Frequent shows on cable TV pit pizzas from one part of the world against another, namely New York vs. Chicago. Where the best pizza is to be found seems to be a never-ending subject for debate. My friend and travel companion, Holly, and I have a theory. And I think we’re right.
The best pizza in the world is the first pizza you have in Italy. That’s all. You can read the rest if you want my supporting evidence, but it’s really just that simple.
In 2001 Brian and I arrived in the tiny cliff-side village of Riomagiorre, Italy. Sunburned from misadventures in the Alps and backpacks straining at the seams with the contents of a 25 day five-country trip, we alighted from the train eager to discover if all we’d heard about the joys of Italian food was true.
As it turns out the food not only exceeded our expectations, it was a revelation that changed my culinary trajectory. I abandoned my pre-trip way of eating for good after our first big European adventure. After experiencing a way of eating that emphasized the fresh, the local and the hand-made, how could I go back to the mass-produced generica found in strip malls and grocery freezer aisles at home?
Even the humble pizza was elevated into a euphoric experience in the loving hands of a chef in this sea-side town. On our final night in Riomaggiore we chose a busy small pizzeria with striped awning and a few plastic white tables out front. Masses of greenery and flowers enclosed the seating area, which overlooked the main (and only) street in town. Completely unsuspecting, we each ordered a pizza , along with some sweet white Cinque Terre wine and a bottle of water. I survived college on a steady diet of grease-loaded Papa John’s and Pizza Hut and didn’t have any notion of what pizza could be.
From the first bite of this, my first Italian pizza, I could not stop a stream of exclamations. “This is what pizza should be!” was the general theme of my commentary. I found the crust the most remarkable. It delivered the toppings on a bed perfectly crisp and beautifully golden on the outside with just the right degree of fluffiness on the inside. And the toppings! I sigh to remember. Not layered in the only style I knew, they instead each dressed a third of this pizza. A sauce of tomatoes still bursting with the warmth of the sun they absorbed that morning began the palette of red, white and green (the Italian flag I only realized years later when a pizza-fan friend pointed it out). Feathery white fresh buffalo mozzarella formed the middle. I had never tasted anything like this – the flavor was richer than mozzarella cheese at home but at the same time more subtle and delicate. And in utter harmony with these flavors, the Ligurian pesto on the final third of the pizza made me moan just a little bit. I’d certainly never had pesto in my packaged-and-franchise-food-heavy diet at home and the brilliant explosion of summer it brought with every bite was a revelation. Made from basil, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan Reggiano, the pesto completed the trifecta of perfection on this pizza. Every bite of this pizza brought me joy, but I tried to linger because I didn’t want the experience to end. I knew I would never have pizza like this again.
I thought about this pizza for years. Every pale imitator I had afterwards back home fell pitifully short against it. When we returned to Italy in 2004 I delightedly ordered a pizza our first day in Venice. But, perhaps in the same tradition of our New York and Chicago pizza wars at home,this pizza was nothing like that heavenly food I’d had in Riomaggiore. While still good, it didn’t excite my taste buds on any level near my first Italian pizza.
When our friends Holly and Chas signed on to come to Italy with us in 2006, I began dreaming about returning to the site of that first Italian pizza. And in my typical fashion, I began to worry. What if it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered? What if I’d built it up in my mind to the point that an encore could never live up to my expectations? What if I’d built it up so much to my friends, too, that they’d never find it as good as I did? But in the end, I couldn’t resist the chance to live that feeling again so we planned a side trip to Riomagiorre for the express purpose of eating pizza and buying pesto.
The joint trip started in Venice. I warned Holly that the pizza there just wasn’t that great but she adamantly disagreed. “Just wait till we have it in Riomaggiore,” I told her.
When the big day arrived we nearly couldn’t find our place. The simple establishment with the pink plastic table covers we remembered appeared to be gone. We walked up and down the street several times before finally concluding that the nice new glass-enclosed restaurant was at the same site. They’ve evidently benefited from the tourism boom of the Cinque Terre.
The four of us settled at a corner table, giddily (at least I was) with anticipation. I ordered the exact same pizza and the sweet white wine and waited anxiously. I was not disappointed. The pizza was, happily, as delicious as I remembered. Holly didn’t rave about hers sufficiently though, I thought. “Isn’t it incredible?” I pressed her. “It’s good,” she agreed, between bites of her anchovy pizza, “but not as good as in Venice.” I was shocked. The pizza in Venice was thin crusted and nothing like this perfection. But no matter, I dug into mine and savored every last morsel.
On a long car ride somewhere later in the trip Holly made the connection. “Your best pizza was your first pizza in Italy,” she pointed out. “My best pizza was the one we had in Venice – *my* first pizza in Italy.” I was thunderstruck. How obvious it was now that she had made the observation. She was right. Your first pizza in Italy is the best in the world.