Authenticity and pizza

May 5, 2019

I really enjoyed these two posts from last year by Toby Shorin: After Authenticity and The Disbeliever’s Guide to Authenticity.

I’m not really equipped to riff on his work, but I do have an anecdote about a quest for authenticity coming full circle.

As a kid, my mom made pizza from scratch with some regularity, at least once a month in my memory. Her method was to make a basic, quick-rising dough, then divide, stretch, proof, and bake it in a couple of quarter sheet pans. Today, I would call it grandma pizza but at the time I don’t remember it having a special name. Rocky Rococo and Pizza Hut’s personal pan pizza were the closest approximations out in the world.

In college, my friend Jamie got me interested in making pizzas. He and I started with store-bought crust, but we eventually started making our own dough and quickly focused our efforts on approximating Neapolitan-style pizza, which seemed like the most authentic pizza one could make.

Learning how to make Neapolitan pizza is like catnip for an authenticity-seeker. There’s a whole association dedicated to “promoting and protecting the true Neapolitan pizza” down to stipulating that true Neapolitan pizza dough cannot contain olive oil. And in the Midwest in 2008, Neapolitan pizza was rare, or at least it seemed rare.

There’s a special and irritating kind of self-satisfaction only available in pursuits where authenticity is both prized and rare.

So we bought 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, a pizza stone, and a pizza peel. We did not use olive oil in our dough. As a now-enlightened 21 year-old, I looked at my childhood pizza as a tasty, but ultimately inauthentic relative of the pies Jamie and I made. Not that we ever got all that close to a truly authentic result. There’s only so much you can do in a college apartment, without a wood-burning oven.

After college, I continued to seek out and occasionally make Neapolitan-style pizza. I upgraded my stone to a Baking Steel, which I highly recommend. The pinnacle, in my mind, was the San Francisco outpost of Una Pizza Napoletana: essentially a one-man show dedicated to perfecting the craft and the discipline of making pizza in a wood-fired oven. I still think the Filetti I had there is the best pizza I’ve ever had.

Time passed and I started making pizzas more regularly with my friend Patrick. He got me into cast-iron skillet pizza, which I remember seeing mentioned more frequently online. Adam Kuban started doing bar pizza at Margot’s. I developed a fondness for Imo’s. Slice had been talking about this stuff for years, but I missed it.

When I finally learned about the Sicilian slice and the grandma slice I had an epiphany: my mom is half-Sicilian, so I had been having authentic pizza all along.

Except, my mom’s pizza dough recipe wasn’t handed down to her from her immigrant grandmother. She got it from a magazine in Tucson, AZ circa 1992. My great-grandma baked bread every day into her 90s, but I honestly don’t know if she ever made a pizza.

My desire to find and make what-I-thought-was-authentic pizza led me to develop an interest in baking, and to try a lot of delicious food. It brought me closer to my mom. On occasion, it led me to pay premium prices for utterly mediocre food that just so happened to use a handful of blessed ingredients and equipment, which I almost certainly ate thinking, “this is good, actually”.

Authenticity doesn’t have flavor or texture, and it’s not a reliable proxy for whether something is True and Good. My mom’s basil pesto and feta pie is extraordinary. Is it authentic? I don’t know. That’s not really what I’m looking for anymore.