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The Professor of Pizza

February 07, 2001|RUSS PARSONS

There is an elaborate seriousness just below the surface of the modern Italian personality that may not be readily visible from afar. It is not coincidental that Italians of even the most modest rank tend to maintain some kind of honorific before their names-dottore for academics, ingegne're for those of a more practical bent (say, auto mechanics).

This passion for classification also makes the culture particularly hospitable to the citizen-scientist, those academics without portfolio who-unencumbered by degrees-study what they love for the pure joy of it. Rosario Buonassisi's "Pizza" (Firefly Books, $24.95) is a pure product of just such a passion. It is also one of the great unheralded cookbooks of the last year.

Originally published in Italian, it had the title "Pizze e Non Pizze: Una Breve Storia della Pizza dal Neolitico ai Giorni Nostri'-roughly "Pizza and Un-Pizza: A Brief History of Pizza From the Neolithic to Our Times." That is enough to give you a general sense of the thing.

Buonassisi's biography notes that he is a chemist by training who teaches food history at the University of the Third Age in Milan and is president of an amateur archeological group there. He has also written a book about living on a sailboat. In this slim work, he ponders the various and sundry implications of pizza-artistically, chemically, gastronomically, historically.

But what saves this book from being merely ponderous is Buonassisi's irresistible enthusiasm and pungent writing (a special thanks must go to the uncredited translator, who accurately captures the feel of the Italian idiom). This is the kind of book you keep wanting to quote to all of your friends.

"When trying to define pizza, one sets out on a sea of troubles," he writes in the introduction. "And though these apparently idle musings on the exact definition of pizza may seem insignificant compared with deeper questions about existence, to food-loving persons such as myself, they are of crucial importance."

That brief snippet will have to do. No, wait, one more. Here's Buonassisi on crust: "The lip gives a certain rigidity, which for those of us who still eat [pizza] on the street, makes it possible to consume a slice without too much risk of losing the contents. Finally, the lip provides what engineers call a 'rigid breaking point,' facilitating the division of a pizza into manageable slices."

As wonderful as the prose is, the photography is just as splendid (there were several photographers, but it seems Massimo Mazzilli did the best of them). And as in all of the best food photography, the pictures are not there just for titillation but are explanatory as well. You'll never see a clearer demonstration of the various stages of pizza dough than in the first several pages of this book.

Recipes? Sure, there are recipes. But they're short. This is pizza, after all. Tellingly, in most cases the explanatory head notes are longer than the recipes themselves. Another example of how this book has its priorities straight.

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