If there’s one thing that New Yorkers are particularly proud of, it’s their pizza. Now, given the staunch support of the British for their curries, I’m in no position to draw attention to the irony of the city having an Italian product as the foodstuff that most sums up their cuisine. Like the UK with its relatively large Indian population, New York has a high density of Italians, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there seems to be at least one pizza place for every ten heads of population in Manhattan.
Now, despite my love of the curry (and my upset about the inability to get a good curry in America) I am reluctantly prepared to accept that there are places in the world that make a better Indian curry than Britain. Like India, to pick a random example. But as far as a New Yorker is concerned, nobody makes pizza as well as this city. In fact, as soon as most New Yorkers get about ten miles outside the city limits, they start breaking out in a mozzarella sweat, for fear that they’re never going to eat good pizza again. As Joe Brown writes in this month’s Wired magazine, “it costs $482.79 to get a decent pizza in San Francisco – $17 for the pie, $85 for cab fare, and $378.80 for the flight to New York. Throw in $1.99 for tinfoil.”
I’m still getting used to the conventions around pizza purchase in the city. Firstly, it seems that plain cheese and tomato pizza is the only real choice of the genuine New Yorker. Sure, there may be the option of pepperoni or vegetarian, but I’m pretty sure that they’re for decorative purposes only, and that ordering one will lead to a trapdoor opening to plunge you directly into a wood-fired pizza oven. Secondly, cheese and tomato pizza is ‘plain’, and never margarita. That’s reserved for pizzas that have a bit of basil on them apparently. In this city, such flagrant flamboyance in pizza is to be discouraged. Finally, never ever ask for a cheese and tomato pizza, or even a piece of pizza. It’s a slice. And only a slice. Asking for anything else may well result in your snack having a third, less edible, topping…
In Britain, of course, having a slice of pizza from a takeaway place is pretty much the last resort of the desperately drunk (and even then only when they can’t find a doner kebab or a KFC). When I worked for a TV company in Camden, a place on the corner of the street on which we used to work sold slices of pizza that looked like they had been festering there since the early 60s. The fact that the establishment called itself “Tasty Corner” was in itself not a good sign. But after a few pints, you’d still see people taking their life into their own hands, eating pizza topped with meat so dubious that even those involved in the high pressure jet mechanical recovery of meat from animal bones would have turned their noses up at it.
Now, given my desire to blend in effortlessly with the locals, I’ve sampled New York pizza from a number of different places, and you can’t deny that it’s pretty damn good. Plenty of stringy cheese, good tomato sauce and a nice chewy base – what’s not to like?
No, the problem’s not with the taste. It’s the fact that almost without exception, these pizzas are hotter than molten lava on triangular slabs of furnace-blasted cast iron. One bite of pizza can be enough to remove most of the skin from the inside of your mouth. Having molten mozzarella clinging to your gums produces an excruciating pain that mimics what I’d imagine it’s like to have liquid candle wax splashed on your testicles. After one such nuclear pizza experience last night, my taste receptors went on immediate strike and are refusing to return unless I pay them danger money.
Interestingly, the guy who served me the aforementioned slice asked me if I wanted him to heat the pizza up, or whether I was happy with it the way it was.
The first person to invent a Hot Pizza Tongue Guard would make a fortune in this city, I swear.