Monday, May 26, 2008

Pizza - What it is and what it ain't

Speaking of pizza, here’s the deal. I love America, I really do, completely, without reservation, and well beyond the limitations of reason. And we do so much so very well. But when it comes to pizza...well, we just don’t do it right.

Here in America, the focus is on the wrong things. The primary problem is foundational, and it is that the quality of the crust is basically ignored. Even the word crust marginalizes it’s importance. All mass produced pizzas basically see the crust merely as a delivery system for the toppings. The quality of the bread is not even a consideration, evidently, in domestic pizza. In Italy, the crust itself is a thing of beauty, simple, but savory, textured and flavorful. It helps that virtually every pizzeria has some type of classic brick oven, like this:

Secondly, the toppings are all wrong. In fact, the culinary philosophy that underlies our pizza is so compromised, so stunted, that our cultural expectations of what a great pizza should be fall far short of what truly is possible. We don't even know what we are missing, sadly enough, so mediocrity has become our benchmark of quality, represented by Pizza Hut, Papa John's, et al.  First and foremost, only fresh ingredients should be used to top a pizza. I really can’t emphasize that enough. After the unbelievable taste of the pizza bread, the single most startlingly delicious thing about genuine Italian pizza is that ALL of the ingredients are fresh. Tomatoes (Roma or Campari, mostly), spinach, zucchini, bell peppers (raw or roasted), onion, garlic, meat. ALL OF THEM. FRESH. (Well, okay, except for the anchovies...salt-cured, packed in cans).

(In fact, let me take this opportunity to assert here that unless you are going on a 6-month sea voyage or stockpiling for the coming apocalypse, there simply are no acceptable uses for canned mushrooms. Those wet, slimy, nasty little giblets do not belong anywhere, and absolutely never, ever on a pizza.)

And, by the way, in Italy, probably only 50% of the pizza available use some type of tomato sauce as a base. It’s only one of several possibilities and it is not a requirement.

Thirdly, there’s the cheese. Forget about the packaged, pre-shredded cheese-like products from Kraft, Sargento, Yoder, etc. that hang in the cold food section of your grocery. I’m not 100% sure that stuff is even cheese and neither are you. That is what they are putting on your pizza at your typical pizza restaurant. When you make pizza at home, you need to NOT use that crap. I know it’s easy and cheap. That’s because it’s not real. So suck it up and just get the real, actual ingredients that God intended you eat. Look, most of your major grocery chains have specialty cheese sections over there by the deli. What you need to do is buy a ball of fresh mozzarella, for starters. It looks like this:

It’s probably made in Wisconsin, not Italy, but that can’t be helped and it will still be a vast improvement over what you are used to. While you are there, pick up some REAL parmesan cheese, not that stuff in the little green can.

Fourthly, meat toppings on Italian pizza are wonderfully varied. They use a variety of locally produced sausage, pepperoni, pancetta (sorta like bacon), prosciutto, ham, veal, lamb, and assorted seafood. What you won’t find is hamburger. No ground beef. I don’t know why this is the case, but I know I certainly did not miss it.  I really could do a whole post on the wonders of prosciutto, by the way, but I will probably spare you.

Now, just a little bit about construction. In America, we want our pizzas to be covered, edge-to-edge, usually with as many different, processed ingredients as possible on a canned, gooey, red tomato-ish sauce. Possibly we do this to hide the tasteless, doughy bread underneath, but really I think it is because we have this sad, misinformed idea that more is always better. If a little bit is good, then more must be better. This is usually wrong in all areas of life, but especially with food. Without necessarily making a broad sweeping indictment of our contemporary culture, when it comes to food, in America it seems we often try compensate for a lack of quality with an overwhelming quantity. (Ever been to a Cracker Barrel?)

In Italy, you will have fewer ingredients on your pizza. No thick melange of garbled, confused flavors. No heavy spices. Instead, the fresh flavors of two or three high-quality ingredients blend and expand in your mouth. You might have some sprigs of fresh baby arugula sprinkled on top, or a little chopped oregano. It might be lightly drizzled with a sweet olive oil.

And let me just say this. Life is too short for cheap olive oil. Don’t buy the store brand. Get the good kind, the genuine Italian extra virgin olive oil. Get the best you can find.  I promise it makes a difference. The cheap stuff is not good and the good stuff is not cheap...and that is a principle that holds for most things in life.

In Rome we ate a lot of pizza. Every place was different and unique.  Most of the places were family owned and every pizza we had was far, far better than anything we’ve found available in restaurants here. One of our favorites was Pizza Boom, near the street market on Via Trastavere. But the very best place was recommended to us by our Italian friend, Federico the First, who told us, “You must not eat pizza just anywhere in Rome. You will go to Forno. It is the best.  But you must go before noon.  It is very important.”

So we went to Forno Cerulli, arriving about 11:45 AM for lunch.  It was tiny and packed with local Italians.  It was clearly a place that did a huge business.   There were no tables or chairs, just a long deli style counter on one side and a narrow bar at which one stood to eat on the other side. Several employees were working at full throttle to service the hungry, amiable throng.  Most people were getting their pizza to go, but we crowded in with a few others to eat and watch the action.  

Federico was right.  It was the best.  More on our friend Federico later.


NP said...

Well said!

GPIKE said...

So, did you like the pizza in Italy?

Barry Pike said...

Meh. It was okay. If you like that kind of thing...

Aren't you glad I edited this post down some? I've probably got one more food post coming up soon, about the most expensive meal we ever had.

IzzyBeth said...

I agree - Pizza in Italy was completely different than here. And - my experience was - everyone got THEIR OWN PIZZA. (And they weren't small . . .)

Jenn said...

I'm sure you're right about real pizza. But at least we don't put tuna or sweet-corn on ours, like they do in Britain. Oh yes. They do.

Barry Pike said...

Jenn, that is just atrocious. I wonder why it is that the British Isles has such a terrible reputation for cuisine. Their brewed and fermented beverages are well-regarded, but for CENTURIES, they have been pilloried by everyone else for their deplorable food.