So we opened a pizza shop a few months ago. Well, it’s a little more than that. Take out restaurant, pizza by the slice, and a full beer, wine and spirits shop that I’ve had the pleasure to stock. But in the end, like most things in life, it’s really all about the pizza. And the pizza is good. Inspired by the ubiquitous pizza al taglio of Italy’s streets, and, more specifically, the long-fermented, carefully topped oblong pies of Gabriele Bonci’s Pizzarium & friends, our pizza is real good. I, of course, have no role in making it, other than consuming absurd amounts of pizza bianca testers during the weeks before opening, and now occasionally demanding that someone put anchovies on the burrata because it’s actually really quite good if I, and Flavio al Velavevodetto have anything to say about it. But while I’m busy not making the pizza, I do get to talk about it a lot. And answer questions.
I guess customers are not really used to it. To the display. To reading. We lay out five long pies every morning, with a little sample slice of prosicutto next to them because there’s not room under the sneeze guard to a fit a whole one. In front of each pizza is a descriptive chalkboard. Still, the questions come. At least twice a day a customer will point to the pizza labeled “Potato, Bechamel, Mozzarella” and ask for a slice of the Hawaiian. Which always amuses. I understand mistaking the crushed potatoes for pineapple, but there is a distinct lack of ham. Interestingly enough, since switching to red potatoes recently and leaving a bit of skin on, which actually gives the pizza a color scheme more in line with said Hawaiian pizza, the question has been asked less and less. And really, considering the regularity of mistaking tubers for tropical fruits, it comes as no surprise when an accusatory finger flies in the direction of our pepperoni pizza, demanding to know what that “stuff is on top”, when a slight downward shift in one’s gaze would cause it to fall on a beautifully scripted sign declaring “Pepperoni, Roasted Fennel & Onion.”
And yes, we’re new, and yes, we’re doing things a little differently, and yes it takes time, and yes, we’re going to get questions like these every day that we are in business, but since I’m me and this is my food blog, I’m going to choose one of those question to overanalyze.
“Do you have any normal pizza?”
I love it. It’s absurd, it’s meaningless, and it says so much about the way that we look at and talk about food.
What even is normal pizza? Round, I suppose? But even that’s not an American standard. That’s not even a Napa standard. The closest pizzeria to us in Napa? Little Caesar’s, who famously shapes their pies into squares when they’re not wrapping them in bacon.
Is it the toppings? That’s definitely part of it. Despite its sharp ascendence in the national consciousness in recent years, burrata still isn’t a household term, not to mention that people aren’t really all that used to extra, non-green pepper veggies on top of their pizzas, and yes, every once in a while we do throw things like artichokes, asparagus, and mint ricotta on top of a pizza and try to sell it as something delicious.
So no, we are definitely not like most other pizzerias in the area, save for the congruency of shape with our vertically challenged imperial friends down the block.
But the issue isn’t what makes our pizza different so much as what makes normal desirable? Because, unlike so many other friendly, inquisitive, questions that come just out of ignorance rather than any thing else, the normal question always comes with an extra helping of derision (and usually a request for some ranch dressing in which to dunk one’s crust).
Neophilia and neophobia. The love of new and the fear of new. We create an image in our minds of what a particular food is, or should be, and for many of us, that becomes “normal”. But that image is completely contextual. It is based on nothing more than our personal experiences with it. This is not specific to Napa, to California, or even to the United States, despite my love of ridiculing the American interaction with and conceptualization of food. It is the reason why blood feuds exist in the mountains of Abruzzo over whether or not one’s amatriciana sauce should include garlic, onion, or neither. Okay, blood feud might be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are certainly more than a few cousins from neighboring towns who no longer look one another in the eye after a heated allium-centric debate one Sunday.
We grow up with a food, we get to know that food, and we decide that it is how a food should be, since it is what we are used to. It becomes, in a word, normal, although there is likely to be any number of variations of preparations of that particular food, or, at the very least, various iterations of dishes using the same name as that particular food.
I could, and have, dedicate a hefty sum of words to what I see as the ultimate pizza. But that is completely personal to me. That is what my taste buds, my personality, my interests, my genetics, and my life experience dictate to be a particularly exceptional pizza. The difference, of course, is that I don’t consider my euphoric experience in the piazza outside Gino Sorbillo to be normal. I consider it to be a pinnacle of a particular style.
Nor do I consider Foodshed’s pizza to be normal. I also consider it to be an exceptional version of a particular style – a style completely different from the transcendence of Naples, from the perfectly round pizzas arriving on doorsteps around the country every Saturday night, incandescent with their glowing pepperoni toppings, from our by-the-slice brethren of the isle of Manhattan, and of course, different from our fellow quadrilateralish pizza mavens Gaius Minutius down the street.
So, no, we don’t have normal pizza. But we do have delicious pizza, and, in the end, isn’t that what really matters?