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I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm now old enough to remember when a pizza was just a pizza, a round crust (though the occasional square-crust party pizza was okay, too) that was always thin, but not too thin (certainly no cracker crusts, and outside of the high-school cafeteria, never thick or bready) topped with an artistic swirl of red, tomato-based sauce, mozzarella shredded off a five-pound brick and pepperoni, sliced thin. Sure, there were a few people who went for the hot Italian sausage, and even some who asked for greasy, salty, tinned anchovies — the nuclear option among pizza eaters, a guarantee that you'd have your pie to yourself. And then there was the odd purist, like me, who wanted nothing but crust, sauce and double cheese.
2500 E. Orchard Road
Littleton, CO 80121
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Going out for a pizza meant you went out, ordered a pizza (and maybe a nice bottle of Lambrusco or a cold Coke in a tall, waxy cup), and what arrived at your table a few minutes later was recognizably a pizza. No surprises, no dithering over whether you wanted the organic spelt-flour crust or pepperoni made from something other than pig and spice and time. No one came to your table and tried to sell you on the remarkable innovation of the chef's special concoction of dandelion greens, Thai purple basil, Styrofoam packing peanuts and recycled crankcase oil.
I remember the first time I saw someone eating a pizza with pineapple on it. My friend Nick was sitting in his living room in Buffalo with a sixer of Molson Export and Beverly Hills 90210 on the TV, eating a Hawaiian pizza from La Nova covered with thin-sliced ham and chunks of wet, yellow pineapple. I was horrified and, to console myself, drank most of his beer and ate all the leftover chicken wings in his fridge, because I sure as hell wasn't going anywhere near that abomination masquerading as a pizza. I remember another place in upstate New York, right across the street from the second-floor apartment of another friend. It was a popular late-night joint for buck-and-a-quarter slices, populated almost exclusively by street-level dealers and shitfaced college types who would stagger in through the front doors, wheeze out an order to the tattooed and multiply-pierced asesinos working behind the counter, go back outside to puke in the gutter, then sit there on the curb waiting for their names to be called. Inside, just over the counter, was a sign that said something along the lines of: NO PINEAPPLE, NO BBQ CHICKEN, NO SPROUTS, JUST PIZZA. That was my kind of joint.
But that was then — a golden age for pizza purists. Today? I've got to carry a Food Lover's Companion, a copy of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and my Socialist Party membership card with me and have an Italian translator standing by just to negotiate a menu and get an eight-inch margherita with cheese. It's a good thing I stopped doing drugs, because if I was still using, I might starve to death. It's tough enough to say quattro formaggio e la salsiccia con la mozzarella di bufalo locale when sober.
Times change. Tastes change. Pizzas change. By the late '70s and early '80s, pizza pioneer Ed LaDou (who died just recently and is now slinging pies for Jesus) and the crew at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse were already messing with the base genetics of the classic (read: American) pizza. Alice and company were doing wood-oven pizzas with goat cheese, and LaDou (who would later go on to become Wolfgang Puck's original pizza chef at Spago and write the first menu for the California Pizza Kitchen chain) was making ricotta and red-pepper pizzas with pâté and mustard, pizzas with barbecued chicken or duck sausage. By the '90s, California pizza was all the rage. Salmon pizza. Sushi pizza. Mexican pizza. Pizza chains (Papa John's, Pizza Hut) started changing their sauces for franchise operations west of the Mississippi, and Herr Puck was filling the grocery stores with frozen Spago nightmares. The rapid movement toward organic, all-natural and locally sourced ingredients hit the pizza business hard around the turn of the millennium, as did the rush toward authenticity and regional specialization. And while it was certainly still possible to get a normal red-sauce-and-double-cheese pizza or a couple of hot pepperoni slices when the mood struck, there was suddenly a sense of petit bourgeois small-mindedness attached to the notion of eating a plain, old-fashioned pizza.
But that didn't mean the newfangled pizza tasted better. In fact, when I first visited Sazza — the organic, sustainable, earth-friendly pizza joint that Jenni and Jeff Rogoff opened in June 2006 in the back of an enormous strip mall — its pizza was terrible. Dry, dusty crusts, red sauce that fairly sizzled with overburdening and unnecessary herbs, and awful combinations of buzzy ingredients. Duck. Rosemary. Fig. Cilantro, which is like a pizza gateway drug. If you're going to use cilantro — which becomes fiercely bitter and grassy when exposed to the baking heat of a pizza oven and, if put on after baking, simply wilts into a tired, sad little sprig — why stop there? Why not candy corn? Why not melted crayons? There has to be a line drawn somewhere, and for me that line comes long before you start reaching for the cilantro.
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