The World Is Flat
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.
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.
Buenos Aires's pies are also pork-intensive, which I appreciate. Prosciutto, bacon, pancetta, salami and plain old sliced ham decorate maybe three-quarters of the pizzas, the pig dressed here with salsa, there with roasted red peppers and parmesan, and over there with a French white béchamel with corn and green onions and a beautiful, thick jacket of real mozzarella that actually tastes like mozzarella, not spackling compound.
The pizzas are "rustic," which means they aren't always perfectly round, with crusts thinner than a thick-crust pie but thicker than a New York thin. These crusts have muscle and can hold some weight, but they're more chewy than crisp -- baked naked at first, with the ingredients and toppings added only once the crust has set -- and come out of the oven virtually un-risen at the narrow bone, in imitation of the Italian style. I like that.
I also like the implicit understanding that crust is merely a transportation solution for those of us who would otherwise just be eating tomato sauce, cheese and prosciutto with a spoon. All this talk from American pizza gurus about how the crust is the basis for everything and must be able to stand on its own with a distinctive flavor and texture? Nonsense. These are the same guys who invented focaccia pizzas -- and I still haven't forgiven them. A crust is merely pizza superstructure and should remain humble, neither drawing attention to itself nor tasting of anything but bread. Like Abe Vigoda, crust is best when it is unremarkable -- playing the straight man to the cast of toppings that it silently and modestly carries on its back.
And that's a role that the Buenos Aires pie has down pat. Whether you order the Five Queso, the Verde, the Roque, the Tango or the Rio de la Plata, the crust will taste the same -- but each pizza itself is distinctive, having been carefully tuned with different herbs and spices, the volumes of sauce and cheese adjusted to complement the rest of the ingredients. The Mar del Plata, with mozzarella, green onions and shrimp sautéed in garlic, is sloppy and dosed with black pepper. The Borges is touched only lightly with sauce, giving over its entire flavor to sautéed spinach and fresh sliced tomatoes. The Boca looks deceptively like the same kind of pie you might get from Blackjack or Papa John's -- until you bite into it and taste the fresh oregano, the egg, the light, sweet sauce.
With pizzas this good, I would frequent Buenos Aires Pizzeria if that was all the kitchen did, all that came across the counter in the tiny takeout space that was once the entire restaurant or was served in the sit-down dining room (which opened in 2004 just one door down), with its rough wood floors, high ceilings and posters of the bright Buenos Aires skyline on the walls. But while Buenos Aires the city is apparently not all about Nazis and tango, neither is Buenos Aires the restaurant all about pizza. The cooks -- many of them Carrera's relatives -- offer two dozen handmade Argentine-style flavors of gelato every day. There are also homemade Argentine pastries for breakfast, submarinos of bittersweet chocolate melted into hot cream, a green chimichurri that tastes like chile pesto, and the best Cuban sandwich I've had since leaving Florida -- one that is, in fact, a lot better than many of the Cubans I had while wandering around Tampa and Miami Beach. The filling is simply pork cutlets, sliced ham, yellow mustard, pickles and melted swiss cheese, but the bread is wonderful -- both thin and dense, crisp and chewy, the kind of loaf that can only be created with equal measures of lard and genius. And while the bread doesn't matter in a pizza, it does in a sandwich, and the kitchen also makes a choripoma with chorizo, tomato sauce and mozzarella that tastes like a classic Italian meatball hoagie taken on a tour down the Rio de la Plata, then through the sprawling Italian neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata.
I wasn't crazy about the canelones off the entree list -- a mess of cheese and spinach rolled in egg crepes rather than pasta and baked at too high of a heat under the broiler (or, more likely, in the pizza oven) so that the top had browned before the interior ingredients had melted or cooked through. But the menu also lists fifteen or sixteen kinds of empanadas, each individually made and baked to order, stuffed and wrapped in a glossy, flaky pastry shell, some braided, some scalloped, all excellent. The margherita was the best of the bunch (like a calzone for midgets), the blue cheese and onion the most frightening, the beef the most interesting, stuffed with ground beef, onions, spices and whole green olives so that it was sort of like a picadillo, sort of like a samosa, sort of like a lot of things, and really unlike anything I'd ever had before.
American pizza joints, with their rigid lists of acceptable pizza toppings and tool-and-die monotony, could learn a thing or two from the Porteños of Buenos Aires. They won't, but they could. The pies at Carrera's little storefront -- with their French sauces and native ingredients, their hearts of palm and ham and olives and Italian soul -- are Mercator projections of the Old World and the New, proving that the world can be both flat and well-rounded, distant but close to home. There's so much more to this place than the pizzas, though, because the culinary history of Argentina is one of incredible diversity and cosmopolitan chic. The French, the Italians, the Spanish and Germans on the lam all came to that country, settled, built communities and left their Old World imprint on the culture of the New, shaping -- in exile -- a distinct mishmash style unlike any other.
You can taste a good portion of that at Buenos Aires Pizzeria. On the back of the menu, a line describes the tango as "a dance of intimate separation and common rhythm, combining both an elegant reserve and an exuberant passion." That holds for the food, too. It's all about pizza and pasta, gelato and Cuban sandwiches and Nazis dancing the tango.
So when you get right down to it, I knew Buenos Aires pretty well after all.
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