Sunday, 31 August 2008

Pizza Trois Fois (Pizza Three Times)

I know it hardly singles me out if I tell you that pizza is one of my favorite foods. Since I haven't started a blog about it, built a pizza oven in my courtyard, or, hell, moved back to New York City, you would rightly guess that my devotion has its limits. All the same, though, I join many others in thinking that a really good pizza is amongst the best meals that can be found. (Even better with a glass or three of the slightly fizzy Neopolitan red wine served here.)

Pizza made at home has considerable virtues--the sense of smug satisfaction derived from making the dough and sauce oneself, the ability to source exactly the right ingredients and the chance to eat it when it's still really too hot to be touched. Yet while it easily beats out grocery store and delivery alternatives (at least in my 'hoods), it rarely matches what can emerge out of a commercial oven.

But the first pizza of my vacation week was made at home and it was, all modesty aside, fantastic. Though I had achieved moderately good results with this Mark Bittman recipe some six months ago, the more memorable part of the evening was the back-to-back watching of the last two films in the Bourne trilogy. I don't know what, if anything was different this time. As before, the dough was left to rise slowly in the fridge, I used fresh, basil-infused tomato sauce, and the mozarella was the proper stuff. On this occasion, though, it was almost revelatory: frying the disks of dough on both sides gave the crust a spongy-yet-crunchy texture which is almost impossible to achieve in a home oven, and a brief flash under the grill melded the toppings without incinerating them.

It's been years since I've travelled to Italy, or even had a slice of NYC takeout pizza while standing on the sidewalk. Neither England nor (most of) France is particularly at ease with street food, nor do their respective climates normally lend themselves to dining al fresco. But my 2nd and 3rd pizzas of the week--both eaten in the southern heat of Marseille--reflected the well-known truth that food simply tastes better out of doors.

Marseille, though still some hours by fast train from the Italian border, takes its pizza seriously, with dozens of hole-in-wall joints boasting of their wood-fired ovens. At one of them, located on a heaving North African market street a few minutes from the Vieux Port, we had a very credible slice made pleasantly greasy and spicy with the addition of chunks of merguez sausage. Although I had enjoyed merguez many times before, I had never encountered it in this form, or with the sun beating down on my shoulders.

And the night before, 14 of us had sat at a long table in the garden of a rambling old Marseille house, drinking rose and eating pies embellished with olives and herbes de provence and cooked before our eyes. Here at the home of G's second family, with whom he had spent a year during university, the glasses were refilled with exuberance, the conversation was full of wit and emotion and the pizza was topped with everything from local goats cheese to a pungent Alsacian cheese brought by another former roommate. I couldn't begin to keep up--with either the wine or with the banter--but was content just to soak in the scene.

On sober reflection, I'm not convinced that either merguez or Muenster are pizza's most natural partners. As for the rose, though... well that's another story entirely.

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