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Up to this point, I had given about as much thought to the foods of Argentina as I had to the high peaks of Cincinnati or the beaches of Kansas. And I had given about as much thought to Argentina in general as I had to Victorian haberdashery or the mating habits of boll weevils -- which is to say, precisely none at all. I (maybe) could have found Argentina on a map if forced to do so (although I can't imagine any situation where my knowledge of South American geography would be put to the test, excepting the odd spontaneous bar-room geo-quiz that -- depending on the crowd you run with -- sometimes takes the place of the odd spontaneous bar-room spelling bee), and the rest of what I knew about the country could be summed up in four words: Nazis and the tango.
1319 22nd St.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
Empanadas: $1.75/$18 per dozen
Cuban sandwich: $6.90
I'd read somewhere that after WWII, lots of Nazis fled to Argentina to avoid the sorts of uncomfortable social situations one finds oneself in after coming out on the wrong end of a genocide. And I'd heard that the tango -- the hottest dance craze of the Eisenhower era -- was invented in Argentina. Thus, my entire image of this no doubt lovely and complex culture was a mental picture of dark-eyed beauties with roses in their teeth locked in the arms of elderly Germans with tiny moustaches, goose-stepping around a dance floor. That is, until last month, when I discovered Buenos Aires Pizzeria. Now I'm ready to pack up the wife, the kid, the cats and the typer and move to Argentina myself.
After a little light reading and a talk with Francis Carrera, who moved to Denver from Buenos Aires seventeen years ago and opened this small storefront restaurant downtown just two years ago, I now know that they make pizza in Buenos Aires -- and, in particular, in the immigrant Italian neighborhoods of the legendary port city. Really good pizza, different in many ways from the pizza we're accustomed to in this country, flavored with a strange, transatlantic mélange of culinary influences. And they don't just make pizzas there, but pastas and empanadas and sandwiches and salads and entrees that take the best food ideas of each successive wave of immigrants and incorporate them into a national cuisine that's far more European than South American and is best expressed -- in downtown Denver, anyway -- on the strangest of palettes: a pizza.
American pizza is dull. American pizza is boring. American pizza is so incorporated into the Friday-night zeitgeist of suburban gastronomy that, at last count, the American economy supported no fewer than 317 pizza parlors per citizen, each one more banal and pedestrian than the last. Within a block of La Casa de Sheehan, for example, there are three different chain-pizza outlets, all offering cookie-cutter versions of cardboard bread topped with plasticene cheese, delivered to my door by some twitchy head case in a jacked-up Honda Civic (which is still better than my neighborhood Chinese delivery place that employs a guy who's a dead ringer for Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and who's probably camped out in a van watching my house through night-vision goggles right now). For the most part, American pizza is a nightmare of sameness and industrial Stepford consistency that's only made worse by the scads of upscale/low-brow kitchen opportunists who try to improve on this mediocrity by creating awful Frankenstein reinventions. Cracker-crust pizza is an irredeemable horror. Focaccia pizza is just a way for a smart restaurateur to charge $13 for an open-face sandwich. And gourmet pies served in white-tablecloth restaurants? That's only slightly less offensive than the same places charging for water.
Of course, not everyone out there in the pie game is a ripoff artist. And because I am, after all, an American boy -- which means that pizza makes up its own full step on my personal food pyramid (above Ding Dongs and below ramen) -- I eat a lot of pizza. I search for good pizza, consult with pizza experts, shamelessly tout my favorites and think about pizza way too much. Which is why I thought it was time I finally tried Buenos Aires Pizzeria.
The menu here lists thirty types of pizza, each as unique as a snowflake -- and not one including a single slice of pepperoni, thank God. Hearts of palm? Absolutely, on the namesake Buenos Aires pie and also the Belgrano, which comes dressed in blue cheese. Corn? Kernels of it on the Choclo, as well as mozzarella and bacon. The salty Crudo features prosciutto and sun-dried tomatoes, the Almagro soft eggplant. There's oil, onion and oregano on the Fugaza, sliced oranges, pineapple and shredded coconut on the Tropical. And shredded hard-boiled egg adorns about half of the offerings because, come to find out, the Argentine people are pizza-savants who discovered that hard-boiled egg (both whites and yolks) lent a weird, wonderful, almost nutty flavor to a slice that -- once you taste it -- you realize has been sadly missing from every other pizza you've ever tried.
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