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.
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.
My most frightening early experience at Sazza was a night when I stopped in for three or four personal pizzas (a simple four-cheese, probably that one with duck on it, a couple others) and found myself most enjoying the one that tasted like a hot Fig Newton with burnt rosemary needles. It wasn't that I particularly liked the Fig Newton pizza, but that everything else was so much worse.
Still, something about Sazza kept drawing me back. I might be stuck in my own pizza preferences, but I am also respectful (and occasionally envious) of those who are trying to do new things — and Jenni and Jeff were definitely trying. Every time I returned to their small, spare, brightly lit and très moderne, fast-casual-looking pizza joint, I saw that the menu had been changed, tightened. I saw the place when it was furiously busy — all the low, blond, recycled-wood tables and the high counter seats by the window taken by neighbors and families, the register backed up with people getting takeout. I also saw it when it was miserably quiet — just me, a green-chile enchilada pizza with cilantro, a glass of biodynamic wine and Jeff behind the counter, staring forlornly out through the glass. I saw that Jenni and Jeff were cudgeling their dream into a slow-growing maturity that was being dearly purchased, month by month, lesson by lesson.
Once the kitchen got its legs, for example, the crusts were fine — a perfect thickness, a perfect blend of stiff, stone-charred bottom to soft, yielding top. In particular, they were good on the eight-inch personal pizzas, which is tough to pull off because those things burn in half a second if not watched very carefully by someone who knows just when to pull them. Additionally, Sazza kept working until it got the four-cheese mix right. Its blend has mozzarella and provolone as well as romano and parmesan — generally a sin of damning proportion, because those last two cheeses often come together to taste and smell like a foot. But the kitchen uses fresh, real romano and parmesan, not the crap in the little cans, so that rather than add a footy flavor, they merely lend a sting of saltiness and sourness balanced by the mozzarella and provolone. On other pies, the kitchen uses gruyère — an underappreciated pizza cheese (like emmenthaler) that works well as long as it's paired with an equal or greater amount of mozzarella.
Over the months, I watched Sazza pull other things together. The first time I'd had the French onion pizza, it was terrible. Yes, there was gruyère, but it was smothered with caramelized onions that were barely browned, bitter with the flavor of scorched garlic. A few weeks later, though, the same pizza was excellent — a smart and controlled transposition of flavors from the soup crock to the pie, lightly touched with garlic oil, spread thinly with shaved and properly caramelized onions that'd settled gently into their bed of milky, soft cheese. And all of a sudden, I no longer needed several beers and a side of chicken wings just to be in the same room with a barbecued-chicken pizza dotted with chunks of pineapple. At Sazza, I even kind of liked it — though I justified that by determining that the inclusion of slivered red onion and a light touch of barbecue sauce balanced the slick, wet sweetness of the fruit and made the combination work.
There are still problems: The basil pesto on the white pizza remains inedibly bad (too strong, too punch-in-the-face forward and used in too great a quantity to be balanced by a simple slice of tomato and a jacket of mild cheese); the pepperoni used by the kitchen tastes like fried baloney (not a bad thing, necessarily, but not something I want on my pizza); and I still want to cry a little for my lost youth when I see a menu listing garlic-shot cheeseburger pizza with ketchup and lettuce. But while Sazza is not yet a great pizza joint, it's fought its way through all my prejudices to become a solidly good one.
Last week, I stopped in alone on a quiet night and ordered the winter seasonal special: a purple-potato pizza made with Peruvian purple mountain potatoes, sliced thin as paper, touched with cracked black pepper and laid across a bed of cheese studded with roasted chicken, sliced apples and bacon. I meant to eat one slice, but then had two, then three. There was something about the combination of the potato starch, the sweet apple, the savory chicken and the balance of flavors against the weight of the crust. The bacon didn't hurt, either. But what surprised me most was that, far from raging against this kind of thing — about as far from the pizzas of my childhood as could possibly be imagined — I actually found myself enjoying it.
What's more, I found myself looking forward to the next bite. And the next and the next.
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