Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Habemus Pizzem!

Pizza, to Italians, is a serious dish. It's not meant to be devoured at your desk, bent at angles to keep drippy globs of cheese in place, and never never lavished with citrus fruits. Each region has its own signature piece. The Napolitani insist on mozzarella di bufala, the Venetians may argue the virtues of gorgonzola. As with football, music and God, every person on the planet has an opinion of pizza. And every person is most certainly right.

So, from time to time over the past few years, I've been rounding up friends in the Marchigiani hills of Amandola -- to be precise it's Sant' Ippolito, a hilltop hamlet of maybe 12 people and 450 sheep -- to shut up and cook. The rules are simple. Each person must come to the house with a pizza recipe. I supply the pizza oven, a stone structure that sits proudly behind Casa Chiocciola. (Apols for the Chiocciola plug). The pizza entries are then judged by the other amateur chefs. Originality is valued as much as taste. For example, a pomodori pizza has rarely ranked in the top 5, and our friend mozzarella has never ever been a winning topping.

The creations have evolved over the years -- they are as artistic as they are gourmet. In the first year, the winner was a gorgonzola-speck combo. The following year was rucola (rocket to the Brits) and parmesan. This year was perhaps the finest bit of pizza-engineering ever. It was a pine nut/raisins/salt/olive oil with garnish of fennel number. It beat out a strong field: a potato-onion (my best attempt yet), a curry pizza and a sausage/onion/salt trifecta. A straight pesto number by 5-year-old Charlie, the youngest and clearly most lucid chef ever to enter the competition, was also worthy of consideration.

But the taste/texture combination of raisins and pine nuts was the clear winner. Or, so we thought. My neighbor Michael has tried to organize a last-minute revolt and is now sullying the vote, calling it a rig. He claims his kitchen sink offering (asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, oil, salt, you name it) was robbed. For the record, the vote stands. And this American will not stand for claims that democracy, as Michael claims, is no way to establish peace and order in the pizza cosmos. The pine nut-raisin is pizza of the year, 2005. Press releases are being drafted. Celebrity endorsements will follow.

Sorry, vicino. The people have spoken. Better luck next year.

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