THE MIDWEEK MODERNIST PIZZA REPORT: Traveling the world to eat the best pizza, getting paid for it AND collecting frequent flier miles? How do you get THAT gig? (Part II)
The Ongoing Modernist Pizza Review, Volume 1, Chapter 3, "Pizza Travels" (Part II)
Written by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya
Published by The Cooking Lab; First edition, October 19, 2021
Hardcover: 1708 pages, 32.7 pounds, 13.78 x 10.24 x 15.94 inches
List Price: $425.00
Amazon discount price as of 03/08/23: $294.99
When we left you last time, we’d been diving into pizza in São Paolo. As one of the world’s major pizza cities, it has a unique and vibrant pizza culture with a per-capita incidence of pizza restaurants that makes it outweigh the 900-pound pizza gorilla of New York City. As much of a shocker as that was, get ready for this little slice of pizza madness…
The city of Buenos Aires is equally as mythologized as New York or New Haven. And in contrast to Sāo Paolo’s sit-down, fine-dining pizza culture, Buenos Aires is a slice culture like New York’s. The pizza joint proprietors are reportedly a lot more like New Yorkers in their demeanor—and even in their suspicion of anyone wanting to do what the Modernist Cuisiners are doing.
Pizza in Buenos Aires is eaten mostly while standing at a counter. The slices are thick and heavy and “smothered with cheese.” The Modernist crew actually decided that it is possible to have too much cheese. They referred to the slices there as “weighty” and said they’d like the volume “dialed back.” I admit, it does make me wonder whether there’s a cholesterol problem in Buenos Aires.
Fainá is a thing there in Buenos Aires. This is a polenta-like pancake made with chickpea flour that’s often stacked on top of a pizza to make pizza a caballo. (That’s “pizza on horseback” for all you non-Spanish-speaking civilians.)
And be ready to be triggered. Buenos Aires loves their pineapple on pizza. Go figure. In another odd and possibly triggering circumstance for a certain kind of person, there’s a Buenos Aires pizzeria named Hell’s Pizza. They serve pizzas named for Abe Lincoln, MLK, Hilary Clinton, and Herbert Hoover. Explain that, Americans. Moreover, can you name a single Argentinian political or historical figure? If you come up with anything, you probably come up with Juan Perón. What’s on that pizza, anyway? Organized violence with a side of dictatorial rule? But I digres…
In Buenos Aires, you apparently see see clear evolutions from Neapolitan pizza. But these are evolutions you’d be unlikely to see in the US. There’s something called canchera. They say that this pizza is so is so simple it’s a challenge to execute well. “There aren’t any fancy toppings to hide behind; it’s just sauce, oregano, olive oil, and dough.” They even show a photo from THE one place that does canchera as it should be done.
At 6:28 am over my coffee, I’m looking at the canchera photo and thinking, “Ooh, that looks great. I need to try that.” The place is Pizzeria Angelin, and its pizza canchera became famous after Angelin’s owner began baking piles of pizza canchera and selling them cold from a table outside soccer games. And yes, if you know your pizza history, that sounds exactly like how pizza used to be sold on the streets of Naples. And just by the way, for all you pizza historians who like to crow about the longevity of places like Lombardi’s or Pepe’s or Regina, Pizzeria Angelin was established 1938. In fact, Buenos Aires seems to have a lot of pizzerias dating to the 1930s. Pizza here is entrenched. But would you expect it to be entrenched in Tokyo?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tokyo is a serious pizza city. There are chain pizzas with American style toppings. The more Japanese toppings are things like wasabi and daikon. The Tokyoites are apparently obsessed with “pizza toast,” which is exactly what it sounds like. And yes, let’s not forget: Tokyo also loves its Chicago deep dish.
In another unsurprising turn, Japanese chefs began going to Naples to learn pizza—and began winning awards in competition. AVPN now has a branch in Japan and has certified more than 80 pizzerias. Seems the Japanese have approached pizza with a typical zeal, discipline and philosophy.
There is no Tokyo-style pizza. But it seems they do have a unique marinara pizza. It goes light on the sauce and fresh garlic, and heavy on olive oil. The Modernistas say it’s one of the best marinara pizzas they had. And it had so much oil, in fact, that in the oven it became a fire hazard.
In a nod to sumo wrestlers, who toss salt into the ring before each match, Japanese pizzaioli toss salt into the oven before each pizza. The Modernist observation is that it flares up and provides “entertainment value.”
Here comes your next triggering pizza moment! (Sorry, no pineapple.) The pizzeria Savoy, which has nine locations, is known for it pizza topped with Japanese mayo and raw tuna. And the marinara pizza at Savory was so good, it inspired Modernist to include their own version of it in the recipe section.
The cross cultural cooperation between Italian pizzaioli and aspiring Japanese chefs is very much a story of earning respect, gaining trust and proving oneself. Sometimes. Other times, the Italians are not so cooperative with the Japanese. Neapolitan-style pizzaiolo Susumu Kakinuma was rebuffed by Italian pizzaioli. So, the way he learned was by eating Italian pizzas. Then, back in Tokyo, he began doing pizza his own way.
There’s something poetic about Susumu using a blend of Italian and Japanese tomatoes. He also uses a wood-fired oven—but not a traditional Italian oven. His pizzas sound very Japanese in their balance and the philosophy behind them. They’re described as “spare and lovely.” Modernist calls his place one of the two best pizzerias they visited in Tokyo.
If you’re the squeamish-about-sushi type, you’ll have a problem with The Kitchen Salvatore Cuomo Ginza’s pizza. It’s topped with Iwanori and nama shirasu (respectively, a green river algae and a tiny raw fish). The chef owner behind the algae-and-tiny-raw-fish pie at The Kitchen Salvatore is Salvatore Cuomo. He was born of an Italian father and Japanese mother, and he is an Italian food icon in Japan with about 80 restaurants around Asia.
And the biggest surprise of a city in Modernist Pizza’s pizza travels? New York. The city that never sleeps surprised them, and they were not expecting that.
As you’d expect, there was plenty of cheap commodity pizza at 99 cents s slice. As you might not expect, the historic pizzas were perhaps not as good as they were just historic.
They preferred the “modern pizzerias trying to act like they’re old school.” Among those were Best Pizza and Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop. They also found that the best New York pizzas were in Brooklyn—but the single best pizza of the New York leg was actually in Jersey City at Dan Richer’s Razza. (I’ve been reading Dan Richer’s book, The Joy Of Pizza. It should be called The Intensity Of Pizza. Dan Richer is fastidious and geeky like there’s no tomorrow.)
New York delivers a plethora of pizza. They had great Neapolitan style, artisan pizza, Detroit pan pizza, and ultra-thin crust pizza. What they say they never had much of? There was no “strikingly good, New York-style pizza.” And the quest for Sicilian pizza didn’t pan out. (Yes, I said that.) All the Sicilians had the dreaded gummy-gel layer. And there was no diversity of sauces.
The New York pizzaioli are collegial. (Well, “collegial” is my word. Maybe it’s too fancy, but I like the idea of collegian pizzaioli.) They hang out together, and they eat at each other’s joints. But they were also more cagey with the Modernist Cuisine crew, and not forthcoming about their recipes.
The old-school pizzeria winner seems to be Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street in the Village. Pro tip: Don’t ask for toppings, or everyone in the joint will know you’re from out of town. Joe’s now has five locations in New York and one in Shanghai. Each location is run by a family member.
Williamsburg Pizza and Brooklyn Pizza Crew get big thumbs up. Proprietor Nino Coniglio has won Chopped, and is a Pizza Maker Of The Year at the big annual Pizza Expo in Vegas. Modernist thought is NY slices were legit.
Here now, a different kind of triggering moment. No, we’re once again not going all pineapple on ya here. You might find this at a different end of the eye-rolling spectrum. But here it comes: Modernist Pizza writes that at the vaunted Lucali, Mark Iacono “makes superb pizza at a candlelit marble table as diners watch in reverence ‘as if sitting in church…in the presence of a kind of sacrament’ The New York Times’s Sam Sifton wrote.”
Lucali has the quintessential oven theater. They’re using a gas oven, but it has compartment for wood. Customers like to see the flames.
Want to try and argue that pizza isn’t emotional? Good luck with that. And speaking of emotional, my long suffering wife will rue my use of the phrase here, but the pictures of some of the pizzas are (yes) drool-worthy.
Their choices for best pizza in NYC run the gamut. We’re talking Detroit style. There’s São Paolo style, but the joint calls it Roman style. There’s artisan pizza, and old-school New York style. There’s canotto-style Neapolitan (“cannotto” being Italian vernacular for an inflatable life raft). There’s great pizza that’s “somewhere between artisan and Rest-Of-Italy Neapolitan, with a little bit of New York vernacular thrown in by virtue of the fact that they focus on takeaway slices” a a joint called L’Industrie. (Why the French name? It was already on the sign and they couldn’t afford to change it.)
Overall, reading this chapter confronts one with a global, head-spinning constellation of pizza styles. Because of that, you might begin to understand why my advice to the pizza-making newbie is to pick one style of pizza you like, then focus on making that. Trying to make all kinds of pizza means you’re going to have a hard time ever getting good at any of it. And really, you might just get frustrated and quit.
This chapter blows a lot of holes in a lot of reputations that are more mythical than factual. There’s more evidence about the emotional power of pizza nostalgia. And this power might be more truthful to the reality of nostalgia’s Greek etymology. (If you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about if you ever saw Don Draper’s pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector.) Nostalgia, in its literal translation, represents pain from an old wound.
And once again, this takes us to the conclusion of today’s pizza travels. We’ll be back with third and final installment about this epic chapter next time. And, as always, if you’d like to see this awesome 3-volume set in its 36-pound discounted glory at Amazon, click here. If you’d rather just have a quick, easy and fun guide to making great pizza in your home oven, you can see Free The Pizza! right here.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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