When is a pizza not a pizza? Who knows?
Pizza was invented (if we may disregard for the moment its historical antecedents, which no two experts seem to agree upon anyway) by the poor people of Naples and vicinity. In its purest form, it utilized foodstuffs that were practically free: leftover scraps of bread dough cooked in the leftover heat of the local baker's oven, the tomato (which grows like a weed all over the region) and a kind of cheese, mozzarella, made from what curd remained when all the good cheeses had been produced. Like so many other culinary basics, it soon started getting gussied up.
Eventually, the well-to-do got a hold of it (and did well by it), and it spread throughout Italy and then the rest of Europe. The Romans introduced a variation with their spare, rectangular pizza rustica . The Nicoise developed a version of their own (and Nice still produces some of the world's best pizza). Americans embraced it (messily) after World War II, dubbing it "pizza pie" and writing songs comparing the moon to it. Then came Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and L.A.'s own Wolfgang Puck of Spago. Working independently (though Waters got there first), both created variations on the Nicoise/Provencale pizza style that used California products and fed developing California tastes. The "California-style" pizza was born--and whatever pizza rules had still remained went straight out the window. Take this pizza I ran into the other night at a popular, contemporary-style Beverly Hills bistro.
The pizza in question--and of course I must accept some guilt in this matter for having ordered it in the first place--was described as coming topped with "duck and chili." As it turned out, there was no chili involved--at least no chili in any sense that I understand the term. There didn't seem to be much duck, either. What there was was a vaguely spicy tomato-based sauce of some kind, good mozzarella-like cheese, thin slices of Italian-style ham, and . . . lots of uncomfortable-looking little kernels of corn. On the pizza.
Now, the appropriateness of putting duck on pizza can probably be debated; the appropriateness of chili (had there been any) and corn can not be. Stuff like this simply doesn't belong on a pizza (especially if you're still going to call it pizza)--anymore than, say, teriyaki beef belongs in a burrito (though this very thing, of course, is an increasingly popular dish in certain local circles). If the pizza dough, the chili and the corn are all true to themselves--to their ethnic origins, that is--they simply cannot mate well enough to be forced together in such a way. It's like a blues band jamming with a symphony orchestra--and, yes, I know that's been done, but that didn't work very well either.
The pizza was delicious, incidentally, and I finished every scrap. But was it pizza?
CULINARY CAPERS: The Red Onion in Marina del Rey is hosting a "Miami Vice" afternoon today from 1 to 5 p.m. (better do a Sonny Crockett in your sleekest wheels if you want to get there on time) to benefit the Hospital Home Health Care Agency of California's Hospice program, which cares for the terminally ill in their own homes. For $25 you'll get a buffet lunch, a "Miami Vice Freeze Drink" (and when those guys say "Freeze!" they mean it), a "Miami Vice" fashion show, and a chance to win a Rolex watch.
BARGAIN BANQUETS: The new Caffe Napoli in Van Nuys serves soup or salad, a choice of main dishes, and garlic bread for $5.50 to $7.95 per person--sweetening the deal by feeding a party of four for the price of three. . . . The Calabasas Inn in Calabasas offers prix-fixe dinners at $13 per person, including appetizer and dessert. . . . And Jack's at the Beach in Santa Monica sells what are said by its P.R. agency to be "prefix" dinners (I hope they aren't pre-fixed too long in advance) for a mere $30 per couple. These "Romantic Dinners for Two," as they are called, include soup or salad, dessert and a choice of three entrees, and are served Sundays through Thursdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. only (if that's what you call romantic).
WE'LL DRINK TO THAT: The Mandarette, in West Hollywood, has finally gotten a beer and wine license. And its parent, the Mandarin of Beverly Hills, is 10 this year, which makes it a real youngster next to the Pacific Dining Car downtown, which celebrates its 65th anniversary starting March 5. In honor of this event, the Dining Car's new chef, Jean-Jacques Bouche (a great chef name, bouche of course meaning mouth in French), will prepare a nightly chateaubriand dinner, including salad, dessert and beverage, at $65 for two.