A great pizza is special, a joy like no other. So what makes a great pizza great?
The base is crucial. Not too thin, not too thick, not too brittle, not too chewy, not too much crunch on the outside crust, not too little…and the flavour has to be right. You can go quite a way to find a truly delectable base.
I went as far as Rome before I experienced one. This was back in the dim ages, though – the early 80s, to be specific, when the Aussie idea of a good pizza was all about the topping. More is better was the simple rule.
Stumbling out of the pub at closing time, the nearest late-night pizza joint was a mandatory next stop before the Big Decision – home for more beers and a joint or three, or off to some nightclub to get lucky or get more pissed (the odds strongly favouring the latter)? There was no decision to be made regarding the pizza, though. You’d go for the works. And if there was any disharmony between bacon, pepperoni, ham, pineapple (yes, I know), mushrooms, prawns, smoked oysters, olives, anchovies and anything else available, with double cheese of course – well, you were too absorbed in your heavy-lidded pigging out to notice.
So there I was, escaped from the confines of Perth at last, backpacking around Europe, fronting up for my first pizza in Italy. My research had landed me in a long queue outside a modest little takeaway pizza stall near the Trevi Fountain. It boasted a wood-fired oven and reputedly served up one of the best pizzas in Rome.
Wood-fired ovens were unheard of in Australia at that time. This was tradition with a capital T, the first authentic pizza of my life. The suspense was agonising, the expectation stratospheric.
40 minutes of inching forward in that queue it took before I fronted up to order the margarita (this being the most traditional of pizzas according to my reading…and of course, I would settle for nothing less in my quest for the Authentic). But what was this miserable offering? Slices of tomato and dobs of melted mozzarella on a misshapen wafer-thin crust? What?!
Of course, that’s what a margarita pizza is, but I didn’t know that! I didn’t know, either, that Roman pizza bases are always thin. That’s the way they like them! And after my initial disappointment, I began to realise that I liked them too! A lot. The flavour of the base surpassed those of any of the Aussie pizzas I’d scoffed down. And it dawned on me chew by chew that the simple topping worked extremely bloody well. Life was never quite the same from that evening, although I didn’t recognise this pivotal moment for what it was until long after the fact. (Actually, not until now, which is the first time I’ve contemplated plotting my evolving relationship with pizza in writing).
When I returned to Australia a couple of years later in 1985, I set down in Sydney. It was cosmopolitan, big, a genuine world city, and less of a comedown after my extended time on the road than moving back to Perth. In some ways, Sydney was more sophisticated than Perth (and in some ways, less so, I discovered – but that’s another tale)…but that sophistication did not run to wood-fired pizzas. They came quite some time later. By then, I was back in Perth.
The first woodfired pizza ovens in Perth, at least that I encountered, were in Fremantle, at Ginos and Sandrinos, next door to each other. I forget the year I ‘discovered’ them – around the early 90s, I think – but I do recall going to Gino’s with my partner every Friday night for many months to sup on two pizzas and a litre of house red. Damn fine it was, too, the pizzas in the traditional Italian style (but with bases thicker than those of Rome, though equally delicious), and the red a cheap Morris Pressings quaffer reminiscent of the honest affable tones of an Italian backyard vino.
And it was at Gino’s that we first tried adding fresh-cut chillies in olive oil to our pizzas. There was no going back. A pizza seems incomplete now without cut chillies in oil and red wine.
The Friday pizza nights in Freo came to an end when we were picked up for breathtesting driving home and waved on our way by some kindly cops who must have decided that there were greater threats on the road that night. We figured we’d pushed our luck long enough driving home from Freo above the limit. Being creatures of habit, once the routine was broken we sorta forgot about it.
Besides, soon after we ceased our Friday night sojourns to Freo, we discovered a woodfired pizza closer to home at Siena’s in Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley that gave Gino’s a run for their money. Great base, quality toppings (including an especially yummy hot pepperoni), and big bowls of cut chillies in olive oil on demand! Then they began a regular two-for-$20 pizza special Monday to Wednesday. Our weekly pizza ritual was ON again, and so it continued for years.
We ventured further afield from time to time trying various pizzas, mostly wood-fired. Il Padrino Caffe in Northbridge does a good one. And for an old-fashioned electric-oven Aussie-style pizza, Uncle Gino’s in Scarborough Beach Road near West Coast Highway is as good as it gets (nothing to do with Gino’s in Freo, by the way). Really. I love wood-fired, but when an Aussie-style electric oven pizza is done to perfection, as Gino – and only Gino – manages every time bless him, I’ll shoot me mitt up for one every time no wozzers mate. ‘kn oath yeah.
Where’s this leading, you might ask. Well, to the kitchen. But we’re not there yet, so alas, a little more patience my good and earnest readers…
By and by, Siena’s became so popular that they opened another restaurant in Leederville, just down the road from home. It doesn’t have as good an atmosphere as the original venue in Beaufort Street, but the pizzas were usually just about as good, and the location was too convenient to ignore. Then came The Night Of The Olive Pip.
We had our faces down in the first of our two pizzas when my partner sat up with a jolt, hand to her jaw. She had broken a tooth on an olive pip that had been left undetected in an olive on her pizza.
When we approached the owner, my partner with a tissue in hand in which was wrapped half her molar, his immediate response was: “Can’t help you.” He then proceeded to declare in stern tones that his insurance policy wouldn’t cover dental expenses, that the restaurant wasn’t liable since they couldn’t be expected to check every olive for pips, and that the very same thing had happened to him at another restaurant just the previous week. He had had to cop it sweet as an occupational hazard of eating out, just as my partner would.
Not only did his pip story sound dubious, but his attitude stank. He knew us well as clients. We had been faithful patrons for many years, long before Siena’s became popular, had recommended them to friends (and vast numbers of students while working as ESL teachers)… So much for customer loyalty. We never went back.
I missed our regular Siena’s pizza nights, and probably would have relented in time, but my partner was resolute – she warnt nevah goin’ back, and that was that. Then we fell on hard times, and stopped going out to eat much at all.
One hot night last summer, we revisited Gino’s in Fremantle. It is now called Sandrino’s, evidently taken over by its next-door neighbour during the years we were absent. It was packed, and little wonder – the pizzas were as terrific as always. Lawd knows why we stayed away so long.
We might well have gotten back into our Freo pizza routine, were it not for my partner receiving some jarring and completely unexpected medical news a few weeks hence. I will refrain from detailing these. The upshot was that dietary changes were crucial, including drastically cutting down on salt.
Until you’re faced with implementing a low-sodium diet, it’s difficult to comprehend the extent of the limitations. All Asian food is out, for example, because almost all Asian cuisines use high-salt sauces like soy, fish, oyster etc. Cut these down to allowable sodium limits and you might as well not use them at all. For people like us, who LOVE Asian cuisine, that was a major blow. We have started to develop workarounds, but I’ll cover that in another post.
Pizzas are high in salt content, of course, but after revisiting Ginos I couldn’t bear the prospect of going without them AND Asian food. Funny how adversity sometimes brings about changes for the better you could never have foreseen. This low-sodium dietary curse has turned out to be a blessing – a new stage in the evolution of my relationship with pizza, no less!
See, I set about developing a lower-salt home-made pizza, which has turned out to be the most exciting thing to happen in the kitchen since I bent my spunky housemate over the sink while she was washing up, and in a frenzy of unbridled passion…I’m lying. Alas, I never had a housemate I wanted to ravage thus – not that existed outside my depraved imaginings, anyway. It’s true about the pizza, though.
And since you teeming hordes of readers have learned the lesson of patience as you waited for this way-overdue post, it will be no task at all to hang tough a little longer for the inside dope on my home-made pizzas. They’re good. Not quite up with Sandrino’s yet, but close. Recipe coming soon, with photographic evidence. I promise.