Ever since I saw Jack Nicholson in the film, Five Easy Pieces, where he goes ballistic in a diner because the waitress won’t make changes on their set sandwich orders, I’ve been a stickler on having my food done right. A "real" Caesar’s Salad has to have Thousand Island dressing. At Italian-American bistros and subway shops, I even send back the bread if it isn’t well done. (There’s nothing more venal and mean than a soggy Veal Parm hoagie.) No offense, but Pizza Hut sucks!
One of the hardest things to mess up is pizza. I make my own all the time on English Muffins: dough, sauce and cheese. Or, if I’m feeling really adventurous, I'll add a few grizzled circles of expiring mystery meat slices. I don’t know the standard parlor trick where you throw a blob of dough up in the air and catch it yet, obviously a skill, like juggling or bullfighting or fencing, that comes with years of practice and goes with the territory. The territory to get really terrific pizza is, of course, the country which invented it – Italia.
My original plan was to go to the aptly named “Cinque Terre” and try five pizzas, then report back which was best. I wanted to see how it stacked up to such classic New York City coal-oven pizza joints as Lombardi’s and Patsy’s. Or even “The Italian Village” (the legendary all-night hangout of promiscuous high school students in the small suburban town in New Jersey where I grew up that gave new meaning to the term “bedroom community”). Here they made the standard flat pizzas with oily pepperoni, reheated in the oven and shoved into ubiquitous boxes, with a flash of anger in the eyes of the maestros – the kind of pies you end up glumly shaking those big glass jars of pepper flakes on, like plastic Christmas shake-up toys, dreaming of one day sampling the “real thing".
So I set off for Italy, looking for the peninsula’s best pie, sneering like a centurion in a gladiator film. Once there, though, I did a double take, altered my plans, deciding to go instead to the big daddy of dough, the city that (apparently) started it all. That’s right, Pisa. Especially since every rube on a two-week bus tour through Europe wants to make a quick stop at the overly photogenic Leaning Tower of Pisa.
When I got there, I was suitably impressed. Like everyone else, I had a photo taken of myself where it appears that I’m holding up the tower with Herculean strength. Then I set about finding a piazza to try some pizza. In the center of town, I located a trattoria, filled with fashionably dressed women signaling their casual disinterest by pushing their sunglasses down the bridge of their noses. I sat like a skilled boulevardier. a visitor of a city boulevard (especially in Paris). With practiced boredom, I ordered a menu, raised my finger and a slurred signor. It was the best pizza I ever had; I even ate it with a knife and fork, assuming an Italian nobleman would have. I felt positively Augustan, a satiated gourmand. I would have eaten five pies for the sake of this story. Contrary to the rules of romance abroad, one pie was more than enough.
Then I saw a raven-haired seductress who resembled Barbara Steele (the bombshell beauty from all those old Italian vampire movies made in the 1960s), and decided I might continue la dolce vita with a grappa and cannoli. Well, that’s the story. I know it isn’t much. I wasn’t mugged by thugs riding Vespas, I didn’t get lost among the winding cobbled streets of classical antiquity. I wasn’t viciously attacked by a pack of pariah dogs smelling tomato sauce on my jumper, and I didn’t meet any crazy characters to supply humorous quotations.
The problem was: everyone spoke Italian, not English. In Pisa bookstores, Homer’s The Odyssey is translated into Italian, and on television, Homer Simpson sounds more like an opera singer than a cartoon buffoon, though most new American movies are still audibly in the language of Shakespeare’s “sceptr’d isle", with Italian subtitles. I realized with a fright that I wasn’t imagining it all; I really was in a foreign country! Still, Italy is one of my favorite places to wander and I was glad to finally get a long gander at the legendary tower. Sorry more didn’t happen on my trip. But it’s a pretty good title, isn’t it?
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