By Guest Columnist Caleb Schiff
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about balance and pizza. A Neapolitan pizza, for example, is best summarized by the short description: "Fresh ingredients on good bread." It's really a simple concept. Yet, because of the focus on the basics, the room for perceived-error is small. Other pizza styles that may be heavily topped or have many components can hide inconsistencies in the dough or the sauce or the cheese.
While recently traveling in Italy, I felt completely in my element concerning my ability to discuss and compare pizza. It's a lot of fun and oh so tasty. And when it comes to casting judgment on pizza I take it seriously. After visiting countless Neapolitan pizzerias and preparing innumerable pizzas from my wood-fired oven at home, I also believe I have the discerning palate to identify good pizza. Two pies I ate during my time in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, located north of Puglia and east of Campania, offer a case-and-point of what constitutes a good pie.
On Nov. 8th, I visited Oi Mari in Matera. The place has a cavernous atmosphere with low lighting. It's built into the Sassi, which are ancient dwellings built into the limestone cliffs of Matera. A very
cool place. I was excited and hungry after a long ride from Alberobello. I ordered the Capriocciosa (tomato, mozz, prosciutto, and artichokes) and their house wine, which was made with local Negroamaro grapes.
The pizza arrived in about 10 minutes. The crust looked fantastic, and it was. I do think it could have used another 15 seconds in the oven, but it was still tender and the cornicione was quite lofty; the flavor was spot on. However, the toppings were underwhelming. The tomato was all right, kind of plain, the mozzarella was good, but the prosciutto cotto and the single piece of artichoke was, well, not that good. After eating prosciutto crudo, cotto is like having that slimy ham you find in plastic ziplock bags in US groceries. I really don't think it belongs on pizza. I almost picked it all off. As far as greens go, I don't think they should be there for show. A single piece of artichoke on the center of a pie is just teasing, and probably has been the source of the eventual break-up of a few relationships. So, this pie from Oi Mari was not all I had hoped for but the crust did cause me to think it was still in the top 40 pies I've ever eaten.
The next pie I had from Il Portatico in Venosa, Basilicata. I was in Venosa on Monday, Nov. 9th -- yes, pizza two nights in a row! I actually did not plan pizza that night but when I found Il Portatico I had to give it a try. I was on a walk around town after my ride from Matera and peeked into a small door that had a Vera Pizza Napoletena sign . The door was unlocked, so I went in (how could I not?). I was met by Marcito, who was eating an ice cream and firing the forno. I had a strong suspicion that he was both the pizzaiolo and the owner. I looked at the menu and he was very polite and stated he'd be open at 7:30. "Va bene," I stated, and continued my walk. The menu looked good and the price right for my budget. Pizza, by the way, is one of the cheapest meals you can get in Italy.
I returned at 7:30 sharp and had a seat. The place was tiny, four tables total. Half of the pizzeria was taken up by the pizzaiolo station and the oven. Simple, just like Neapolitan pizza. The anticipation was building. I ordered the Mister. I was hungry and it sounded awesome-- tomato (pureed), Mozzarella di Bufalo, pomodori (sliced tomato), arugula, prosciutto crudo, and grana padano. Wow!
While waiting, I chatted with Marcito. Indeed, it was his place and he was the sole pizzaiolo. I got some photos of the oven and we chatted pizza and I told him of my own time with the peel.
The pie came out and the toppings looked phenomenal; all I could hope for. However, before the pie even arrived at the table I knew the crust would not live up to my hopes. It had very little loft in the crust; it was stiff and not at all tender; the underskirt had no char. But the toppings were some of the best I have had in Italy. For a moment I thought, maybe it was too many toppings preventing a good crust, but a quick glance around at the other pies being enjoyed confirmed that it was the dough itself, not the heavy toppings. So, I was sitting there thinking that I want Oi Mari crust and Il Portatico toppings. That might have made for the best pie ever. However, I did manage to eat the whole pizza and was wanting more, so please don't think I am complaining.
So, there you have it. Two examples of great pizza and how the subtleties and balance of the individual elements of a simple thing can really stand out even when one part isn't working as well as the other. Have any of you ever had a similar experience? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.