The Great Debate
Thin crust or foodie fantasy --- will the real pizza please stand up?
By Bradley Tuck 07/01/2011
For something as seemingly simple as a baked mixture of flour and water, topped with some simple sauce, it’s remarkable how the humble pizza can be so passionately debated. Part of the fuss might stem from the fiercely nationalistic pride of the Italians themselves. I experienced this firsthand some years ago, while working in an Italian café in London. At the beginning of my tenure, I was greeted with palpable antipathy by the regulars. They were stout Italian men who had been ordering hand-pulled espressos from the bar for more than 40 years. The coffee machine was as old as the customers, with three levers, none helped along by automated convenience. An indifferently made espresso would be left on the counter, stared at coldly, without so much as a taste to confirm its inferiority. As an Englishman, an interloper, I was deemed incapable of making good coffee until I mentioned a little Italian in my heritage from several generations back. “Ah! You’re Italian!!” was the response.
Thereon in, the Italians would request that I man the levers for their macchiato over the elderly lady who had taught me my barista skills. Nationalism, chauvinism, what’s in a word? A friend of mine here in L.A., an Italian-American from the Bronx, is considering moving to San Francisco simply because it has an Italian neighborhood — North Beach. “Why would I live in a city like L.A., a place where you can’t get good bread, never mind good pizza?” he said, straight-faced, in a recent conversation.
This fierce national pride is perhaps somewhat ironic, when one considers that Italy didn’t exist as a nation until 1861. Pizza, however, has a history that precedes even the country that claims it as its national dish. There are accounts of pizza-like breads being made in Neolithic times, a crude dough baked beneath the stones of a fire. In the third century B.C., Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato), wrote the first history of Rome, and in it he mentions something resembling a gourmet pizza, “a flat round of dough, dressed with olive oil, herbs and honey, baked on stones.”
In the excavated ruins of Pompeii, evidence has been found of establishments that resemble the modern pizza joint — marble slabs, ovens and other tools of the trade. It’s interesting to speculate what toppings were popular at the time. After all, tomatoes weren’t brought from the New World until the early 1500s, and even then were initially thought to be poisonous. But soon, the poor of Naples were adding them to their flatbreads, named pizza, made by cooks called pizzaoili. It was the Neapolitans migrating to New York in the late 1900s who brought pizza to these shores and planted the seed of the debate about what constitutes good pizza, which now rages whenever the pie is mentioned.
A good friend who was born and raised in Manhattan claims that elementary schools there teach that pizza was first brought to New York and then was adopted in Chicago, where it was promptly ruined. This division between thin crust and deep pan is at the heart of the pizza debate. But it is surely more complex than that. And charged with investigating pizza for this story, I decided to divide the quest for a good crust into two camps: the traditional mom-and-pop establishment (the type of place that occupies many a New York storefront, turning out thousands of inexpensive slabs of cheese slices with toppings) and the new wave of pizza restaurant that has been opening of late (places that follow in the footsteps of L.A.’s hot Pizzeria Mozza, with smoky wood-burning ovens and an array of foodie toppings).
Inquiries among friends as to where one might find good pizza in Pasadena were met with responses ranging from shrugs to howls of derision. One friend who lives in Brazil chirped in, “Good pizza in L.A.? Good luck!” And so, with the weight of opinion against me, I soldiered forth, ready to consume a month’s worth of carbohydrates in two days.
When it comes to hole-in-the-wall pizza joints, there are a few to choose from. No doubt my choice of Tarantino’s on Green Street will be met with a chorus of “What about Bianchi?!” The only defense I can offer is that Tarantino’s looks more like a New York pizza joint, or at least the pizza place in my mind. The neon Budweiser signs, the abundance of green, white and red references to the tricolore; the red-and-white checkered vinyl tablecloths; the giant stack of boxes waiting to be filled with to-go orders all yelled East Village pizzeria.
The tiny space was crammed full of people the night of my visit with my diehard New York pizza lover. We decided to keep it simple and stick to a single pizza with a cheese topping, half of it topped with pepperoni. Our pizza was definitely tasty and was noticeably better when eaten at a temperature that threatened to remove the skin of one’s mouth. The dough was interesting — somewhat crispy, with a nice edge — but it missed that requisite thin-crust chewiness found in a real New York slice. It was also slightly thicker. That said, they don’t market themselves as a New York–style pizza place, so that isn’t a criticism. The sauce also tasted like a marinara sauce, which was interesting but definitely tasty. We had plenty of pizza left, so we boxed our leftovers and ventured on to a contrasting establishment.
The Luggage Room on South Raymond Avenue opened last year as an adjunct to the very successful La Grande Orange restaurant. Housed in the old Santa Fe train depot, it has been beautifully designed, bearing the old station’s sliding wooden doors painted a cheery deep red. Even the approach to the Luggage Room whets the appetite, the smell of the wood-burning oven wafting on the breeze two blocks away.
We decided to keep it pretty simple for this visit too, ordering the Margherita, with buffalo mozzarella added for an additional $5. At the end of the room, the cooks were shoveling pizzas into the oven, the coals clearly visible throughout the restaurant. Pies on wooden slabs were hurried to nearby tables. When ours arrived, it had a pleasing amount of char on the bubbled-edge crust. The smell of wood smoke rose to our noses. It was a really good crust — thin, with some crispiness, but some chewiness too. It flopped around when picked up, in a way that Tarantino’s slice didn’t. Again, that isn’t a judgment on either. There were charred blobs of fresh tomato, and the mozzarella was melted and gooey. But comparing the two eateries is like equating apples with oranges. They fulfill different needs, and at very different price points too. My New York friend had an interesting take on the experience:
“Tarantino’s was Pasadena’s stab at New York– or Italian-American–style pizza by the slice. It was actually a little shocking to taste. The slices definitely packed more flavor than expected, maybe because the sauce tasted like marinara sauce, which was kind of delicious but definitely not like many other pies. It tasted better than most of what is out here of that genre (the cheap, easy, quick pizza genre). It was like a much better rendition of Pizzeria Uno–style pizza, so the crust was kind of thick and the cheese was undercooked, but the sauce pulled it together. It also reheated pretty well, but why does the cheese never brown? What a mystery!
“The Luggage Room’s crust was really good, and the tomato sauce (which incorporated whole tomato chunks) was extra wonderful. My only real complaint about it was that the crust was a little salty and maybe even a little undercooked. It didn’t reheat well — it fell apart — but since the flavors were so good, it didn’t matter. It still tasted great.”
Of course, being a New Yorker, she added this qualifying statement: “This expedition proved, once again, that there is no such thing as New York–style pizza in Pasadena or really the Los Angeles area in general. I enjoyed both pizzas we ate on Friday, but neither were New York–style pizza in a strict sense. In the case of the Luggage Room, the pizza was gourmet style and was based on Italian pizza anyway, but in the case of Tarantino’s it was the usual weird mistranslation of Italian-American food that is endemic to this coast. So a New Yorker’s opinion is almost irrelevant in this comparison, because we’re not even talking about the same food. That said, my opinion definitely means more in the case of Tarantino’s than the Luggage Room, which makes gourmet pies that can be enjoyed by foodies of any geographic origin as long as they like fresh mozzarella.”
And thus, the pizza debate rages on.