15 April 2010
Pizza is one of those things, isn't it? There's this endless quest for authenticity, this need and desire for what you order from your local to be the equivalent of that slice you had wandering around Naples... and that way massive disappointment lies.
I try to modify my expectations with these sorts of things, and focus instead on the more basic purpose of my UK pizza: does it taste good? Mind you, it probably helps that my experience of pizza in Italy is not what you'd call stellar.
It happened in 1996 and I can even give you the date: February 9th. That's not because the events were so memorable the date is etched into my mind, merely because it was the first day of our honeymoon in Florence.
At this time I was, believe it or not (and you're probably a "not") a vegetarian. Well, a pescetarian to be exact but that's still a quantum leap for anyone who knows my dining habits now. It wasn't a big moral thing, I just went off beef during the BSE crisis, realised after a few weeks that, actually, I hadn't eaten meat at all in that time and decided to see how long that would last. In the end that turned out to be just over four years and then the lure of bacon proved too great. But I digress. Back to Florence...
We'd lined up some lovely meals for the few days we were in this spectacular city, but had a few nights earmarked for simpler fare and the first of these HAD to be pizza. We wandered the streets, looking for somewhere that looked "right" and found ourselves in a rather studenty side of town. There, on a little side street, we found the perfect spot. Other pizzerias we'd seen looked smarter. Others looked - let's be honest - cleaner. But none had been this busy. The clientele was a fantastic mix of students and older diners and couples and families, the sort of crowd that suggests this is a place doing something absolutely spot on.
After a short wait, we were seated and, with a carafe of robust red to warm the cockles, we perused the short menu and munched our way through some first rate antipasto: sweet, roasted peppers, garlicky courgette strips, tender artichoke hearts, mushrooms, achingly fresh calimari and lovely, baked-on-the-premises bread. The saliva glands were in overdrive, a situation made even worse - or better, depending on how you look at it - by the fantastic smells wafting from the oven and the other tables. This was the place to be alright.
Given the quality of the antipasto, I confidently ordered the "vegetariana", while Mrs L had the "quattro stagioni". Hers arrived first, a crisp but still slightly chewy base heaped with garlic, unctuous slabs of mozzarella, rich tomato sauce, sliced, barely cooked mushrooms, rolling piles of ham, a stack of those delightful artichoke hearts... It looked and smelled incredible, the thing late night snacky dreams are made of. I was virtually rubbing my hands in glee as the waiter approached with mine.
The rubbing stopped as the plate was placed in front of me. The base was impeccable. The cheese looked delicious and the sweet odour of the tomatoes teased the senses. The only problem then was the boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans that covered it. No. Really.
I don't think I swore, not even under my breath. According to Mrs L opposite, my face fell at such speed I must have temporarily lost the power of speech. I looked down at the pizza, then up at her, then down at the pizza, then over to the huge bowls of lovely vegetables on the antipasto buffet, then back at the pizza. I probably whimpered.
I've had some disappointments in my two score years (and a bit) but really, that's up there. Happily, Mrs L is lovely and took pity on me, sharing the mushrooms and artichokes as I slowly cleared my pizza of its alien toppings, but I was just bemused. Was this really their idea of a "vegetariana" or a bad joke at the expense of the English tourist?
We never solved that mystery (and the rest of the honeymoon was a landmark event in my now extensive dining history) and actually maybe this way it's better. This way, I'm not facing the endless disappointment of sub-standard UK pizza because, actually, anything that doesn't feature potatoes, carrots or fucking green beans is automatically superior. Either way, when Mrs L's recent forays into baking took a sideways step from (glorious) bread to a pizza base (after a certain degree of "encouragement" from me), and we covered it in homemade tomato sauce, generous slabs of mozzarella, mushrooms, slices of various piquant pork products, peppers, onions and ragged handfuls of homegrown basil, it tasted really bloody good. It looked rather pretty too.