Hey, home slice
We bring you pizza aplenty
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.