Curse you, Wolfgang Puck!
Actually, I’ve interviewed Wolfgang Puck, and I liked him immensely. He is warm and generous, kind of the opposite of the way he seems on television. But curse him, anyway.
Single-handedly, Puck ruined pizza forever. He did it casually, offhandedly even. As if he were not starting a revolution. As if he were not flippantly knocking away the foundations on which Western civilization had been built.
Back in 1982, when he was just 33, the chef opened his instantly famous Spago restaurant in West Hollywood (it later relocated to the tonier Beverly Hills). The highlight, the focus and certainly the bulk of the attention went to his new, life-changing creation: haute pizza.
Smoked salmon and caviar pizza. Sonoma baby lamb with braised greens and rosemary pizza. Spicy chicken pizza.
Actually, I’ve had some of this pizza, and I liked it immensely. It wasn’t at Spago, it was at his San Francisco outlet, Postrio. I was at a reception, and they passed around plate after plate of the pizza (and bottle after bottle of wine). I sampled many of the pizzas that night, but the one that stood out in my mind, the pizza de resistance, as it were, was the smoked salmon and caviar pizza.
The crust was phenomenal — all those wood-fired oven places these days, whether they know it or not, are copying Puck’s crust and cooking method. The caviar was caviar, which is never a bad thing. And the smoked salmon was absolutely extraordinary, probably the best smoked salmon I’d had in my life, up to that time.
But here is the thing: It wasn’t pizza.
It was slices of succulent smoked salmon, dotted with caviar and laid over a dill cream sauce on top of a wonderful flat bread. If you look at it one way, it was a big, flat, open-faced sandwich.
Pizza has tomato sauce. Pizza has cheese. Pizza has mushrooms or pepperoni or sausage or anchovies. Pizza does not have barbecued chicken with Thai duck sauce.
It is not that I am not fond of barbecued chicken or Thai duck sauce, if such a thing exists. And I certainly enjoy them on top of a pizza crust. It is just they do not fit my definition of pizza.
I realize I’m about 30 years too late with these thoughts, but I’ve been thinking them for 30 years. So I’m really au courant.
I happened to have had a pizza for lunch today. I got the mushroom. It was great. Among the pizzas I did not get were an American Gyro pizza (it’s like a gyros pizza, but it’s American so it doesn’t end in an “s”), a pizza with roasted chicken and jalapeños on cilantro cream and one with vegetables and chimichurri — all of which pretty much take Italy entirely out of the pizza equation.
And now Papa John’s is offering a pizza with beef, chili sauce, Roma tomatoes, onions, cheddar and mozzarella. It’s bad enough that it is basically chili on a pizza crust, but then they sprinkle Fritos corn chips on top. Fritos. On top.
I don’t know what that is, but it isn’t a pizza. And this comes after the company ended its promotion for a Double Cheeseburger Pizza, which was topped with, as they called it, “cheeseburger sauce.”
According to “A Curious History of Food and Drink,” by Ian Crofton, pizza was being eaten in Naples in the 16th century. A recipe for it was included in a cookbook written in 1570 — but think about this. Tomatoes, which are native to the Americas, had not yet been introduced to Italy, at least not as something to be eaten. They belong to the nightshade family of plants, which were thought to be toxic (and some nightshades are).
So what was the original, tomato-less pizza like? It was sweet — it had a marzipan crust — and it was stuffed with crushed almonds, pine nuts, figs, dates, raisins and cookies.
It sounds marvelous. But I don’t care if they were eating it in Naples in 1570. It still ain’t pizza to me.