In difficult economic times, it's valuable to look at ancient cultures to see how they fared in adversity. Sometimes the resulting food is rather spectacular. Take pizza.
Why is pizza such perfect food? Maybe because it's so very old. Maybe because it wasn't developed by some random R&D team, but rather through experimentation by generation after generation of hungry folks. Maybe it's because it reduces a meal to good, solid, basic elements that deeply satisfy.
Bread is one of the oldest foods and dates back to at least Neolithic times. The practice of adding other stuff to bread can be found throughout antiquity. The ancient Greeks had a flatbread that was eaten with toppings that probably included herbs, onions and garlic. And in Virgil's epic poem The Aenied (written, oh, about 19 B.C.E.), he refers to bread as an edible plate. Talk about a long, slow, trend movement. Love that.
Now, if you want to taste a benchmark, you may wish to go to Italy, where, it turns out, they waited until recently (the 1980s, just in the nick of time) to formalize some nearly ancient, deeply solid traditions. It was the feisty Neapolitans, the people in and around Naples, who brought it all into focus and format. They're a people and it's a city well-versed in good times and bad times. A lot like now.
The fabled Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba in Naples is said to be the world's first pizzeria. Rumor (or history) has it that they started making the magic pie in about 1738 and sold it from an open-air stand straight through until some time in 1830, at which point they evolved into a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, which is where they still make and sell boatloads of extraordinary pizza to this day.
What makes a perfect pizza? The Association Verace Pizza Napoletana has some pretty basic ideas—rules, actually—that in fact do ensure that what gets called a pizza is indeed the real deal.
Wood The pizza must be cooked by wood. Gas, coal or electric ovens do not conform to tradition. You never get the right blistering or that lightly smoky finish.
Ingredients 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, all natural fior-di-latte or buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, salt and yeast. Only fresh, all natural, nonprocessed ingredients are acceptable. Variations are fun and tasty, but for me it's a simple Neapolitan (tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil) or it's a no-go.
Technique Hand-worked or low-speed-mixed dough. Proper work surface (usually slab or marble) and oven temp (800 F). Cranky or even hammy show cooks not required.
Review A designated representative of the association must assure that the ingredients, technique and final product conform to the tradition.
Around 1830 (maybe just after the grand opening party for the indoor seating of the Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba), the French writer Alexandre Dumas described pizza as the only food of the humble people in Naples during winter, and wrote that in those days it was flavored with oil, tallow (pork fat), cheese, tomato or anchovies. All throughout Campania you see those core ingredients on happy and natural display. Their elongated tomatoes are grown in the rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius and get hung under rafters away from the rain and wind to gently dry. The arugula seems to be peeking out everywhere (on menus, that is), and the mozzarella fairly pops out of the water buffalo nearby.
We have all those ingredients here—even the water buffalo. They roam along the Sierra foothills and give the milk that the folks at Bubalus, Bubalis in Gardena, Calif., turn it into oozing, milky balls. We can do it. And one good thing about this drought we seem to be facing is that dry farming, especially of delicious tomatoes, is sure to increase.
On a recent trip to Italy's pizza heartland, I visited a place that sold pizza by the meter. Two toppings per nearly three-foot expanse. The place was clean and big, and the pizza, a bit thicker than that had at other places, was delicious. But clearly this could have been ground zero for bad American pizza, could have been where "concept" escaped and ran amok, producing fun and life and profits and lousy pizza; but it was still shockingly delicious.
As we emerge from what has felt to many like a frightening economic nuclear winter, many of us are hopeful about what's to come. Certainly, our regional bounty of intensely flavorful foodstuffs can be part of the value systems realignment that the world really needs to address. Simple pleasures may well be priceless. And these days, simpler seems so much more right and yet so much harder to do. But so very worth the trouble.
Rosso Pizzeria & Wine BarWant to have great pizza without leaving town (or region)? Go, as I often do, to Rosso. The right dough, allowed to rise (some say for 11 hours; some, 12 and 1/2) just so, with only a drizzle of olive oil, some ripe, slightly dry tomatoes and maybe some peppery arugula. Or mozzarella and tomato sauce. Not much more. 53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.544.3221. —Clark Wolf
Pizzeria Picco This pizzeria also offers Strauss soft-serve ice cream, making for the perfect pairing. 320 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur. 415.945.8900. —C.W.
Filippi's Pizza Grotto If you just need to feed in a kid-friendly place in Napa, relax. You really can slum it after all. Filippi's is where the soccer team goes after a big game, where neighbors talk across tables about the other neighbors' divorce or the city council meeting last night, and where a kid you don't know might crawl under your table and get back to his parents at his leisure (after asking you for a bite of that garlic toast).
This is one of those places decorated with black-and-white photographs of old Italian grandmothers, so you might believe you're getting just-off-the-boat-Italian rather than the corporate-approved fare that's exactly the same in their nine other Northern California locations. But who cares? Your kid gets lots of spaghetti and lots of opportunity to act like a kid, and you can always enhance the undistinguished pizza with beer or wine. Be careful when ordering water, however. One night my son and I asked for tap water and got iced water with a surprise ingredient. So when you need aqua, just say, "Tap water, please, no ice—and hold the salt." 645 First St., Napa. 707.254.9700. —Juliane Poirier Locke
Azzurro Pizzeria E Enoteca I do not group this place with pizza restaurants, even though it does have the word "pizzeria" in the name. It's just too good: the service, the food, the attitude, the place. I think of it as pizza by grownups for grownups, even though I've hauled my kid in there on a few occasions, and he loves it, too. But kids are not the audience for this place. They can't appreciate the wine and beer selections. They can't grasp that it's all about excellent, relaxed and sophisticated . . . well, pizza dining.
When someone told me about the manciata signature dish—salad on a hot pizza bread, folded and eaten taco-style—it sounded so lame that I put off my first visit to Azzurro entirely. Now I'm hooked. I broke down in a weak moment and ordered the spinach manciata. Amazing. Now I order it every time. Everything on the menu is good here, and the chrome-and-steel aesthetic is stylish and loudish, creating an upbeat and even boisterous atmosphere in which to sip very nice wines and very cold beers while talking to adults. 1260 Main St., Napa. 707.255.5552. —J.P.L.
Pizzeria Tra Vigne It's usually a really bad sign when a commercial spot leafs through near-seasonal name changes while still hawking the same product. Thankfully, such is not the case with St. Helena's Pizzeria Tra Vigne (PTV), formerly known as lots of other pizzerias, with bloodlines and tentacles reaching into Santa Rosa, PBS and even the Food Network.
A recent cross-mountain foray confirmed that it's still possible to find top-notch, crisp and chewy, woodfire-blistered pizza amid the vines and hydrangeas of way expensive Napa Valley. And to think PTV hasn't even changed names since the last visit. At $12.95 the spicy and sweet saucy tang of PVT's 12-inch margherita comes equipped with both scorched and bubbly mozzarella and a side of fresh coarsely chopped basil. The sight before first bite reminds that though this earth be round, heaven is molten stuff on crisp flat bread.
Drop by in nice weather and accompany your fare with a bit of dappled sunshine on the restaurant's adjacent deck. Or have a beer after work with a game of stick and round ball on the big screen. Though PTV may seem all melting cheeses, upscale veggies and pricey meats strategically placed upon a scientifically sound surface of baked starch and gluten, the proprietors appreciate that humankind lives not on hot pies alone. They serve up a mean piadine, for example, which, while also an oven baked flatbread with salad placed topside, does have a catchy and distinctive name and is technically no pie.