Hey, home slice

We bring you pizza aplenty

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Stephen Bush Stephen Bush is a writer and colum­nist for the New States­man; @stephenkb

A thin crust will not re­mind you of your teenage years, but a soggy mid­dle will

Some­times – not as of­ten as I’d like – I get in­vited to speak on pan­els. But, as a point of prin­ci­ple, I don’t like to speak at events where all of the pan­el­lists are male. Mostly, this is very easy to po­lice, but from time to time, life throws me a curve­ball called Lesley, Chris or Sam.

Pizza presents a sim­i­lar prob­lem. Like the names Chris, Lesley and Sam, the word “pizza” can mean two very dif­fer­ent things. And, like the names Sam, Chris and Lesley, get­ting those two things wrong can lead to an awk­ward so­cial sit­u­a­tion.

Piz­zas, like Chrises, Les­leys or Sams, mostly come in two types. The first type – let’s call it Cat­e­gory A – is the sort you can make very eas­ily from scratch in a reg­u­lar oven, buy frozen, or or­der from a stan­dard high-street take­away. The re­ally im­por­tant thing about Cat­e­gory A piz­zas is the cheese. Pro­vided the cheese has melted and there’s plenty of it, you can hide all man­ner of sins.

I know this, be­cause while I am some­thing of a cheese scep­tic my­self, I have sold a lot of bad piz­zas. Why? Well, as a teenager, I worked in the restau­rant in a ma­jor theme park. If you have ever eaten the food at a theme park, you will know two things: the first is that the food is very, very ex­pen­sive. The se­cond is that the food is very, very bad.

What we feared most of all on our side of the counter was peo­ple ask­ing for re­funds be­cause the food had been “cooked wrong”. The dif­fi­cult truth was that no cooking of any kind could have im­proved the food we sold. The best bet in the whole park was the pizza par­lour, which glo­ried un­der a com­i­cally racist name like Greasy Sil­vio’s or Flirty Paulo’s Pizza Place. Not be­cause the pizza was any bet­ter than any­thing else, you un­der­stand, but be­cause if you slather enough cheese even on the cheap­est, most over­priced top­ping, most peo­ple will eat it.

That’s Cat­e­gory A. Then there’s Cat­e­gory B, which you can make at home pro­vided you have a pizza oven and a great deal of pa­tience. The art of a good Cat­e­gory B pizza is mainly in the base – a thin disc of dough, and proper tomato.

What both cat­e­gories have in com­mon is that, pro­vided you get the es­sen­tial el­e­ment right, peo­ple will for­give an aw­ful lot. Your Cat­e­gory As can sur­vive the grit­ti­est of pep­per­oni, the lousi­est olives, or pineap­ple of any kind or quan­tity, pro­vided they’re laden with melted cheese. Your Cat­e­gory Bs can weather the most pre­ten­tious of artichokes, the most ob­scure mush­rooms, the fad­di­est truf­fles, as long as the base is crisp and the toma­toes fresh.

And just as there is no greater hor­ror that re­al­is­ing that Chris, Lesley and Sam are all men, there is noth­ing quite as dis­ap­point­ing as get­ting a Cat­e­gory A pizza when you want a Cat­e­gory B, or vice-versa for that mat­ter.

Be­cause although a lot of food writ­ing presents Cat­e­gory A piz­zas as some­thing you grad­u­ate from when you dis­cover Cat­e­gory B and bet­ter things – a bit like go­ing to school, but with more grease and less trauma – the truth is that both types of pizza have a time and a place.

Cat­e­gory A piz­zas aren’t just the stuff that high-mar­gin, low-qual­ity chains make their money with. They’re also the food that pro­vides plenty of so­cial grease along with the ac­tual grease: at cine­mas, while play­ing cards, Fifa, Cluedo, watch­ing boxsets or Euro­vi­sion. There’s an aw­ful lot of emo­tion in the av­er­age bite of a Cat­e­gory A pizza. There’s not a lot of emo­tional res­o­nance in a trendy sour­dough pizza. Un­less you are Ital­ian, or loaded, a thin crust and fresh toma­toes will not re­mind you of your teenage years. A soggy mid­dle, co­ag­u­lated cheese and du­bi­ously sourced ham will.

That mat­ters, be­cause a lot of the time, a good meal isn’t the same as good eat­ing. I’ll al­ways have an af­fec­tion for Côte restau­rants that far out­weighs the qual­ity of their ac­tual menu, be­cause it’s where my part­ner and I had our first date.

And it’s the same with piz­zas. The likes of Franco Manca, Fire & Stone and who­ever else might be tastier, health­ier, fresher than the wares of Papa John’s, Domino’s and oven-ready frozen pizza. They’re cer­tainly more au­then­ti­cally Ital­ian. But there’s only one type of pizza that gets me all misty-eyed for times past and friends I haven’t talked to enough lately, and they don’t sell it at Franco Manca.

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