Monday, January 25, 2010

Pizza Memories

Yes, I know, I walk down memory lane a little too often. When it comes to the pizza of your youth however, many of you probably reside in the land of nostalgia as well. Not all of my childhood food memories are good. This might be the time to mention that my older brother once challenged me to a slider eating contest, which I won. We both got sick and my mother was furious. "What were you thinking! I believe that we have already established that your sister can out eat anyone in the family! What in God's name were you trying to prove?" To this day I cannot drive by a White Castle without getting a wave of nausea. For some reason though, I still love pie despite the fact that I got sick after winning the Barat College pie-eating contest, which I won hands down.

When I was growing up in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, there was a pizza place called Rossi's. I believe it was on east 79th Street. They made hand-tossed pizza and half the fun of going there was watching the pizza chef toss the dough in the air. Most of the time we had the pizza delivered but every now and then on a Saturday night, my father liked to visit the restaurant. There were six or eight booths and about a dozen tables, all covered with the requisite red and white checkered tablecloths with a Chianti bottle in the center. It reminded me of the spaghetti and meatballs scene in "Lady and the Tramp". The place was permeated with the scent of oregano, basil, fennel, cheese, and freshly baked bread. It was fantastic! The pizza was thin-crust and cut in squares rather than wedges that radiate from the center. I liked to first go around the entire outer edge and eat the little pieces with a bit of crunch. Then, on to the squares of cheese and sausage, which were divine. Sandwiches and pasta were also on the menu but the pizza was so good, I doubt we ever had anything else. To this day I have not found any pizza anywhere as satisfying as Rossi's and I still prefer squares to wedges.

Chicago is somewhat famous for deep dish pan pizza (we're also known for Italian Beef Sandwiches, Chicken Vesuvio, and Chicago-style hot dogs, which are always sprinkled with celery salt and day-glo green pickle relish). Uno's seems to have pioneered the deep-dish trend and it is very good - but to me, it's not really pizza. It's almost a casserole. When I want pizza, I want as close to Rossi's as possible. I don't even like the way pizza is delivered today - in a cardboard box with one of those little plastic "tables" in the center to keep the box cover from smashing the contents (the person who invented those little plastic do-dads is probably living on a tropical island, however). Although the boxes are often placed in an insulated bag, the pizzas are rarely hot upon delivery. They invariably take on the the taste of the cardboard and the crust is flaccid. Rossi's pizzas were delivered hot in a puffed-up paper bag and when the bag was opened, usually by a poke in the center by yours truly, the scent of Heaven was released. Oh, for the good old days ... no California Pizza Kitchen, no bagel pizzas (real bagels are hard to find, too, but that's another subject for another post), and no plasticized flavorless fake mozzarella.

I'd love to hear your pizza stories and your recommendations for the the best pizza joints in your area, which I'll be happy to publish. By the way, the best way to craft good pizza and bread at home is with a clay pizza stone, which absorbs moisture producing a dry heat which keeps the crust crisp. The King Arthur Baker's Catalogue sells an excellent quality pizza stone for $55. A 13" round version can be had for $45. Several of their flours produce superb pizza crusts including their Perfect Pizza Blend, Durum and Sir Lancelot Hi-Gluten Flours (see link below). Mangia bene!