x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The allure and satisfaction of a good slice of pizza

There's very little in the world of food that can top a good pizza.

Man cannot live by bread alone, but add some cheese and tomatoes and it's another story entirely. Pizza contains arguably three of the best foods in the world, and by "arguably", what I mean is: we can argue about it, and I will win.

I'd never heard of Shakey's Pizza when it first opened in the UAE, and I was too young to question adults and Americophiles who told me it was a good thing. I was old enough, however, to ponder the restaurant's name, well before learning that the source was the co-founder Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson, whose nickname was a playful jab at the nerve damage he suffered during the Second World War following an episode of malaria. I remember the pizza's curious top-notes of liquorice, something I later came to associate with the flavour of overcooked tomatoes and stale dried herbs.

When I was in high school, Pizza Hut released its original Stuffed Crust pizza, which had the incalculable advantage of being promoted by two people I worshipped: Micky Dolenz of the 1960s made-for-television band The Monkees; and Meghna, a girl in my class whose sense of certainty in life left little room for the kind of doubt that defined my own. She had described the pizza as "heavenly", and that was that: later that same day, I convinced my poor mother to order us one of these novelty items for our dinner.

Overpriced and over-hyped, the pizza arrived, and the stuffed crust turned out to be a bloated tube of stiffened mozzarella that was hard to get down, let alone enjoy. From then on, I could never eat another bite of a Pizza Hut pizza, latching on instead to the predictable mediocrity of Domino's.

Let's just say I was a difficult kid.

Skip ahead to my college years, which were spent in New Haven, Connecticut - home to the thin-crust, coal-fired, brick-oven pizza made famous by my beloved Frank Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana (known locally as Pepe's) and its rival restaurant Sally's Apizza, just up the street.

Pepe's is legendary for its white clam pie (the travelling food writers Jane and Michael Stern declare it to be their fantasy final meal), a delicious, nutty pizza crust, charred beneath and scattered with olive oil, garlic, herbs, a little grated cheese, and lots of plump, freshly shucked little-neck clams. It is indeed a fine pie, but it's not the reason I go to Pepe's.

Originally, there were only two tomato pizza pies on the menu at Pepe's: plain and marinara. The latter contained anchovies and the former was - and still is - the simplest and most sublime combination of elements for showcasing a crust as terrific as Pepe's: juicy tomato sauce, barely perceptible oregano and garlic, and a negligible sprinkle of Pecorino Romano.

A few years ago, during a particularly nasty winter, my best friend Jasmine and I were snowed into a remote alcove in coastal Massachusetts, and in four months, managed to eat more bad pizza than anyone has a right to enjoy as much as we did. We developed an almost perverse fixation on the pizzas at a chain called Papa Gino's.

We sought shelter from the violent Cape Cod sea squalls in a darkened basement café called The Binnacle. There, we ordered countless Thai pizzas: forgettable baked crusts topped with an unforgettable tangle of peanut sauce, grilled chicken, carrots, coriander, sprouts and spices.

We'd find ourselves awaiting custom-tailored pies in an old clapboard house known as "J's Flying Pizza", where Greek soccer moms flipped thin-crust individually sized pizzas no more than a quarter-inch thick, in and out of huge electric ovens, and the air was thick with the coppery smell of grease and melting, bubbling cheese. In an earnest effort to conjure her Kuwaiti childhood, Jasmine always ordered hers with seasoned ground beef and green bell peppers. What it is about this combination of pizza toppings seen so commonly throughout the Gulf, I don't know. (I was a jalapeño and pineapple girl, and had trained myself not to apologise for it).

This style of pizza, known as Greek Style "bar pizza", is not Greek in the olives-and-feta cheese sense, but rather is a signature of the greater Boston area. This cultural tradition is one best celebrated at a place called Poopsie's, in Pembroke, Massachusetts, where the pizza remains delicate despite an addictive sweetness like freshly fried dough, but never tastes saturated.

Over the years, pizza has probably ushered more contradictions into my life than any other food. For starters, although I'm a huge germaphobe who's extremely selective about sharing food, I have to practise tremendous self-restraint in order to keep from snatching uneaten pizza crusts off people's plates. And though I hate waiting in line, I will cheerily wait an hour or more for a dazzling grilled pizza at Providence's Al Forno, or Brooklyn's Grimaldi's, or Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco. Comparing these pizzas to most delivery pies for which you don't have to wait or leave the comfort of your home is like comparing instant ramen to the integrity of generations of proper Japanese ramen, and the magic of an obsessively balanced broth and handmade noodles so good they can make your knees weak.

As with a birthday cake, there is something uplifting, communal and inviting about the vision of an entire pizza waiting to be torn at or sliced. While a bowl of ramen is ultimately a meal for a single person, so is a slice. Hearty enough to hold its shape, and just floppy enough to fold into hungry mouths while navigating the streets of New York City.

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