheet pan.
- Quick rise yeast: Use quick rise yeast for this recipe. Regular yeast does not work fast enough.
- Flour: Use all-purpose flour.
- Instant dry milk: Dry milk is indispensable to this recipe. In breads, dry milk creates a smooth, mellow flavor, a more tender texture, and a higher rise.
- Sugar: Use plain granulated sugar.
- Salt: We use kosher salt.
- Oil: Use canola oil, or any neutral cooking oil.
- Hot water: Water should be 110-115°F (55° C); hot enough to activated the yeast when it is mixed with the flour, etc. Do not get the water too hot, or it will kill the yeast.
Meaty Pizza Topping
School pizza in 1970s Portland always came topped with a thick, meaty, tomato-based sauce; almost like a Bolognese sauce. (There were no vegetarian options: your option was to eat the pizza or not.)
As usual, the topping sauce in this recipe is presented as a Ia jumping-off point. If you want to use your own topping sauce, or make it vegetarian, or add a stew of other ingredients to it, by all means - go for it!
- Ground Beef: Use lean ground beef.
- Italian sausage: To recreate school lunch pizza, use a mild Italian sausage. If you prefer your pizza spicier, use a spicy Italian sausage instead.*
- Onion: For the best flavor, use a yellow onion.
- Brown sugar: This adds a nice layer of flavor, and helps to balance the acidity from the tomato paste.
- Garlic: Use 2-3 fresh garlic cloves.
- Tomato paste: Use plain tomato paste.
- Herbs: Use Basil, Oregano, Marjoram, or an Italian seasoning blend.
*Original school pizza was usually made with only ground beef, but we really like to add Italian sausage to the meat blend. For a pure, authentic sauce, omit the sausage and just use ground beef.
Copycat Government Cheese
Back in the day, school pizza was blanketed in a golden brick of mystery known as Government Cheese. Government cheese was ubiquitous in the cafeteria of my youth; it was found in grilled cheese sandwiches, lasagna, mac-n-cheese, and of course, pizza.
If you have never experienced government cheese in all its glorious goldenness, you don't know what you are missing. Rumored to have been created from the tears of Midwest dairy farmers, this “pasteurized process American cheese product” wedges in on the dubious side of the cheese wheel, somewhere between Velveeta and Kraft Singles.
I don't have access to government cheese these days; however, I've created a blend that comes pretty close. It is this copycat government cheese that gives this cafeteria pizza recipe its authentic, old school flavor.
- American cheese: American cheese is essential to this mix. It is that orange, processed stuff that now most often gets wrapped in individual plastic sheets and sold at a premium. You can buy a block, or a block of unwrapped slices, in the cheese section of most grocery stores.
- Cheddar: Use any good-quality medium cheddar; we recommend using Tillamook.
- Mozzarella: Use a full-fat mozzarella. Low-moisture mozzarella doesn't melt as well (or taste as good).
How to Make this Old School Pizza Recipe
Preheat oven to 475°F (245°C). Line a 20 x 14 half-sheet pan with parchment paper.
Hint: Use a textured baking pan if you have one. The texture allows air to flow under the pizza dough as it bakes on the parchment, making for a more evenly baked crust.
Combine yeast, flour, dry milk, sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
Combine oil and warm water in a large measuring cup or mixing bowl, and then pour the liquid into flour mixture and stir thoroughly for about 5 minutes. The dough will be thick, loose, and very sticky.
Pour the dough mixture from bowl onto prepared pan and spread evenly using a spatula. Set dough in pan aside in a warm spot to rest for 30 minutes.
Put the pizza dough pan in the preheated oven and par-bake for 10 minutes, or until the crust is set.
Remove from oven and set aside until Pizza Topping has cooled slightly.
Hint: Visit Pourable Pizza Dough for more detailed directions about how to make this easy pizza crust.
Prepare the pizza topping while the pizza crust is resting.
In a large, heavy skillet, combine the chopped onion, mild Italian sausage, and ground beef. Cook over medium-high heat until meat is thoroughly browned and onion is soft and translucent.
Add tomato paste, water, brown sugar, and dried herbs.
Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. The mixture is done when it is no longer runny.
Allow topping to cool slightly before spreading it on pizza.
Copycat Government Cheese Blend
Combine three grated cheeses in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Hint: Processed American cheese usually comes in slices. To grate the American cheese easily, first stack the slices, then cut them in half and stack them again before grating.
Assemble & Bake
Carefully spread the Pizza Topping over the pre-baked Pizza Crust, all the way to the edges.
Top the pizza evenly with Cheese Blend.
Return pizza to hot 475°F (245°C) oven and bake for 8-10 minutes; until the cheese is melted and the topping is heated.
- Flour: Bread flour will also work.
- Instant dry milk: If you don't have dry milk, you can substitute warmed regular milk (110-115° F | 55° C) for the hot water.
- Sugar: You can substitute honey for the sugar in the bread dough.
- Ground Beef: You can sub in ground turkey, or even ground chicken, but the outcome will not be quite as robust.
- Italian sausage: If you prefer your pizza spicier, use a spicy Italian sausage instead.
- Cheese: Use any cheese or cheese blend that you like on pizza.
- Onion: Red or sweet onions will also work.
Vegetarian: If you want to recreate old school Cheese Pizza, just leave out the meat and double the tomato sauce and spices to create the sauce. It really is as simple as that.
Toppings: Like any pizza, the choices are practically limitless when it comes to topping a school lunch pizza. You can go traditional and add pepperoni or peppers; or zhuzh it up with caramelized onions or a sprinkling of roasted Brussels sprouts. One of our favorite additions is homemade meatballs!
The important thing is to incorporate whatever you use into the sauce, because that saucy center is what makes it old school pizza.
Sheet Pan: I recommend using a textured half sheet baking pan (20 x 14 x 1) for this recipe. It also bakes up nicely in two quarter sheet pans (9x13). A pizza cutter is also helpful, but not necessary.
Meat Masher: This inexpensive little kitchen tool makes the job of breaking up ground meat 10x easier, and saves your wrists, too.
Refrigerator: Homemade school pizza stores like any other pizza. According to the USDA, leftover pizza will last in the fridge for up to 4 days. Wrap and refrigerate within 2 hours of taking it out of the oven.
Freezer: This cafeteria pizza recipe can also be frozen. To do this, prebake the crust as directed, and then add the toppings and cheese. Allow the pizza to cool completely, and then cover with plastic wrap. Wrap a second time in aluminum foil, and put in the freezer.
When ready to eat, bake as directed, adjusting the time as needed. The pizza is done when the cheese is fully melted and the crust is warm and golden brown.
Store-bought crust: If you don't want to make the pourable dough, you can use refrigerated pizza dough. You can find this in the freezer section, or at the grocery store deli or pizza counter. (If you have a Winco, the pizza section there sells raw dough.)
Air-fryer Reheating: We find that the best way to reheat school pizza (or any pizza for that matter) is in an air fryer. Preheat the air-fryer to 390-400°F (200-204°C), and then air-fry individual servings for 3-4 minutes each.
More Vintage Recipes
Updating and revamping vintage recipes is kind of our thing here on GHW. As Generation Jonesers, our favorites include such budget-friendly favorites as layered taco salad, tamale pie, and salmon patties.
Serving & Pairing
Allow the cooked pizza to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting. Like any cheesy, saucy dish (i.e., lasagna, eggplant parm, etc.) the ingredients need a little time to set.
For the ultimate retro experience, serve it on school lunch trays, with fruit cup and a carton of milk on the side.
Old School Cafeteria Pizza
Copycat Government Cheese
- 4 ounces American cheese grated
- 4 ounces medium cheddar cheese grated (we use Tillamook)
- 4 ounces mozzarella cheese grated
- Preheat oven to 475°F (245°C). Line a half-sheet pan (20 x 14 x 1) with parchment paper.
- Combine yeast, flour, dry milk, sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
- Combine oil and warm water in a large measuring cup or mixing bowl, and then pour the liquid into flour mixture and stir thoroughly for about 5 minutes. The dough will be thick, loose, and very sticky.
- Pour the dough mixture from bowl onto prepared pan and spread evenly using a spatula. Set dough in pan aside in a warm spot to rest for 30 minutes.
- Put the pizza dough pan in the preheated oven and par-bake for 10 minutes, or until the crust is set.Remove from oven and set aside until Pizza Topping has cooled slightly.
- Prepare the pizza topping while the pizza crust is resting.In a large, heavy skillet, combine the chopped onion, mild Italian sausage, and ground beef. Cook over medium-high heat until meat is thoroughly browned and onion is soft and translucent.Add tomato paste, water, brown sugar, and dried herbs.
- Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes. The mixture is done when it is no longer runny.
- Allow topping to cool slightly before spreading it on pizza.
Copycat Government Cheese
- Combine three grated cheeses in a medium bowl.
- Carefully spread the pizza topping over the par-baked crust, all the way to the edges.
- Top evenly with cheese blend.
- Return pizza to hot 475°F (245°C) oven and bake for 8-10 minutes; until the cheese is melted and the topping is heated.
- Allow the cooked pizza to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting. Like any cheesy, saucy dish, the ingredients need a little time to set.
This website provides approximate nutrition information for convenience and as a courtesy only. You are solely responsible for ensuring that any nutritional information provided is accurate, complete, and useful.
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