Friday, February 24, 2006

Traveling Pizza

My best friend lives just outside of San Francisco. Sadly, I live all the way across the country in good ol' NYC. Whilst adventuring out in SF, she befriended a girl whose family owns a pizza parlor called Cicero's.

Now let's get this straight right off the bat - I am not a pizza lover. Sure, I used to love pizza when it was the center of my 12 year old social life and all that I could afford (slumber parties, a slice for lunch or after the big game), and of course, in college it was a staple (what else can you get in Poughkeepsie at 2am when you are desperately in need of a study break?) . But as I grew older and my palate more sophisticated, I realized that there are many more foods that I would rather eat, even as a New Yorker, with the best pizza in the country.

So, when Best Friend starts telling me about Cicero's and how great it is, I am polite. I listen to her as she raves about the pizza and the family who makes it. I must admit, I do love a good family run business. And as an Italian girl at heart, I especially love one whose recipes are a family secret, passed down from generation to generation.

Deep down, I remain skeptical. Doesn't everyone in the food industry lay claim to "secret" recipes these days? And, family traditions, while valuable, are not always delicious, I remind myself.

The next visit to San Fran, of course, includes a visit to Cicero's. It is a simple, yet friendly environment with the standard pizza parlor decor of simple lamps hanging above leather booths. We wait for our pizza as we watch a baseball game on one of the large TVs mounted in the corner.

When they call our name, Best Friend goes up to the counter to pick up the pizza. She returns with the most lovely little thin crust pizza I have ever seen or tasted. The pie is smaller than the NYC pies that I am used to, but the flavor blows me away. I never should have doubted Best Friend. This little pizza parlor in California has mastered the pizza.

It is really the crust that makes the difference. It is thin and crispy, with the outermost edges almost cracker-like. It is almost as though the crust is fried, kind of like a pan pizza, and sometimes, there is even a whisper of flakiness to the crust.

The sausage pizza is by far the best (though my favorite is to get mushrooms and sausage together). Cicero's grinds their own sausage. And, as is always the case with Italian cooking, homemade is the way to go.

Like most long distance love affairs, this whole pizza thing has become complicated. Knowing that the best pizza in the world is 3,000 miles away haunts me. As a freelancer who is often unemployed, I do not have the means to fly to San Fran each time I have a craving for Cicero's. I have often joked with Best Friend that she should send me a pie via overnight air mail. She just laughs and says that it will spoil before it reaches NYC unless she packs it with dry ice or some equally costly packaging, which she is not inclined to do. I resign myself to my fate - Cicero's only when in the Bay Area, which is a once a year trip, at best.

But, yesterday, my doorbell rang at 9am. I staggered to the door half asleep, wondering who the hell was at my door at that hour. I opened the door to see a smiling UPS man, holding a Cicero's Pizza box with my address on it. No dry ice or special packaging needed. My life is forever changed.

2 comments:

Noisette said...

Fat n' Happy, you're the best. I wonder if Cicero's has an LA location...

Michael S. Class said...

12-Year-Old Time Traveler Discovers Best Pizza In America

Amazing New Book Explores A Tasty Part Of Italian-American History

Where do YOU think the best pizza in America can be found? Tell us: www.MagicPictureFrame.blogspot.com

Seattle author and photographer Michael Class has used digital composite photography to place his twelve year-old son, Anthony, in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis with Charles Lindbergh, in the laboratory with Thomas Edison, on the baseball diamond with Lou Gehrig, and on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

"I wanted to capture the interest of today's kids," says Class, "by turning American history into a grand time travel adventure.” The museum-quality book, Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame, is recommended for Grades 6-12. The Web site, www.MagicPictureFrame.com, displays some of the book's amazing photographs.

In Chapter 3 of the book, Anthony time-travels to 1907 and meets his Italian immigrant great-grandfather at Ellis Island: Together, they explore turn-of-the-century New York City. At one point in the story, Anthony and his teenage great-grandfather lunch on fresh-baked pizza, while sitting on the curb of a cobblestone street in the Little Italy section of New York.

Anthony says: "The pizza was the best I have ever tasted. It was not at all like the pizza in my own time, which is mostly a saucy mess of cheese and toppings, piled sky-high on doughy, tasteless bread. No, the pizza back then was much simpler, and yet, far better! I'll never forget the wonderful flavors of fresh tomatoes, fragrant basil, pungent garlic, golden olive oil, and bubbling-hot buffalo mozzarella cheese. Put all that on charcoal-oven crisped bread and it's like heaven in your mouth! The pizza alone was worth the trip through ninety-seven years!"

"Anthony is describing Pizza Margherita, prepared in the classic Neapolitan style," explains Class. "In 1889, Queen Margherita of Italy asked Raffaele Esposito, the owner of a restaurant near the palace in Naples, to cook a pizza dinner for the royal family. Raffaele prepared three pizzas: Pizza alla Mastunicola, a pungent cheese and lard pizza; Pizza alla Marinara, a seafood pizza with anchovies; and Pizza alla Mozzarella, a cheese pizza. On a patriotic impulse, Raffaele placed bright green leaves of basil on top of the cheese pizza to match the colors of the Italian flag - red, white, and green. Raffaele named the new pizza, Pizza Margherita, in honor of the Queen."

In the book, Anthony bought his pizza at Gennaro Lombardi's store on Spring Street in Little Italy. Gennaro Lombardi emigrated from Naples, Italy, in 1895, when he was twenty years old. In 1897, Lombardi opened a grocery store, where he made pizzas for hungry Italian immigrant workers. Lombardi's store was officially established as the first pizzeria in America when it obtained a New York City mercantile license in 1905.

"Lombardi's still turns out some of the best pizza in America," insists Class. "It's still located in the Little Italy section of New York City."

In the 21st century, True Neapolitan Pizza is becoming more widely available in America. In 1984, Antonio Pace, the owner of one of the oldest Pizza restaurants in Naples, Italy, founded the Association for True Neapolitan Pizza. The Association published specifications for True Neapolitan Pizza and began a formal program of training pizza chefs and certifying pizza restaurants in the United States and around the world. Only certified pizza restaurants can display the sign: "Vera Pizza Napoletana," meaning "Certified True Neapolitan Pizza."

The specifications for True Neapolitan Pizza include: Pizza dough must consist of only flour, natural yeast, and water; the dough must be kneaded by hand or with an approved mixer; the dough must be formed by hand without the help of a rolling pin or any other mechanical device; the pizza must be round, no more than 14 inches in diameter, no thicker than 0.1 inches in the middle and with a crust of about 0.8 inches; toppings for the pizza must be sparing, but should include imported Italian tomatoes, olive oil, and buffalo mozzarella cheese; the pizza must be cooked in a bell shaped, wood-fired, stone oven; the oven temperature must be 800 - 900 degrees (F).

"Sometimes I think that the most controversial part of the book is Anthony's discussion of pizza," says Class, only half-joking. "When it comes to pizza, everyone has an opinion!"

People can propose and discuss their favorite pizza restaurants on the author's Web site: www.MagicPictureFrame.blogspot.com. Anthony recommends Lombardi's (New York), and also Totonno's Pizzeria (New York), Johns Pizzeria (New York), and Original Pizzeria Uno (Chicago).

Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame was named Outstanding Book of the Year and Most Original Concept of 2006 by Independent Publisher, Reviewers Choice by Midwest Book Review, and Editor's Pick by Homefires: The Journal of Homeschooling Online. Nationally syndicated talk-show host Michael Medved calls the book "entertaining and educational."

Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame (hardcover, 225 pages, $35) is available at www.MagicPictureFrame.com, by calling toll-free 1-800-247-6553, at select bookstores, and on www.amazon.com.

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