THE PERFECT FOOD
We have discovered the perfect food here in the Cilento. The bad news is that there is an evil impostor in the US masquerading under the same name. And it’s a noble name. The name is pizza.
On our first night here we were taken by Fabio and Fernando on a quick tour of Agropoli and to a famous restaurant, the Bar Ristorante Barbanera. As we snaked our way through the narrow streets of the town, a young woman strode up to the car, opened the door and hopped in. Sandy was startled at first, but as it happens it was Fabio’s girlfriend Katiuscea, Tuscea or Katia for short. Ladies, earlier I suggested what an attractive find Fabio would be. Perhaps I spoke too rashly. Not only is Katia gorgeous, she could charm the birds right out of the trees. And rumor has it she’s a dead aim with a Baretta. Katia is a poliziotta, a municipal policewoman, and I would consider it a privilege to be ticketed by her.
We parked the car and strolled up an ancient street toward the summit of the Rocca, the towering rock which gives Agropoli (acropolis) its name and served as the citadel of the Byzantine town. We were more and more excited by the spectacular glimpses of the harbor we were seeing below. Besides having the Rocca as natural fortification, Agropoli lies next to a natural harbor in a small bay. In other words, an ideal location for early settlement. Today, an ideal location for a maritime resort.
We strolled under the gates of the Byzantine town and arrived at the ristorante. The main seating for the restaurant is a large terrazza along a retaining wall at the edge of a cliff. On the other side of the wall, the beautiful Golfo di Agropoli. The main course for any good meal at the Barbanera is a spectacular view.
We each ordered a different pizza which we agreed to share, in addition to several small bottles (mezzobottiglie) of the local red and white wines, bottled under the name of Paes, dialect for Paestum, the nearby archaeological site.
The pizza was a revelation. We’ve had pizza before in Italy and it’s been good. We’ve even had pizza in the Bay of Naples, the reputed home of the item. But nothing to compare with this. The bread was thin, with a crackling crust on the bottom and a soft, melting crumb. Little areas of darker crust around the perimeter left no doubt that this pizza was cooked in the only way a pizza should ever be cooked, that is, in a forno a legna, a wood-fired brick oven. I remember how, on our first excursion to Italy, as we drove around the countryside, everywhere we’d see signs for ‘Forno a Legna’. Geez, what’s the big deal? Then we tasted the bread. No more argument. And it is a treat to watch a good fornaio (oven man) take his pala (peel) and maneuver the breads into exactly the right spot. Of course the walls of the furnace retain more heat, so an adept fornaio will position his pala under one edge of a pizza crust or a bread and with the mere flick of a wrist spin it around and leave it in just the right spot to see that every side of the bread gets the right amount of caloric love.
The toppings were delicious as well, though there was no doubt who the star of the show was. Sandy’s pizza had a traditional salsa di pomodoro, a thin layer of tomato sauce made fresh on the premises and topped with a local goat cheese and herbs. Katia’s pizza had quarters of tiny grape tomatoes, impossibly red and sweet, cheese and arugula. Fernando had a local sausage and pepperoni. No, not two different kinds of sausage; to an Italian a pepperono is a bell pepper, usually allowed to achieve its full glorious red color and sweetness. My pizza had the local formaggio di capra, the goat cheese, and flowers of zucchini.
All the freshest ingredients on a delicious bread, none of which really explain the wonder of Cilentane pizza. Because the secret is the perfect balance of perfect ingredients. At the risk of offending my friend Mike who operates a pizzeria back home, most American pizza is to the Italian article as chipped beef is to ribeye. Why do we feel we have to glob on more and more sauce, a huge mound of rubbery cheese, so many slices of ‘pepperoni’ that a layer of grease floats on the surface? And put all this on a thick, gooey crust which has, more often than not, been delivered to your door in a cardboard box absolutely guaranteed to make the crust even more gooey?
Believe it or not I don’t really mean that as a criticism of American pizza. We associate pizza with Italian-Americans, as we do such foods as lasagna and all forms of pasta swimming in tomato sauce. We also associate Italian-Americans with olive skin and dark hair and eyes, even though millions of Italians are blue-eyed and fair skinned. The reason is, of course, that a large proportion of Italians who immigrated to America in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and first two of the twentieth derived from the Mezzogiorno, the south of Italy. And the reason for that was painfully simple: economic opportunity has been lacking for so long in this area that an ambitious young person might well decide to risk all and head for greener pastures in the new world.
I don’t mean to disparage at all the sorts of economic hardships those people faced when they arrived, but for the most part they weren’t starving. In fact, they found themselves in a paradise of food, at least relative to the literal starvation they had faced at home. And so their foods became a sort of parody of those they remembered at home, the same thing only completely over the top. Lasagna, for example, in Italy strictly a holiday food that most Italians eat once a year at Easter if at all because it is so luxurious, became a staple of the Sunday dinner.
All of which is perhaps quibbling, but I think perhaps they (and we) have lost something in the bargain, and that is, once again, balance. To coin a phrase, “As a man eateth, so is he.” The balance in Italian foods carries over to their lives. Italians work, and they work hard, but they don’t make a religion of work like so many Americans do. They eat and drink, and absolutely demand to eat and drink well, but always in moderation, except for the occasional splurge. In fact, the only area of their lives which they seem to approach with reckless abandon is in the love of family, where their devotion seems boundless. And it’s hard to argue with that particular vice.
So, does a lack of balance in lifestyle carry over to their cousins in America as well? I’m hardly qualified to say, but based on the little I’ve read about a popular American reality show which centers on Italian-American families in New Jersey, the unfortunate answer seems to be, yes.
I have heard on the cooking shows at least five different Italian-Americans claim to be the originators of pizza, and perhaps one of them is right, as it applies to the American version. But in book 11 of the foundational myth of ancient Rome, the Aeneid of Vergil, the Trojan immigrants who are fated to establish a new Troy in the form of Rome are told by an oracle they will know they have reached their destination when they will be so hungry they will “eat their plates.” Typical oracular mumbo-jumbo. But in fact, when Aeneas and his men reach the central coast of western Italy and are famished, they decide to have a modest banquet to celebrate their safe arrival in this strange new land and to dutifully thank the gods. Unfortunately they have lost all the plates in a terrible storm. And so they take their flatbreads, their pitas, as it were, and put upon them fresh vegetables and local herbs as well as the cheese they have brought with them, and roast these over a wood fire.
If that’s not pizza, what is it? And how else would a good Italian know he had finally arrived home if not when he had invented the perfect food?