“It sweats as if masturbating”
– Tom Gates, The Five Worst Pizzas In the World
It began, as many things do these days, as a single tweet. Tom Gates, who writes a fun little travel blog called waywardlife’s posterous, had dared to criticize pizza in Buenos Aires in a column on the MatadorNights website. And he didn’t stop at the one pizza from the one pizzeria that he had singled out for mention on his bottom five, but went on to trash the entire genre. One tweet grew to dozens, and probably on from there, I stopped reading them. But then the e-mails and direct tweets started – local expats suggesting that I might just write a defense of the BA pizza.
“The “Super Picante” from Belén, at the corner of Corrientes and Boulogne sur Mer, oozing oil from both cheese and gristly chorizo, no sauce to speak of, a few hard, rubbery and ice cold “roasted” peppers and a sprinkle of dusty oregano and chili flakes that were devoid of flavor…”
Now, looking at my index, I’ve reviewed 32 pizzerias to date here – and probably eaten at equally as many more. I have tried al molde, a la piedra, a la parrilla. I’ve tried simple, basic pizzas, I’ve tried the elaborate concoctions with hearts of palm and salsa golf. I’ve tried the places that tug at the heartstrings of porteños since time immemorial, or at least a decade or two, and I’ve tried the newcomers. And out of those 32, slightly more than half have gotten a thumb’s up. The three dozen or so that haven’t garnered a review didn’t warrant one – they were execrable… wretched… not fit for human consumption – leaving us at, statistically, somewhere around a quarter of the pizzas I’ve tried here being worth eating.
That doesn’t bode well for a defense. And, Tom is, I have to say, dead-on in his reasoning, at least partially. The problem, for the most part, is the cheese. Most of the mozzarella here has far too high of a fat content, there’s way too much of it piled atop the pie, and it weeps oil over plate and box at a rate that makes the Exxon Valdez look like a laughably amateurish attempt. But it’s more than just the cheese. The sauce is often little more than puré de tomate right out of can or carton, unseasoned, uninteresting, barely brushed onto the dough in any case. The seasoning of the pizza is nil – perhaps a dusting of oregano flakes and a few too many shakes of salt – no garlic, no onion, no spice nor herbs. There are virtually always olives, green or black, and 9 times out of 10, left whole, with pit, meaning that you end up eating them separately, or risk chipping a tooth. The crust, often, is the only saving grace, and I’ve had many a crust that was worth eating on its own as a piece of focaccia and would have been better left that way.
Now, one could argue that it’s a matter of taste, and, of course it is. So is eating deep-fried witchetty grubs, braised chicken anuses, and broccoli. Some like each of those, some don’t. And I’ve sat at the table while local friends have rolled their eyes in rapture as they sunk their teeth into a pizza slice that from my point of view needed to be tossed on the floor and covered with sawdust to soak up the grease and add flavor. But then, I’ve also sat at table in Italy with friends from the U.S. who rolled their eyes in disgust and couldn’t wait to get back to New York and “real pizza” (which, by the way, is a style of pizza I don’t particularly like either).
One could claim that subjectivity is, at heart, the defense of pizza porteña, and for locals, it is. And for some expats it is – the amusing thing for me, is how many of those who asked me to leap in to defend pizza here, are the same ones who when we get together and go out, moan about how bad it is. They just don’t like it when “an outsider” says the same things they say… forgetting that, they themselves are, in the eyes of Argentines, just as much outsiders, regardless of having chosen to live here.
So, in the end, do I defend the local style of pizza? No. Most of the places that a local would define as “true Buenos Aires pizza” have been among my least liked. Those that have been towards the top have been those that, for me, come closest to traditional Neapolitan pizza, or, Chicago/Midwestern style. But then, I’m from the Midwest, and have spent oodles of time in Italy – it’s simply what I like. I do, however, defend their right to like it, eat it, cherish it, and, should they wish to, defend it.
And Tom, if you come back to BA, I’d be happy to show you some places to get my idea of a good pizza, and we can jointly avoid the “big goops” of “sweating fromage” that you wax so poetic against.