Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning to love food for what it is and not what you want it to be

Most people who love to travel are running away from something. I know this because that’s why I travel. That can be bad, when you’re avoiding persistent problems in your life, but it can also be good, when you ignore your preferences from back home and learn to accept things on their own terms.

In short, Argentinian pizza is quite good if you accept it for what it is. Not New York pizza. Not Neopolitan pizza. Not Chicago-style, nor New Haven. But Argentinian.

Our first pizza experience horrified Zizou,* and she didn’t even taste it. We had gone to Kentucky Pizza (what a name!) after lots of dancing to La Bomba de Tiempo at Ciudad Cultural KONEX with some new friends. I was so hungry I ate my pizza without comment or even consciousness, but Zizou could not forget it. “It was so thick and doughy! It looked disgusting!”

She wasn’t mollified when I ordered the above fugazetta, an onion-intense pizza at Bodegon, our favorite restaurant and local brewery in El Chalten. We had just come off five days of camping, where we ate nothing other than instant oatmeal, Frutigram cookies, and gummy Knorr-mix pasta. I was not going to complain about the crazy amount of cheese or the flatbread crust. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, but it was good enough that I ate it cold for breakfast the next day.

When we got back to Buenos Aires, and I mentioned that my former boss’s grandmother had invited us to have pizza, Zizou looked scared. But it was she in the end who steered us, even before we went to dinner with Nilda, to El Cuartito, one of the oldest and most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires.

The look of relief on her face when she bit into her slice! “It’s good!”

The cabresa was layered with cheese, many pieces of longaniza (essentially pepperoni), and a strongly tomato-flavored tomato sauce, which is not a redundant thing to say in Argentina. (For a country populated by Italian immigrants, they have sadly forgotten the taste of a true tomato.) The crust was crunchy, but not doughy. The famous faina, the thin chickpea flour pancakes Argentines like to eat literally on top of their pizza slice, was tasty, too. It must be a descendent of farinata, no? It wasn't like any pizza we'd ever had before, but it had everything right-cheese, bread, and sauce.

El Cuartito itself is wonderful. It proudly declares that it began in 1934, thanking its customers, their parents, and their grandparents for their patronage. The walls are covered with memorabilia, except unlike TGIF, the memorabilia has age. Marilyn Monroe sits next to Diego Maradona, as well as Muhammad Ali.

But the crowning moment for Argentine pizza came on our last night, at dinner with Nilda, an 84-year-old former human rights lawyer who I would call feisty if that word didn’t sound so inadequate when applied to a woman like that. Sitting at her kitchen table with her pale gold hair, she watched closely as she asked us, “What do you think of Fidel Castro?” This is a woman who said, “Of course I am not Communist, just in my thoughts!”

The pizza she served us, urged on by my former boss, was from the family’s favorite pizzeria, El Mazacote, a neighborhood place in Montserrat on the corner of calles Chile y Jose. It was a revelation. The dough was yeasty, chewy, flavorful. The sauce and cheese were sharp with salt. We loved it, the Argentinian pizza.

*Zizou, a pseudonym for my good friend who wishes to remain anonymous, and not an indication my good friend is Zinedine Zidane.

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