When the Moon Hits Your Eye
What started as a meal fit for kings and queens soon became a staple among the common people: the pizza remains universal
I can be quite particular when it comes to my native country’s culinary arts. You see, I’m an Italian. But looking for Italy -- I mean the real Italy -- in the Austrian capital isn’t always easy.
Here we are nonetheless, and my companion and I hit the city’s bitter winter streets in search of Italian culinary gems. At first, all we find is Zanoni & Zanonis and then Pizza Bizzis – this isn’t Italy! The hunt begins to feel pointless, and I fear this may be the best Vienna has to offer. But over time and deeper into the back streets that seem to go on forever, I find a taste of home at last.
What we learned after a protracted search was that a little bit of Italy had indeed made it across the Alps and, as I will relate, was on my plate in the form of a pizza, a real pizza. Not one of those commonplace mockarella cheese and tomato-garnished flatbreads topped with bizarre things like corn, eggs, and sweet chilly sauce – what have these strange people done to this dish? I curse Pizza Bizzi!
There are only two places (to our knowledge) where one can eat a real Italian pizza in Vienna – Pizza Mari’ on Leopoldsgasse in the 2nd District and I Terroni on Westbahnstrasse in the 7th. Two pizzerias with true Italian credentials down to the stone oven. The battle begins.
We begin at Pizza Mari’ just across the canal from Schottenring, by the Karmelitermarkt. Upon entering we are confronted with two grinning southern Italian pizzaioli joking and laughing with one another as they prepare orders in front of the stone oven, stopping only to check out the girls passing by. A bar covered in familiar looking snacks stretches into the dining room. The interior is clean and simple with a taste of retro; a pair of odd, old-factory megaphone speakers hang unused in the corners. There are only young women serving and the dress code apparently is jeans, a white t-shirt, and whatever kind of funky accessories you wish.
A shorthaired waitress in thick horn-rimmed glasses sits us down in front of the Vietato di Fumare sign – I feel at home. Although the menu offers little variation (eight pizzas, one calzone, four white pizzas) the one-sided A4 list keeps me undecided for an eternity. Which will best satisfy my hunger for Italy? I ordered the most patriotic, tri-colored beauty of a pizza ever created. Topped with prosciutto crudo, rucola and Parmesan, it’s not the most traditional pizza perhaps, but the tastiest in my belly’s eyes.
In the beginnings of its poorly documented history, pizza began as a flatbread imaginatively baked on the shields of Persian soldiers, topped with cheese and dates. Common in the Mediterranean, the poet Virgil described bread as edible trenchers that permit us to "devour the plates on which we fed." In Italy, in the 1800s, these flatbreads became pizza with the addition of tomatoes brought from the Americas – where they have been, and will continue to be, underappreciated and underemployed.
Still, there is tradition to be rediscovered: In 1889, Raffaele Esposito prepared the first pizza for Queen Margherita of Savoy. Tomatoes, mozzarella and basil were used to emulate the three colors on the Italian flag. In honor of the queen the dish was christened Margherita. What started as a meal fit exclusively for royalty soon became a staple among the common people. Pizza has thrived ever since, providing Italy with a culinary animus (and America with a stereotype of eternal repeatability as well as another source of obesity).
Minutes after ordering the pizza lands in front of me – its perfect. The crust is thin and crispy, but not dry, and the dough is salted only on the bottom – a trait found only on the most serious of pizzas. The thick-grained salt hits my tongue first, followed by savory sweet dough, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Next – the ham, rucola, and Parmesan. It essential that these be added after the pizza has already come out of the oven, otherwise the crudo becomes cotto, the rucola becomes spinach, and the Parmesan sweats and melts – who in their right mind would ever want that?
Pizza Mari’ gets it right. Before they get boring, the salty Parmesan and the lean, delicate ham compliment the pleasantly salty base. The aromas explode on my tongue but are quickly balanced by the piquant and refreshing rucola. This is a good pizza – this is a good pizzeria.
The entire staff is friendly and the pizzaioli’s faces are familiar. The interior is simple, warm, inviting, and many families with young children occupy the tables around us – some have to share their table with strangers but no one seems to mind. The restaurant, food, staff, prices, and clientele all embody the notion that "this is a pizzeria…relax." All you need to do here is enjoy yourself and the pizza. It makes it hard to leave.
We apprehensively gather our belongings and depart – there’s another pizza to be eaten in this cold city. It is waiting for us at I Terroni: an unfortunately named restaurant/pizzeria in the 7th District. Terroni literally means land owner/worker and is modernly used as an insult towards Italians from anywhere south of Rome, implying vulgar simplicity and lack of culture. It’s a mystery why anyone would name their restaurant in such a self-deprecating manner. Perhaps outside the mainland, the term can be used like rappers use the n-word – as an expression of pride and solidarity, rather than the pejorative it originated as.
Although the name of this eatery basically means "redneck," the interior exudes very different sentiments. The semi-luxurious decorating spits in the face of simplicity, as does the attire worn by the waiters, dressed entirely in black as if they have returned from catering a funeral. The walls are covered in photos of olives, old men on benches, old men playing cards, and more old men doing things old Italian men do – as if trying to prove how Italian I Terroni is. All these elements make it feel like less of a trattoria/pizzeria than it actually is. It doesn’t seem like a place a terrone would enjoy lunch and a glass of wine between shifts at the winery. The food served here is simple; it does not necessitate the atmosphere associated with fine dining. Pasta and pizza should not be dressed as filet mignon.
In the interest of a scientifically fair comparison, I order the exact same pizza as I did in Pizza Mari’. The wait is longer but not too long and eventually it arrives. Visually the only dissimilarity between the two pizzas is the Parmesan, which in I Terroni is served in large shavings instead of medium shreds. The ham is also lean, but it is cut thicker, and the rucola seems fresh but lacks flavor: it tastes like the pre-cleaned and pre-packaged stuff you get in supermarkets. These individual imperfections combine to produce a thoroughly disappointing pizza – it has potential, but a few bad elements ruin the entire composition. The ham is too thick to bite through and at specific moments that is all I can taste; the same goes for the Parmesan. The large shavings may look nicer but they hinder the blending of flavors. The rucola is not even worth mentioning, as the only thing it contributes is a little crunch. The mozzarella, tomato sauce and dough are decent but not appetizing enough for me to finish off the crusts.
I gaze into my plate speckled with crumbs, rucola and bits of crust and think of where I Terroni went wrong. It’s likely that when decisions were being made, aesthetics and style trumped any notion of quality and flavor. Let’s be clear: the pizza was not terrible, but not worth the price nor the snobbery with which it was presented.
Pizza was only chic in its conception; it has since become, and continues to be a simple meal of the people. It is not fine dining, but it needs to be done right. This is precisely why Pizza Mari’ is the best choice for anyone in Vienna who wishes to eat a pizza as it was intended to be eaten.