Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eating out. Tutta Bella.

The pizzas of Naples, writes the food critic Alan Richman, emerge from ancient wood-burning ovens smoky, charred, and puffy around the edges. Although thin, the crusts are supple and chewy, not cracker-crisp like those on the thin-crust pizzas of America. However, the Neapolitan pizzas have one serious flaw, in his mind - they are extremely wet, ranging from medium-wet to "fatally gooey," to the point where he "would not have been surprised to see small children with tiny boats floating them across their pizzas, reenacting Columbus sailing toward the edge of the world."

This is what I remember of my first experience with Neapolitan pizza, more than ten years ago - a vast circle of dough, thin enough to be pliable, thick enough to be chewy, the edges bubbly and charred from the wood fire. And yes, gooey and wet in the middle, with the juices from the tomatoes and the moisture from the fresh mozzarella di bufala and a fair amount of olive oil to finish things off. There was a pizza Margherita, named for a queen of Italy, lightly sauced with tomatoes, dotted with slices of mozzarella, scattered with bright green basil leaves. There were others - I vaguely recall one with seafood, which made my parents exclaim with joy as they recalled their New Haven days (before I was born) eating pizza at such places as the legendary Frank Pepe's - but it was the pizza Margherita that I remember most clearly, the simplicity of it, completely different from the American pizzas I was used to, thick dough swimming with sauce and overburdened with toppings and cheese.

We came home, and returned to American-style pizza from takeout places, or thin, crisp-crusted pizzas at Italian restaurants that pretended authenticity yet had none, with trendy ingredients like rotisserie-roasted chicken and goat cheese and the ubiquitous sun-dried tomato. Years passed, and then Tutta Bella came along, with its San Marzano tomatoes and roaring wood-fired oven, its certificate of authenticity from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an international association based in Naples which has the authority to recognize a pizzeria which follows a certain set of guidelines (ingredients, methods, use of San Marzano tomatoes and a wood-burning oven) that produce what they proclaim to be the true Neapolitan pizza. Tutta Bella is the first pizzeria in Seattle to gain this accredition, and it is in the neighborhood where I used to live. I don't live there anymore, but I try to eat there every month or so, at Tutta Bella or Geraldine's Counter, my favorite diner, or to buy bread at the Columbia City Bakery.

But today is a drizzly grey day, and my father and I (with the help of two of his students) have spent the morning moving things from our old house into a storage space. It is early afternoon by the time we manage to have lunch. I'm in the mood for pizza, so we head to Tutta Bella, which is airy and open and full of light despite the weather. I can't resist a café cioccolato, which comes with its cap of foam swirled into a delicate pattern of curving leaves, creamy and hot, with the nutty chocolate taste of Nutella smoothing out the kick of espresso. There is a salad of chopped romaine, crisp and green, with the faint sweet anise flavor of finely shaved fennel, bright cherry tomatoes that burst in your mouth, and little balls of fresh mozzarella, soft and creamy. And there is pizza, dusty with flour and just blackened in spots, the cheese just melted enough, the crust with just enough heft to balance the light scattering of toppings, the middle of the pizza just puddly enough to necessitate folding each slice in half before eating it. Perfection is in the flaws.

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