Super slice me

Ed Levine has a passion for pizzas that has taken him around the world in search of the ultimate pie. David Usborne meets him for a margherita (with extra cheese)
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Indy Lifestyle Online

We are in a modest restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when Ed Levine, a New York culinary writer, begins his ode to what we are about to eat. "It is the perfect food," he says without a hint of irony. "It is succulently crisp and tender, it's sweet and creamy, in fact, it's all the things we want to find in a single dish." He adds: "It's also truly universal."

We are in a modest restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when Ed Levine, a New York culinary writer, begins his ode to what we are about to eat. "It is the perfect food," he says without a hint of irony. "It is succulently crisp and tender, it's sweet and creamy, in fact, it's all the things we want to find in a single dish." He adds: "It's also truly universal."

That is the clue that his praise is not being lavished upon some celebrity-chef concoction most of us could never afford. He is talking about nothing more exotic than pizza. It's just that for Levine there is pizza and then there is pizza. Too many of us are satisfied with the re-heated takeaway variety that scorches the roofs of our mouths without realising we are being conned. That is not the good stuff.

He needed no reason better than that to embark on researching and writing what he hopes will become the bible of good pizza joints in the United States. The book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, amounts to a chirpy guide to what to expect from a decent slice of pie and where to find it. He also exposes restaurants and whole cities where the real deal can't be found - sorry Chicago.

It is also 100 years since the first pizzeria, Lombardi's, opened its doors in New York City. (It's still there, in Little Italy.) "The rest, as they say, is history," he says. Consider the statistics: 94 per cent of Americans eat the stuff today. They consume three billion pizzas annually, equivalent to 350 slices across the land every second.

Just as there is a rust belt and a sun belt in the US, there is also a pizza belt. It begins south of Washington DC and stretches, like a wide string of good mozzarella, up the eastern seaboard to Boston. The epicentre of America's pizza culture, introduced, of course, by immigrants from southern Italy, is New York City. Of the 63,000-odd pizza joints in the country, the Big Apple boasts 2,750 of them.

Today, we are in one of a small chain of pizzerias called Patsy's, named after a legendary pizza chef, Patsy Lancieri, on West 74th Street. Levine admits that what the waitress sets before us - a simple pie topped by ground sausage with tomato sauce, a spare distribution of mozzarella and basil leaves - will not be the holy grail of pizza in the city. But this place, he assures me, "is good, very, very good".

He begins by tearing off a small section of the crust, more accurately referred to as the lip. His approval is instant. The pie has been cooked in a coal-fired oven - the red-hot coal is piled in a corner of the oven adjacent to the food - which reaches temperatures of a thousand degrees centigrade. The inside of the crust has big air-holes, like a good loaf of bread, and no sign of sogginess. On my side, the lip has been charred black and I wonder if that is a negative for him. But not at all. A little burning turns out to be a good sign.

Cutlery is quite redundant because, like any pizza addict, Levine takes his first slice in his hands, creases the crust and folds it down the middle. He commends the "vibrancy" of the flavours and the freshness of the cheese, which has been applied only modestly. Just as importantly, the crust is light and cooked properly all the way to the centre.

"It's really hard to cook a great pizza like this one," he explains between bites. "A chef recently said this to me: cooking is easy, making pizza is hard. There is so much bad pizza in the world, and to make a great pizza is really a craft that takes passion and dedication." The best restaurants, he says, are the ones where the owners are doing the cooking.

He concedes that writing the book was partly an act of evangelism. He visited restaurants in 20 US states and Canada during a year of researching, and even made a detour to the birthplace of pizza, Naples in Italy. It was a quest that saw him sampling roughly a thousand different pies. He expresses confidence that there isn't a single really good pizza place in the US that he did not manage to sample.

His happiest moment, he says, came inside Pizzeria Bianco, presided over by Bronx-born Chris Bianco, in Phoenix, Arizona. (It emerges, surprisingly, given its location, as his highest-rated destination in the book, a choice that made front-page news last week in the city.) "A kid was eating there and he turns to Chris and says 'Wow, I used to think Pizza Hut rocked'. It was like, yeah, this is the real thing."

His dream is that, one day, every town in America will have a pizzeria as good as Patsy's or Bianco's. "Of course, I know that is never going to happen. I would say nine-tenths of the pizza you are going to find in America nowadays will be sub-standard." That is a pity, especially, he says, "Because you don't have to be a particularly sophisticated eater to know when a pizza is great. It's so elemental."

Of course, not everyone who buys his book, which also has pizza-related essays by food specialists in different regions and by writers Nora Ephron and Calvin Trillin, will agree with his recommendations. He has had run-ins already with several Chicago residents who have taken umbrage at his conclusion that the pizza in the Windy City is at best a "good casserole". And on the morning we meet, he has taken an irate phone call from a gentleman in northern Wisconsin contending he paid too little heed to a pizzeria in his neighbourhood. But readers e-mailing to take issue with him "is part of the fun" of the book, he insists.

His raspberry at Chicago, which vaunts its pizza culture, may, one suspects, have been a stab at generating controversy for the book. But it is hard to quibble about his other zero-star ratings. All the big chains get very short shrift, as, of course, does any kind of frozen pizza bound for your microwave at home. Also dismissed out of hand are pizzas with "exotic" toppings. Putting pineapple on pizza is "a crime against nature, equivalent to pizzacide", he declares. "It just shouldn't be." As for pizza with pasta on top, he can't even bring himself to comment.

The trouble with this book - and the main hazard of enjoying lunch with Levine - is that it will turn you into an instant pizza snob. Until today, I have been quite satisfied with my local pizza joint. But how am I going to enjoy its ham and pineapple slices now that I know the awful truth? What I have been eating, Levine informs me, has been nothing short of an "abomination". From now on it will have to be Patsy's or Lombardi's, neither of which are anywhere close to where I live.

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