KALININGRAD - About a year and a half ago, The Baltic Times ran a competition to find the "Best Pizza in the Baltics." After intensive and grueling research, our journalists nominated five pizzerias in each of the Baltic states; our readers then voted on which of the 15 indeed offered the tastiest pies in the region.
Everyone makes mistakes, and this time our regional arrogance got the best of us'sbecause the best pizza in the Baltics isn't to be found in one of our lovely national capitals, but in Kaliningrad, the next-door city that seems oh-so-far away.
It may come as a shock, but Kaliningrad offers more to the visitor than the remnants of wholesale architectural rape and one of the highest prostitute-to-resident ratios in Europe. Brush off a few layers of grime, and you'll discover a nightlife and culinary scene that rivals anything on offer in the republics. On any given night of the week, the city's restaurants, cafes, and bars begin to fill shortly after the end of the workday.
Some places, like Zenya, the smartly restored movie theater-plus-bar that occupies a prominent position in the city center, are habitually teeming with customers. Others require a bit more investigation to find, which brings us back to pizza.
The sign marking the location of Papasha Beppe is just one in a sea of advertisements along Leninsky Prospekt. What's more, the restaurant isn't even above ground, making it even more difficult to pick out which set of rickety stairs leads down to the subterranean entrance. Especially if you don't read Cyrillic, just look for the drawing of a jolly monk who could double as a pizza chef.
Ask your average resident of the Baltic states to paint a portrait of Kaliningraders, and the images offered up will most likely range between cigarette smuggler, heroin addict, and collective farm worker. This reviewer also doesn't discard the possibility that any of the above have at one time or another patronized Papasha Beppe. But on the whole, the restaurant's clientele challenges hardened stereotypes of the city's residents'sexpect to find strait-laced businessmen and smartly-dressed students populating the dining rooms.
After a quick scope of the scene, it's time to attack the 20-odd-page menu. Even with the English translation, it still takes roughly 15 minutes to make a preliminary inspection of the bill of fare. The sheer range of choices is enough to arouse suspicion'sis it really possible to find chefs in lowly Kaliningrad capable of preparing everything from a 10-ingredient deep-dish pizza to pesto dishes?
Perhaps noticing my look of distress, the waitress working this section of the restaurant patiently went through the entire menu explaining practically each item on offer. If such attentive service exists in the Baltic states, I've never experienced it.
In the end, I placed an order for a large chicken and broccoli "white" pizza'sa tomatoeless variant more easily found in the industrial centers of the American Northeast than the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. My low expectations were initially exacerbated by the lengthy interval of time that stretched between my order and the moment the food was placed on the table. The last time I ordered pizza in Vilnius, it took exactly six minutes for the waiter to appear'sbut is that really a good thing?
The half-hour spent waiting for my order allowed some time to reflect on the disturbing trend in the Balitcs toward a McPizza culture, in which seemingly artificial ingredients are thrown together to produce industrial-quality food served up with conveyor-belt efficiency. It would have been nice to transform this thought into an overarching thesis on some topic like globalization or market economies, but by the time I'd washed down my third mug of delicious unpasteurized Altstadt beer, I sensed a distinct intellectual handicap.
If you forget that you pay with roubles at Papasha Beppe it's hard to believe you're not eating in Boston or Providence. My pizza was prepared with world-class skill'stender pieces of broccoli and chicken meat were spread over the naked crust and coated with a dusting of sharp white cheese. With no sauce to keep them moist, the trick to making a white pizza is making sure it doesn't turn as arid as the Italian Riviera'smy chef clearly knew what he was doing. Finished off with a yummy homemade tiramisu, the meal was one of the most memorable I've had in the Baltics.
Using food as an ersatz cultural ambassador is a slippery slope (does Estonia want to be known worldwide as the land of cold meat jelly?) But it would be difficult for any visitor to Kaliningrad to believe the troubled oblast is little better than a land of thugs and whores after enjoying the relaxed civility of a meal at Papasha Beppe.