Sunday, July 9, 2017

Pizza is for summer

Pizza from the grill
For my children, pizza was nothing special. It was the one meal my husband could prepare for the kids, and by prepare, I mean he could take them to the local pizzaria and order. Pizza is cheap. Pizza is popular. Pizza is timeless.

That wasn't always the case, however. In the 1950s, there were few pizzarias. It was peasant food, prepared at home. 'Mericans (the word my family used to describe those unfortunate people who did not share our Italian heritage, accent on the last syllable, soft a) didn't know about pizza, or if they did, they weren't interested. Yet.

My great-grandmother only made pizza during the summer when tomatoes were fresh. I'm not sure if she preferred fresh tomatoes or if pizza was a way to use up some of her garden's bounty without canning. Regardless of the reason, Grandma would start making pizza early in the day. Yeast was not fool-proof back then, and it certainly wasn't instant, so it took a long time for the dough to rise. If she was going to make pizza, she was going to MAKE PIZZA, enough to feed us and all the neighbors, seven or eight big slabs of Neopolitan-style pizza, large rectangles of thick crust, topped with fresh tomato sauce (not tomato slices) redolent of garlic and basil, and grated sharp cheese (no stringy mozzarella, thank you very much). Now that was pizza.

This was a meal we could eat on Fridays (remember, before Vatican II, every Friday was meatless). There were no toppings on Grandma's pizza. It was delicious just the way it was, hot from the oven or cold the next day. And it was meant to be shared.

After Grandma died, we didn't get homemade pizza very often. Luckily, her paisana Philomina still made pizza, and when she did, she would share with us. I can remember going to her house to get the pizza to bring home-she and her husband Fortunato were teeny, not even five feet tall, and their house was sized for them. As a little girl, I felt as if I was going into a doll house with child-sized cabinets and furniture. I still associate pizza with this fairy-tale house. Instead of gingerbread, this house was infused with the smells I associated with my great-grandmother, the smells of rising dough, of simmering tomato sauce, of sharp garlic, of herby basil. These were the aromas of summer, if you were Italian.

By the time I started school, pizzerias started to open, and my father would pick up a couple of pizzas and a stromboli for dinner on Friday night to give my mother a break from cooking for nine people every meal, seven days a week. These pizzas were different. They were round, not rectangular. They were thin and crisp, not thick and crusty. They were topped with mozzarella, not sharp cheese. And there were toppings, mushrooms and pepperoni and sausage and anchovies. It was pizza, but not PIZZA.

Who knows why, but eventually I tried my hand at making pizza like Grandma used to make. Of course, I made more than my family could eat at a single meal, but no one complained. Soon my brothers were inviting their friends for pizza. This pizza was a marriage of old and new. It was still thick and crusty, but in addition to sharp cheese, I would pile on shredded mozzarella. I added toppings. And I made it winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Once I got married, I continued to make pizza. Our children would invite their friends for homemade pizza. To this day, their friends drop broad hints that they are hungry for my pizza. It was this tradition that made me write the book Pizza Friday.

On hot summer days when tomatoes are ripe, I think of pizza. I think of Grandma. And I think of tradition.

Bon App├ętit!