When it came, the fateful dinner was arranged quickly enough. I was reading the April edition of the excellent food magazine Saveur, a special issue devoted to American artisanal cheese (one of my favorite subjects), and after I'd gotten over my irritation that the editors hadn't seen fit to include either Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in the Alameda Marketplace (1650 Park, Alameda, 510/864-WINE) or Cowgirl Creamery's Artisan Cheese Shop in the Ferry Building (1 Ferry Building, No. 17, 362-9354) in their list of 20 top places to buy American cheese -- but had included the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, whose secret slogan, I decided in the years I warily shopped there, is "We Will Gladly Sell Cheese Past Its Prime" -- I read that Ed Levine's new pizza book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Guide and Companion, had just been published. I was out the door and at the nearest bookstore in a trice. The lovely Asian guy with hair down to his waist smiled beatifically as he rang the book up, telling me about a transcendent pizza experience he'd had in Brooklyn, right by the bridge.
You know Ed Levine. He's the guy whose pieces in the New York Times always begin, "In the last two months I have eaten three million bagels/pastrami sandwiches/burgers, averaging 50,000 a day ..." (I'm hyperbolizing only slightly), and his pizza book, I was delighted to find, contains this line in its introduction: "Over this last twelve months I have consumed at least a thousand slices of pizza (roughly three per day) in twenty states as well as Canada and Italy."
I'd barely started to glance through it when I called Robert, who agreed to break bread, or anyway pizza, with me that night. As we drove toward Little Star we talked, in the manner of food-obsessed people everywhere, about pizzas we had known and loved. I came to pizza relatively late, thanks to a boyfriend who considered it the perfect food (unlike Levine, who merely calls it a perfect food), and who introduced me to the delights of cold pepperoni pizza for breakfast. My family lived in an area where pizza delivery was unknown, and though we sometimes ate it out, there wasn't a family fetish for it -- as there was, say, for Chinese food. (My father occasionally favored a jarred Italian antipasto for breakfast, carefully picking out and discarding the pearly pickled onions, but I don't remember any cold pizza in the morning.)
When Robert and I entered the place, he was taken aback by its rather hip (though minimal) décor: He'd envisioned a fluorescent-lit dive, but the lights were low, the bar was topped with wine bottles on display in chic shadow boxes, and the jukebox was loaded. We were led to a comfy table for four, and were reading the menu when Robert noticed that his informant, Matt, was sitting at a deuce directly opposite us, despite having eaten there just the night before. This time he was with his wife, Noreen, and they were well into what appeared to be a hefty deep-dish sausage pie.
It looked good to us (despite our recent conversation about disappointing Chicago-style pies outside of Chicago), so we ordered a small one, along with a small thin-crust Italian combo (after being disappointed that the pie called White did not feature clams, but mozzarella, feta, zucchini, tomato, and garlic olive oil). We started with a nice large mixed salad -- organic field greens, cherry tomatoes, minced red bell peppers and onions, chopped walnuts, and Gorgonzola cheese in a good vinaigrette. Robert loved it ("I'd be proud if I'd made this salad"), but if I'd made it I would have added more Gorgonzola and more of the tiny tomatoes.
The deep-dish pie arrived first. It wasn't obscenely deep, and was full of sausage, fresh mushrooms, green bell peppers, onions, and a chunky tomato sauce, in a cornmeal crust that stayed crisp under its juicy burden. I liked it a lot, but Robert really went nuts for it. I was also very happy with the thin-crusted combo, prettily topped with pepperoni, salami, thin rings of white onions, green bell peppers, black olives, and the touch that lit up the mouth, pale green slivers of spicy pepperoncini. Robert pointed out that there was a lot of liquid accumulating in the middle of the pie, yet the crust -- which wasn't as puffy or blackened in bits as I like -- stood up to the onslaught of toppings. Matt and Noreen joined us after they'd dispatched their dinner, recommending the house-made cheesecake, which was slightly sour and extremely creamy atop a tender graham cracker crust. Lovely.
As we walked back to the car, juggling leftover boxes (the small pizzas were big enough for two), Robert shocked me by saying, "That's as good as any meal we've had together," and it wasn't the RazorEdge lager talking. I reminded him of some pretty swell and much fancier meals we'd shared, but he stuck to his guns. "I said as good," he said, "not better." I told him that Levine had mentioned A16, Pizzetta 211, the Café at Chez Panisse, and Tommaso's in his California chapter, which I'd glanced through but not read, and Robert said that was a good list, though he wondered why Levine hadn't included Berkeley's Nizza La Bella. "Oh," I said, conscience-stricken, "he did; I guess I didn't remember because I've never eaten pizza there."
Reading Levine on his five-pizza-parlor day in Philadelphia (kinda successful) and four-pizza-place 24 hours in Washington, D.C. (not so hot), inspired me to take Robert out to a two-place lunch the next day. Robert's not so big on lunch on a workday, but he was still glowing from dinner. We started at A16, which he was surprised to find calm and quiet (dinner, when every seat is filled, is something of a riot). We ordered a funghi pizza and another topped with broccoli rabe, though everything on the six-pizze list looked enticing -- even more so when, for example, the most beautiful margherita pizza, gently cupping soft white pools of mozzarella, arrived at the table next to us. The funghi came topped with lots of whole chiodini mushrooms (pale, looking a bit like oyster mushrooms, and elusive in flavor) along with grana padano (an Italian cheese), garlic, oregano, parsley, and olive oil; the broccoli rabe was carpeted with the green, minced almost to a mash, plus pecorino, garlic, chilies, olive oil, and nice fatty chunks of pink pancetta. But the glory was the crust -- puffy, chewy, blackened in bits. "That's what I like," I said. "Scotto," Robert said. "Scorched. In bakeries in Rome I'd see people rejecting loaves of bread -- piu scotto." (Only A16, of the three places we visited, has a wood-fired oven. Both Pizzetta 211's and Little Star's ovens are gas-fired.) We were mindful that more pizza awaited us, but we couldn't resist a light dessert -- a ball of whipped ricotta and a scoop of barely crystallized orange granita atop a heap of blood orange slices. Amazing.
By the time we slid into an equally amazing parking place right in front of Pizzetta 211 (Hollywood parking), I was hungry again. "Oh, it's a tiny little place," Robert said. "I thought you'd been here," I noted. "Nope," he replied. "It opened when I was unemployed." After a brief menu consultation, Robert staked out the biggest mosaic table outside, under a shady tree, and I ordered two pizzettas at the counter: Rosie's farm egg, nettles, and lamb sausage, and a tomato, mozzarella, and basil with pepperoni. "The first time I ate here," I said, pointing to the Four Star theater down the street, "was after a dispiriting morning at an Asian film festival there. The first movie was in Chinese and it didn't have English subtitles; our money was refunded, but I stuck around and watched it because I was planning on seeing the next movie -- during which I fell asleep. And then I happened to pass by here on my way back to my car and had the most delicious little pizza and a swell espresso and decided that's why God had made me come out here way too early on a weekend morning."
The two pizzettas at 211 were even better than the ones I remembered. The lamb sausage version was happily topped with two sunny-side-up eggs, so we each got one, their yolks still soft enough to ooze golden-orange richness when cut into. The nettles didn't seem to do much, or at least not as much as the faintly peppery pea shoot tendrils scattered atop the ethereal pie. Even more ethereal was the pepperoni, whose crust was the thinnest either one of us had ever seen. I'd brought Levine's book to show Robert, who was incensed to see that the author had lumped the Bay Area and Los Angeles together in one chapter, and disparagingly so, at that (the chapter begins, "California is, on the whole, a lousy pizza state"): "S.F. and L.A. are further apart than New York and Boston, and I bet he didn't put them in the same chapter." I was too full of perfect food, whether a or the, to care.