Friday, March 13, 2009

In Hopes of Spring Day 4: Impatience and its cure - White Clam Pizza.

An impatient clam, like me.
photo credit here.

Lent, and in some ways, therefore, Spring, is a time of impatience for me on the best of years. By the time the sun starts shining and the buds start blooming I am already so desperate to be let out of my sweatery-cage of hibernation that I am ready to burst. The anticipation of Easter and the summery weather and vacations to come are almost too much for someone, inherently impatient, like me, to stand.

But this year, I think the impatience factor has at least doubled, if not, exponentially grown for me. I find myself pacing the house, knitting maniacally, refusing to cook and then baking in large quantities by turn. Craving meat ONLY on Fridays. Cleaning the bathroom with a toothbrush and
then taking 4 hour naps in the middle of the day. I want to talk to everyone - I want to talk to no one. If the sun is shining I'm happy, if it goes cloudy I'm convinced the Gods are against me and everything alive. Oh, and I take everything very personally these days - especially blatant displays of inefficiency - because they seem to somehow contribute to what seems to me to be the most inconsiderate, hopelessly lackadaisical manner in which the month of April is taking its time to finally get here!

Ok, so maybe there is a slightly more personal reason for all this. Maybe it's not that I've lost touch with humanity or the song of the universe. Maybe there is hope for me and my impatience. Because, maybe, just maybe, I feel this way because I'm officially 36 weeks pregnant today and I cannot wait for this little guy to make his way into the world.

Happy 36 weeks (and Friday the 13th)!

It seems enough of a miracle that I've made it this far - and now there's just one more little, itty-bitty (NEVER-ENDING) month to go. :)

Let's celebrate with a tribute to one of my favorite foods anywhere and anytime, but a particularly apt one during a Friday in Lent: White Clam Pizza from Pepe's in New Haven. Being in London, I can't have it, but here's to hoping you make it on over!

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Top 4 Reasons Frank Pepe's White Clam Pizza is

and why the best pizza, IMHO, is not made in Italy

White Pizza: it better be good if there's no tomatoes involved.
I am a self-confessed lover of tomatoes. I can and sometimes do eat them like apples (with salt or lemon juice on them, of course), and I am a firm believer that a tomato a day keeps the doctor away. Which is why I hated the concept of a "white pizza" from the start. Not only does it seem
blasphemous to take away the one ingredient that the supposed creators of pizza considered its defining aspect, but I couldn't, for a long time, understand what could possibly replace its tangy, delicious contribution to the overall package of a pie.

Luckily, there's one or two other ingredients I love almost more than tomato, which happen to be the answer: garlic and olive oil. In the right quantities and mixed with the right herbs, an olive oil and garlic (extra garlic, please) pizza can be a truly life-altering
thing. But you don't have to take my word for it (see bottom of post). *enter Reading Rainbow Theme song*

3. Clams are the new Pepperoni.
Much like Ralphie's father on A Christmas Story was obsessed with turkey, I am a "bona fide clam junkie" myself. I love them baked, sauteed, raw on the half shell - you name it. I like them big, small, medium-sized. I'm not a huge fan of the steamers (the foot looks a little too fallic for me), but I will usually eat them anyway.

Growing up in Texas, clams are not in great abundance. And fresh, good clams are particularly rare. I almost never ate them as a kid, and only occasionally while I lived in Italy. In fact, it wasn't until I met Matt and started frequenting Connecticut that I really got into what clams were all about. One of the great travesties, IMHO, with seafood in New (and old, incidentally) England is how much they like to batter and fry it. There is a time and place for fried fish and friend oysters, and fried clams (even the ones at Long John Silver's!), but I just don't see how anyone could prefer fried clams to the full-monty in its unadulterated state. For my money it doesn't get any better than the fresh, salt-watery deliciousness of a cold, raw clam on the half-shell with a little horseradish and lemon juice squirted on it.

Unless, of course, it's the fresh from the boat, giant, chewy, deliciously baked, garlicky, olive oily pieces of God-sent ambrosia that are on the White Clam pizza at Frank Pepe's we're talking about. Because those clams, those clams, my friend, are good enough to make you swear off any diet, sever any and all ties with your "shellfish allergic" boyfriend, or even consume an entire large-pizza all by yourself Gollum-style, hunched over and muttering the words "my precious" over and over again. I kid you not.

2. The Magic of the Diaspora
I can't give you statistics or concrete proof on why, but it seems very obvious to me (being an
immigrant myself), that immigrant populations of any sort, once they reach a critical mass, create a magical time-warp cultural-bubble wherever they set roots. In the US, this is a particularly relevant yet hot topic given the sheer number of different immigrant populations and the unbelievably complex melding of cultures they have created. I think sometimes it's difficult for people, even in an ostensibly globalized, multi-cultural place like Western Europe, to appreciate that fully until they've been to a place like most of New England or California or Texas.

Italian American culture, to me, is a perfect example. We can all (I hope) recall that episode of The Sopranos where Tony and the guys head back to the old country to make a business transaction. While Chris is at the hotel snorting coke, Tony, Polly, and Silvio are at a typical family-style Italian dinner where they find they are very disappointed by the quality of the food.

"Where's the gravy? Where's the macaron'?" Polly complains, loudly, American-ly.

He doesn't see before him the same Italian-American fare he and the rest of New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Massachussets grew up on. And that makes sense given that, I think, most traditional Italian American cooking is, happily and deliciously so, but nevertheless, stuck in time.

Second, third and fourth generation Italian Americans cook the way their great-grandparents cooked in the 30s or 40s, because those were the dishes and the habits they brought to the US with them. And that is what is in demand and therefore what the palate has become accustomed to. Modern Italy, however, has moved on, despite using a lot of the same ingredients, and is often,
ironically, a far culinary cry from what an American who calls himself "Italian" may consider "authentic" or familiar.

I think the same is true of Pizza to a certain extent. Except that Pizza, I believe, evolved into its universally recognized, modern-day state more because of the Italian American diaspora than in spite of it. Many would argue - and I would agree - that pizza came into its own outside of Italy, in the homes of Italian immigrants all over the northeast. And while what some people (mostly those who have not lived in Italy OR the northeast) call "real" pizza (the one in Italy) is good - yeah, it's good, of course - it's not really what the majority of people around the world would consider pizza to be (I mean, come on, last time we were in Italy one of Matt's cousins insisted we order pizza with french fries on it!). Because, I think, pizza in its present-day-incarnation is more a product of the past hundred years in the US than the past hundred years in Naples. Which is why, I'd take
a thin-crust slice from an authentic CT or NY parlor any day over the stuff I've had in Rome, Florence, Trieste, or, yes, (dare I say it?!) even Naples.

1. They just don't make 'em like they used to...Unless you go to Pepe's.
If you go to the original location of Frank Pepe's pizzeria Napoletana, it's like stepping back in time. I highly recommend it (obviously) to anyone who will be in New Haven. Not only will you find yourself in the middle of the Old Italian neighborhood, where good Italian pastries (if that's your bag) grow on trees, but you will get the rare opportunity to step into an establishment that has been run (almost) the same way and by the same family since it's opening in 1925.

You can't make reservations, they only started taking credit cards a year ago or so, and you won't be getting the name of your waitress or a "Thank you!" with a heart at the bottom of the exclamation
mark on the receipt. These ladies look like they've been working the pizza beat for the better part of their adult lives, and they know the drill, and don't like their time to be wasted. So you better know what you're having and know it well. They don't give recommendations, or offer gluten-free pizza (though if you want it vegetarian, it's a free country).

Don't be surprised if they look at you funny when your West Coast friends order a pizza with 10 toppings on it. That's not how Italians roll. If you want the real deal, keep it simple, stupid. And don't complain if it takes a little while to get your pizza - every single one is made and baked to order in their very old wood-fired oven. Crispy thin crust with a gooey doughy middle and lots of black fire-ashes on the bottom, which are impossible to wipe off with the cheap crappy napkins they have do not appear out of thin air. Now that's amore. Or Apizza, as Frank Pepe would say.

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Frank Pepe

Wanna go there? Don't bother calling ahead. There are no reservations at a place like this. Just get there early and dress appropriately for the weather, because chances are you'll be outside, in (on?) line with the rest of us addicts for at least a little while.

The Original Frank Pepe - Pizzeria Napoletana
150 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT
(203) 865-5762

PS: As I've always been warned on the way to New Haven, if "the clam guy" didn't come that morning, you're not getting a White Clam pizza at Pepe's. They're old-school like that, so brace yourself.

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  1. I'm just about to book my flight to New Haven - seriously that sounds so good. In the meantime, I heard a rumour about a mean white clam pizza in North Beach (SF's version of Little Italy) that I hope to verify this weekend.
    The worse white pizza I ever had was in London - I think the "cooks" thought it was a color code requirement - the crust was barely baked, there was far too much cheese, and I could never understand the bean sprouts. I missed the concept entirely!

    How's the nameing coming? With my brother and his wife, I felt as if I watched a tug of war - I'll give you Maximus for Xavier.

  2. I love the shout-out to New Haven!!! I must say, I ate at Pepe's NUMEROUS times during my tenure there. I hope you are having a blast in Londontown and good luck on your impending motherhood@