Friday, November 23, 2007

Chicago Pizza and its accompanying Pride

Second City Comedy Theater. Third Coast International Audio Festival. Even in its own naming conventions, Chicago appropriates and recoins its second-class status in pop culture and the American zeitgeist. I write today in praise of my home, Chicago (more accurately, Chicagoland) and its native cuisine, the deep dish pizza.

Snobbish East-coast foodies malign it, Grinnell-alum and New York Eater Ed Levine disparages it as merely a “casserole” and apart from the garish “Pizzaria Uno” on Sixth Avenue, pizza with substance, pizza that puts up a fight, is conspicuously absent from such a haughtily self-described “diverse” food scene. Indeed, the cornmeal-bottomed wet cracker New York passes off as pizza can make one desperate: searching for a proper substitute in a time of need, I was once swindled by La Villa Pizzaria in Park Slope, which peddles a dry calzone in a pan for thirty-five dollars.

What is a native Chicagoan to do for pizza in prissy NYC? I went back home this past weekend to first, consume the savory ambrosia in a pan, and second, to unlock its secrets so that I might expose native New Yorkers to true deepdish nirvana, therefore elevating its public profile.

Like asking New Englanders what makes a “good” lobster roll, posing the question “Who makes the best deep dish” to a native Chicago crew is certain conversation TNT. I will always be partial to Ferentino’s, where I waitressed as a teenager, and of course, “stuffed” advocates will champion Giordano’s as the pizza of record. However, city-wide, many if not most will cite Lou Malnati’s as the commonly-agreed upon favorite. I have ordered it from afar and had it delivered packed in dry ice, I have sent doubters there who came back converted. It is my favorite, the taste I pine for when I am homesick, and where I headed to find out what makes it so gosh darn addictive.

Malnati’s is a family venture, handed down through members since it was first created in 1943. When I spoke to local manager Shaun, he relayed that to this day, Malnati family members are involved in all aspects of the business, from the marketing materials inside the store to (and this is from the web site) meeting with the tomato farmers in California each year.

Shaun was kind enough to let me watch the pizza assembly process in the remarkably squeaky-clean kitchen. First the dough, which rises and gathers flavor for 24 hours, is patted out into the deepdish pan:

Second comes the toppings, and of course that means cheese and Italian sausage. It helps foreigners to think of deepdish assembly like a layer cake or a parfait: at the base level is mozzarella (Lou’s) or provolone (Ferentino’s). Then toppings cover the cheese level—here sausage is applied to the pan with surgical precision: little military formations of meat surround and then invade the center:

Spun around slowly, the edges of the crust are pulled up towards the top of the pan three times. Then the delicious plum tomato sauce floods the top, and a dusting of parmesan cheese completes the prep process.

The result: an extremely excited Mozzadrella, poised to stuff her face with the final product.

I returned home, determined to replicate the delicious buttery crust in my galley kitchen in Brooklyn. After some detective work on food blogs, I found a recipe supposedly divulged by a Malnati member on the Food Network years ago:

16 ounces water
1/8-ounce yeast
1/2-ounce salt
2 pounds bread flour
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cornmeal

I tried it, and the attempt got me 80% there—the crust is flaky, the sauce close to form. However, I do recommend a touch more butter, both to line the pan and to coat the crust before sauce and topping application. Also, the crust thinning process requires some elbow grease—it should be thinner than 1/2 and inch in pan before it goes into the oven.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Mozzadrella ventures homeward!

Cheese is still cheese is still cheese.

Any way you slice it. Above: state spirit! Below: Cheese in the shape of Wisconsin.

And for local color:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

More Italian Food You've Never Heard Of

Italian pastries get no love in the US—our palate caters more to the nauseatingly sweet (cupcakes, doughnuts, butter cookies, etc.) than the subtle. Dessert is a fix, not a conversation. And while France garners all the haute pastry prestige, Italy has its own robust baking culture. Unlike its cream and custard counterparts, Italian pastries are more likely to include cheese fats (mascarpone, ricotta) and are often infused with anise or almond flavors.

My grandmother usually served pizzelles that she made herself, which look roughly like a dough doily and had a licoricey undercurrent. Amaretti, or stone-like amaretto macaroons, were usually present in their distinctive red tin. When the holidays rolled around, we would usually have a panettone, which resembles a bundt cake and tastes like wonderbread with raisins. My father is quite partial to sfogliatelle, which is sort of like a mille feuille with an orange-ricotta filling. Mostly unavailable in the states until recently, sfogliatelle once gave him food poisoning when he packed it in his suitcase in Florence, and ate it when he returned to the states.

Those are the more common desserts, but today we will look at more distinctive incarnations of Italian sweets, and a couple Italian-American bastardizations as well. A couple of bake shops in my neighborhood have freaks in their windows. It’s ‘bout time I found out the constitution of these vaguely modernist items.

Our first, Ossa dei Morti, the “Bones of the Dead” cookie.

Made with sugar and water in celebration of All Soul’s Day, this Venetian cookie smells faintly of anise and is chalky to the touch. Imagine stale corn flakes compressed into a brick. These are perilous pucks; my jaw hates me. The cookie’s chemistry reveals itself when dipped in coffee—it self-destructs.

The second is pretty unimaginative: the “S-shaped cookie.”

It’s indigenous to Brooklyn but inspired by Italian pastry treatment—the almond paste is very present. Still a little hard for me, even after the coffee immersion.

The third and last pastry is perplexingly named a “St. Martin’s Biscuit.” (If my memory serves me, St. Martin was militaristic Hungarian.)

A little like biscotti in texture, I appreciated the whole anise seeds in the batter. ‘Twas rather difficult to bite, though, since it has a concrete texture and a larger round shape. I can’t seem to locate provenance, so perhaps it was a house special.

Other Italian Specialty Sweets:
Rainbow Cookies
Torta Caprese