The life of a Wine Scribbler is naught but cakes and ale, thinks Thirsty Reader. High living, clichés in-cluded: impeccable service, glorious wines, charming decor, succulent* food. Dream on, Thirsty Reader. Envious Thirsty Reader. It isn’t ever thus.
For example, recently some innocent Rhone wine-makers threw what we in the trade like to call an event pairing their wines with pizza. Now pairing has always seemed a dubious proposition to me, a fabricated frippery that encourages big egos—like the guy who replied to ‘what’s your favorite pairing’ with ‘I’m torn between cedar-roasted salmon with corn-and-scallion soufflé and a Russian River Pinot Noir—or a grilled ahi-tuna sandwich with havarti and Conundrum.” (Torn, is he? Torn?)
The wines were supposed to be 2008 Domaine de la Petite Cassagne Costières de Nimes (white), 2009 Domaine des Carabiniers Tavel (rosé) and a swatch of reds: 2006 Cellier de Marrenon Côtes du Ventoux, 2007 Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône Vil-lages, 2007 Domaine Montirius Vacqueyras, 2007 Cave de Tain Crozes-Hermitage, Vidal-Fleury Côte Rôtie and Vignoble la Coterie Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Of this wee handful several never showed and had to be replaced at the last minute.
Still, the Rhonistes would pair, so the sticking point —the bone of contention or the apple of discord or the fruit of the loom, as it were—became Should pizzas be made by chefs?
I’m strictly brown-shoe army when it comes to im-proving perfection, otherwise known as re-inventing the wheel or not leaving well-enough alone or fixing what isn’t broken. Chefs are creative, adventurous souls drawn by the new, thrilled by the unusual and, lest we forget, obsessed with the personal—their own creations. It is cruelty to inflict them on the simple (and helpless) perfection that is pizza.
In short, there’s a point at which a thing is done, over, finished—beyond our poor power to add or detract. And for that reason I’d far rather grab a feast on the fly at one of my nearby buck-a-slice (Italian pronunciation: boo-ka-SLEE-chay) joints than suffer the pretension and pomposity over-produced by some preening chef.
The event, billed as a Manhattan-Brooklyn bake-off, was held at a restaurant confusingly called both Co. and Company (9th Ave., NE corner of 24th St.). There you will find owner-chef Jim Lahey ‘putting,’ says the web-site, ‘his own spin on Roman-style pizza.’ Emphasis mine. Lahey is famous for having ‘invented’ a revolutionary no-knead bread-making process. Bread having been around since about 9500 BC, I’m inclined to doubt that, and one of the bigger and more recent bread-making innovations supports my dark suspicions about ‘improvements’ in general. That’s the Chorleywood Process, by which factories churn out finished loaves—sliced and wrapped, al-ready!—in less than four hours using cheap, low-protein wheat formerly fed to farm animals. It is, as you have surmised, a British process.
Not that Lahey would have any truck with such stuff. His book, My Bread (a hot seller at Amazon), will make you make some excellent loaves. His pizza dough was excellent too (like that of chefs Nate Appelman of Pulino’s and Brooklyn’s Mathieu Palombino of Motorino and Mark Iacono of Lucali).
Would that I could say as much for his Corn Pie (corn puree, mozzarella, parmesan, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and chili powder). It was more than his baseball cap that put me off**. The pie was simply leaden. Mathieu Palombino’s chefly overkill was Brussels Sprout Pizza (with fior di latte, pancetta affumicata, Parmigiano-Reggiano and garlic. Not that I was disappointed. I didn’t expect much from Brussels sprouts, and that’s what I got.
I had high hopes for Mark Iacono’s Plain Pie—what the p.r. folk called a traditional ‘Margarita.’ (That’s a drink, kids. I’m sure Margherita was what Iacono intended). How could you mess up something so simple as mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil? Here’s how: you make an 11-inch pie surrounded by a 2-inch ring of arid crust.
The sole success was Nate Appleman’s Bianca Tradizionale: mozzarella, pecorino, black pepper and pork strutto (lard). It must have been crowded in the oven (hence the flat side), but this pie was rich, flavorful and perfectly baked. Now that was a pizza! I resented having to share it. I could easily have eat-ten two of them without any help.
Nate Appleman’s pride and my joy: the Bianca Tradizionale (mozzarella, pecorino, black pep-per and pork lard) as served at Pulino’s Bar-Pizzeria, 282 Bowery off Houston St. A fargen-ign! A taka oytser in deed as well as in mouth.
Appleman (below), awash in kudos from the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine and the IACP, says his Bianca Tradizionale very probably represents pizza in its earliest form—i.e., tomato-free. To make such a claim requires a certain authority (modishly known these days as gravitas), and Appleman cer-tainly has it (he trained in Italy and is said to be one of the few Americans certified as a pizzaiolo by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association). And history is on his side. The tomato is a New World fruit, after all, brought to Europe by Spain’s conquistadores as recently as the mid-16th Century. It took its sweet time finding the kitchen. Originally prized only as decorative plants, tomatoes were considered unfit to eat, even poisonous. So it’s very likely that long before then folks in the region had been dining on “baked flatbread discs with something on top.”
In fairness, only Lahey was used to Co.’s 900° oven: Co. is his restaurant, after all. The other chefs were used their own 700° ovens; that (very consider-able) difference may well have been why most of the night’s pies turned out crisp on the bottom but wet and sloppy on top.
Excused from this rant is Chef Heather Carlucci of Print, whose Sweet Pizza mixes chocolate with Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta and raw honey. I didn’t stick around to try it because the night was dragging on interminably—more than three hours— and I wanted out. I was not alone. Indeed, many had fled before I did.
The service was awful. From my seat, opposite the pass-through, it seemed that half the waiters were crowded into the kitchen, trying to impress the chefs. The floor help mostly stood around talking to each other. As for the wine service, although this event was a dinner, all we got, intermittently, were stingy sip-and-spit pours. A writer who asked for a wine that had been poured before she arrived was bluntly told it was simply not possible. Few of the waiters could imagine that anyone would want to look at a wine label and even fewer were helpful in identifying the substitute wines. The exception was the sommelier, Thomas Carter, borrowed for the oc-casion from Blue Hill at Stone Barns***. What was he supposed to do—train a whole crew of baseball caps in a single afternoon?
The wines I did get—the Domaine de la Petite Cas-sagne, Domaine des Carabiniers Tavel, Domaine Montirius, Vidal-Fleury, Cave de Tain and Vignoble la Coterie plus one of the substitutes, Maison Boua-chon’s La Rouvière rosé—were all very pleasing and I’d gladly drink them again, but not with pizza (at least, most of these pizzas). To me, the drink for pizza is beer. Charles Scicolone, no beer drinker, recommends a pair of frizzante reds from the Sorren-tine Peninsula, Gragnano and Lettere (Charles knows pie, by the way: With his wife, Michele, he wrote another Amazon hit, Pizza Any Way You Slice It: Easy Recipes for Great Homemade Pizzas, Focac-cia and Calzones. Gragnano and Lettere aren’t easi-ly found here), so he adds, ‘With just Pizza Margher-ita I like Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresca and Taurasi.’
As who, after all, would not?
Photo of Nate Appleman by Sylvia Paret.
*Outlaw succulent and half the foodies in publishing will be on the bricks by late this afternoon.
**Sorry, but most men not signed to major-league contracts look ridiculous in baseball caps, save for those wearing New York Yankees caps: they may look like criminals and often are. See the New York Times’ story Crime Blotter Has a Regular: Yankees Caps (Sept. 16).
***Again with the at? I’d hoped we’d got over this with the hilariously vulgar The Mansion at Turtle Creek and The Inn at Little Washington. But no.
© 2010 Bill Marsano