Something Cheesy Here

The economy is imploding, political scandal abounds, the personal Crisis sinks to new lows as the impending move nears. Yet today, I have something really important on my mind:

The food of the gods, my friends

The food of the gods, my friends

Pizza.

My (past) munchies snack of choice, the comfort food extraordinaire, my signature home-made dish for parties and potlucks, pizza has taken on mythic proportions in my culinary hall of fame.

As a kid, I did not know what good pizza was. The closest joint to our house served Greek-style ‘zas, a distinction that might not be made here in the Midwest, but is clear in New England. I don’t slight the hard-working Greek immigrants who serve up this serviceable, yet usually undistinguished fare. Greek pizza is marked by almost no sauce, lots of cheese, moderatate proportions of grease, and crust that crumbles like dried leaves (which is not a good thing, pizza-wise). It is in distinct contrast to Italian-style, which I discuss below (and which may or may not have much in common with the true brick-oven Italian pizza).

Of course, when we couldn’t get to Olympic Pizza, with its affable owner Nick (who gave us credit – knowing our father working next door in the post office was good for it – and who had some shady dealings on the side), I did what any addict does:  look for cheap substitutes at hand. My mother bought bags of ten small, frozen cheese pizzas, stacked in a plastic wrap like poker chips. I think even then I knew these wafer discs I popped into the oven three at a time were pretty hideous, but so what.

(There was one pizza treat in my youth. The good women of the local altar guild would bake pizza for their yearly fair. It was thick, served in squares, and had chunky tomato sauce with some herbs on top, but no cheese. It is a style, I recently learned, that is called bakery pizza and is most common in Rhode Island. A variation was the Sicilian pizza sold at some bakeries in the remnants of Hartford’s  Little Italy, which left off the sauce and had oil, garlic, spices, maybe a little sprinkled cheese, and tiny bits of anchovy. Until I learned about the hairy fish, I thought this was quite a treat too. Miraculously, there is a company here that packages and sells the bakery pizza I remember from my youth, immediately bringing me back to those fine ladies of the altar guild and Saturday afternoons spent trying to think of plausible sins to confess.)

To some, pizza nirvana

To some, pizza nirvana

Since those days, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the real thing in Italy and at some of the stateside pizza palaces acclaimed by the connoisseurs, such as Pepe’s in New Haven (though I was shocked to hear Pepe’s had gone chain; will some virtues never go unsullied?). And I have developed distinct preferences and prejudices. The Italian-style, mentioned above, is my favorite when I’m out looking for a quick eat, not the gourmet route. Italian-style places are usually run by – shock – Italians, as opposed to the Greek-style houses run by Greeks and other ethnicities who have served in Greek-style places (I have had them made by Palestinians and various residents of the Balkans).

The Italians create a chewy crust that is more like comforting bread, and with a better balance between sauce and cheese than in the Greek pies. The grease quotient tends to be lower too. I’ve never seen anyone else talk about this Greek-vs.-Italian styling of pizza, but put me in a Connecticut pizza spot and I can tell the difference right away, usually without taking a bite.

My Chicago pizza-eating experience has been a mixed bag. The biggest problem: I went vegan pretty much when we got here, so I’ve only had “real” pizza a few times, when I strayed into ovo-lacto land for short trips. Otherwise, I would have been making my way up one side of the city and down another, trying to find the best pies.

A work of art in itself

A work of art in itself

This, of course, is the land of deep-dish and stuffed pizza, though thin is starting to make inroads, especially in the upscale places. (One that always seems to get lots of press is Spacca Napoli, which features an imported brick oven and lays claim to being the most authentic Neapolitan-style pie around. I want to try theirs, even if I do have to get it without cheese, and even though they claim, “It’s all in the cheese.” They were the first to go with the hotshot, real Italian ‘zas, though competitors have emerged, including Crust, which is all organic. But they call them flatbreads, so points off for pretension. When I did eat the traditional Chicago way, I went to Lou Malnati’s and I enjoyed it. Of course, all the big names here (Giordano’s, Geno’s East, Pizzeria Uno/Due) have their supporters. On the negative side, for me, is Pizano’s; I would recommend against them purely for their unhelpful wait staff. Yeah, it was almost 4 years ago, but I never forget…

Other popular places, judging by what I read (yes, I read all the pizza reviews, even though I know I won’t go to the restaurants), are Pizza D.O.C., the Art of Pizza, Pequod’s (not sure what the connection is between pizza and that name…), and Home Run Inn, and I know locals would probably add about 10 others. The various restaurants lay their claim to having the best stuffed, deep-dish, or thin, and some even assert they have the best New York-style pizza, which always makes me laugh. Why would anyone brag about serving that abomination to the concept of combining bread, cheese, sauce, and toppings? I have had my share of those oversized, oil-dripping triangles of crud that many New Yorkers pass off as pizza. Unless you’re really drunk on booze or nostalgia, there is no way you can say that compares to the best products of New Haven, Chicago, or anywhere else that values good pizza. Having said that, I know not all NY pizza fits that stereotype, and the best have the Italian-style crust I love (though usually still too much grease) . Unfortunately, most of the stuff that goes by that name outside of the five boroughs does seem to fit that description.

So, here in a damn good pizza town, with temptation is all around me, I try to be true to my vegan ways. When we first got here, we were thrilled to see that a local chain called Leona’s had soy cheese. Only later did we learn it was not vegan soy cheese. We ordered a deep-dish, then realized it also had butter on the bottom, a pretty common ingredient here. When we tried the soy cheese on a thin-crust pie, it was horrible, the crust more like a burnt pita than anything resembling pizza. Karyn’s, a vegan place, has pizza as an appetizer. I love the place, but I avoid the pie. Lake Side Cafe, another vegan place we enjoy, has pizza on the menu, but I haven’t tried it.

If I get a craving for pizza out, I try to hit Piece. It serves what it calls New Haven-style pizza. Though it isn’t anything like what I’ve had at Pepe’s, it’s pretty good; the white ‘za without the cheese stands up as a good dinner. Of course, the fact that they brew their own award-winning ales doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve come to realize that if I want vegan pizza with cheese, I have to do it myself. I’ve been making my own pizza (though not usually the dough; Trader Joe’s sells handy bags of it) for almost 20 years, and I never get tired of it. My usual suspects: sautéed spinach and garlic over a thin spread of sauce and cheese; roasted garlic and parsley as a base for artichokes, tomatoes, broccoli or roasted eggplant, and cheese; and a pesto base under cheese, fennel, and red peppers or mushrooms. I’ve also used a sun-dried tomato pesto as a base, and that’s pretty good too. In general: little or no sauce, fresh ingredients, a variety of spices (fennels seeds are good if you’re not using fennel itself). Then, crank up the music, crack open a good beer, cook for a few hours, share with friends. The ultimate pizza experience.

I wonder if there’s a market for frozen vegan pizzas stacked ten to a roll?

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~ by mburgan on December 16, 2008.

7 Responses to “Something Cheesy Here”

  1. how the heck to you remember such stuff…i love the “shady dealings”….and yes there is a Frank Pepe pizza out at the mall, i have not tried it yet.

  2. Well, I don’t know if my memories are always accurate…it might have been the Grange Fair and not the Altar Guild thing. But I know when I ate that same style pizza here, the taste immediately took me back to S. Glastonbury and one of those events.

  3. i think it was church, but only on Friday night on the weekend of the church fair.

  4. I found this fascinating! I grew up in CT, but in the n.w. corner, so it was like a different world, I think. It was a very small town, we only had italian restaurants, really. Pizza was a big part of my childhood, though I’ve never been able to get much into making them myself. (This post makes me want to though!) I had never heard of greek pizza, though from the description, I’m wondering if one of the pizza places near me (‘burb of DC) is greek!

  5. Yup, that sounds right, Cheryl, about the Friday night thing. And Deb, I don’t think Greek pizza is an official designation, just my observation that there is a certain style of pizza, with shared characteristics, that tend to be made in parlors owned by Greeks or people who worked with them. And maybe it only applies to central Connecticut, I don’t know. Hope you do try to make your own vegan pizza-it’s worth the effort!

  6. Well, at least you get to look forward to great pizza when you return. I’d try bringing your own soy cheese to a place and have them put it on a pie, just to see how it comes out from a brick oven. I tried Pepe’s in Manchster and it was very good, although the atmosphere was not nostalgic at all.

  7. Yeah, bringing my own cheese might be the only way to get pizza out in CT, given the dearth of vegan restaurants.

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