When pizza becomes pica

  • 2006-05-17
The origins of pizza stretch back to Ancient Rome, in which contemporary accounts often refer to a dough-baked cake dressed in olive oil and honey. Pizza, as we know it today, originated in the 19th century thanks to a Neapolitan baker named Raffaele Esposito. But pizza didn't really start conquering the world until an Italian immigrant opened America's first known pizzeria in New York's Little Italy in 1905. Today, you can get pizza in Vietnam, India and Africa. Even when you go to Italy, you may be surprised to meet some Chinese immigrants baking margherita pizzas in the oven. Pizza may be the single most international food in the world. So here at TBT, we wanted to take a look at how the Baltics handled the never-ending revolution.

Pizza Americana
Peach as a pizza topping? Pineapple I'm comfortable with, but peach mixed with cheese and meat is a taste I have yet to acquire.
It seems to be a hit with the regulars at Pizza Americana, the self-proclaimed best pizza restaurant in Tallinn. I can't say that I agree completely with that title, but their deep pan pies were hard to complain about.
The menu shows this restaurant certainly takes its influence from U.S. chains such as Dominos rather than traditional Italian trattorias. They are creative with their topping combinations, and aren't afraid to experiment with mixes of seafood, meat and chicken.

Over 60-odd pizzas grace the menu, although after awhile they all start to look alike. There are special considerations for Tex-Mex lovers who enjoy beans and spicy meats. Among our group was a vegetarian who was impressed by the big selection of pizzas for non-carnivores - most other outlets only offer one or two, but Americana has devised eight. The cheese selection is also decent, including blue, mozzarella, goat and horseradish cheese. It's all served up on a hearty inch-thick base and served hot in the pan. Interestingly garlic is listed as an extra item for which you must pay a surcharge - one would have thought garlic was a standard inclusion on any pizza.

But what Americana seems most proud of is its wine list. Unusually for a pizza chain, they've taken great care to select an interesting range of vino from around the world. Estonian wine critic Kalev Vapper is said to be a regular who has teamed each pizza with a bottle that matches its flavor. For our pie of chicken, ham, peach and blue cheese, he recommended a French cabernet sauvignon with a "lush and soft fruity bouquet with a hint of black currant, exciting herbs and liquorice. It all seemed a bit too much for our simple meal - we shunned his well-considered recommendation and had beers instead.
The final verdict on the taste was positive but not overwhelming. The flavor of the blue cheese was slightly lost in the mix, and some thought the base was a little undercooked.

For price and size it rated extremely well. The size of the pie was enormous, and at 194 kroons (12.4 euros), it was quite good value. Other selections on the menu range from as little as 84 kroons for a Spartan pizza, right up to 311 kroons for a filet of beef, shrimp, pepper and horseradish cheese.
And about the peach? Well, it added a fresh zing, and its unusual taste wasn't offensive, but I won't be ordering it again. (J.A.)

Pizza Americana
Muurivahe 3, Vannalinn, Tallinn
+372 644 8837

Cafe Al Sole
The latest pizza trend to filter across the globe is the "wood-fired" cooking method. It seems there's no better mark of quality or authenticity than to have your pizza roasted in an open oven fueled by lumps of burning timber.
There certainly is a difference in taste between this style of pizza and one baked under a Dominos-style conveyer belt oven.
At Cafe Al Sole, we watched our chef pound the dough into a base, layer the sauce and vegetables, then slide the raw product into the flaming furnace with a giant shovel. It made all the difference.

Attached to the upmarket Viru Inn on the bustling main street of Tallinn's Old Town, Cafe Al Sole has been a well-known eatery for several years. More recently they have renovated the back section into a pizzeria and installed a giant brick wood oven.
Walking down an alleyway to find the restaurant gives it a hidden feel, and there is more seating in a tiny tucked-away basement if you truly want to hide.

Inside, it's a little bland on decoration - basic white arched stone walls, simple tables. On a cold night, a draft could quickly sweep through and chill the room. There's a noticeable absence of music or any noise other than the metallic clack of cutlery, which makes the atmosphere somewhat vacuous.
But the menu makes up for any shortcomings in the surroundings. It's a traditional Italian-style selection of classic pizzas, from margheritas to napolitanas, topped with hearty ingredients such as basil and artichoke.

We opted for a vegetarian pizza which came thick with toppings buried under a bed of stringy mozzarella. The crusted base was imbued with the smoke from the oven, adding an authentic edge to the taste.
Our service was prompt and friendly, and menus came in English, Finnish and Estonian to avoid guessing games. Cafe Al Sole also scored big points for its charitable prices. They start from 73 kroons (4.67 euros) and ranges to 140 kroons, and the pizzas are large enough to adequately feed three people. (J.A.)

Cafe Al Sole
Viru 8, Vannalinn, Tallinn
+372 644 8852

Pizzeria "Leo"
Pizzeria "Leo" has something I'm not all that used to in pizzerias: booths with nice, plush couch seats. They're a fine, warm shade of maroon and they each have small square pillows. If you're here with a friend on a summer afternoon, you can kick off your sandals, lie down on the couch seat, while sharing a good large pizza among yourselves.
To call these couch seats homey would be misleading. You can't get that kind of comfort 's couches in a good solitary booth 's at home.

The pizzeria, such as it is, is pretty kitschy, but in an endearing way. There's a silly relief of a lion (as in the "Leo" of the restaurant's name) at the counter in front of the kitchen, and the rest of the place is decorated in a clash of maroons, oranges and blues. There are Chinese lamps above the tables.
Other than that, Pizzeria "Leo" is a decent, and, judging from the scene on Sunday evening, low-key place. There were a small group of Swedish hockey fans, a couple of tourists fiddling with a digital camera and me. The flat screen television was playing an episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos."

The pizza? I counted 11 original pizzas on the menu, including two specialties of the house: exotic pizza, which includes pineapple and ham, and Nicole pizza (who is that named for?), which has cucumbers, ham and tomato slices.
The exotic pizza was a pleasant surprise, as these things go. The tang of pineapple 's a fruit I tend not to enjoy 's combined with the normal fare of ham and cheese left a lingeringly pleasant aftertaste. Nicole pizza (again, I ask, who is that named for?) was a little less exciting. Cucumbers tend not to be all that intense.
A 30 centimeter pizza, good for one person, goes anywhere from 2.2 to 4.70 lats (3.2-6.8 euros), while a 50 centimeter pizza, good for two, goes from 4.20 to 9.20 lats. Pizzeria "Leo" is slightly pricier, but far better, in mood, atmosphere and food, than that old standby Cili Pica. (P.M.)

Pizzeria "Leo"
Stabu 35, Riga
+371 939 2855

Un Momento
Located in an obscure corner of downtown Riga, Un Momento is almost anonymous. Take a sharp turn off Caka Street, with its flurry of traffic and buzzing neon lights, and 's like that - you're suddenly on a reclusive Bruninieku Street. A few steps farther and you're welcomed by the warm glow of Un Momento, one of Riga's most authentic Italian restaurants.
I will try to restrain from describing Un Momento's delectable menu in full and focus on the pizza page, seeing as this is a pizza review. But just so you know, the Italian owner has recreated Sicilian dishes almost to perfection, with desserts that will put you into a post-dinner coma. Pizza special aside, you can't visit this restaurant without looking over the rest of the menu.

Glossing over an alphabet of pizzas, from Hawaiian to margherita to tuna, I chose the Vegetarian, which, in the ingredient hierarchy of pizzas, falls somewhere in the middle 's not too simple, but ample enough. While waiting for my dinner, I couldn't help but notice how, well, Italian it all felt. To my left sat an aged wooden wine barrel with grape vines toppling over its cracked surface. Dean Martin's familiar voice floated from the speakers, mixing wonderfully with the sound of steaming espresso. And the restaurant owner was leaning over the bar, engrossed in a vibrant conversation of the hands with his guest. Yes, this was definitely an Italian place.

My pizza came hot and steamy. The aroma alone had me smiling. In authentic Italian style, the crust was thin and the cheese was sparring, allowing the zucchini, paprika and baby tomatoes to claim every corner of my tongue. Trying my best not to gobble up each slice in pizza delight, I took a few long sips of wine in between. The combination was like a gentle Italian song.
Although by no means gourmet, my pizza was all it could be for a reasonable 2.5 lats (3.6 euros). I asked the waitress to box the few pieces left on my plate, thinking (with a bit of embarrassment) how good they'd taste with my morning coffee. And I must confess, I was still drooling over the slices the next day, half curled up and cold. (E.C.)

Un Momento
Caka 58 (entrance from Bruninieku), Riga
Tel: +371 727 88 70

Those in the know almost never call this place by name but simply refer to it as Enzo's. For those who don't know Enzo, he is the suave Sicilian who landed in Vilnius three years ago and has taken it upon himself to impart on the locals a finer appreciation of Italian food. Whether he does it for the love of his art or a love of the fanfare that follows, we will leave for you to decide. Either way, he remains a fan favorite and the only real "go-to-guy" for pizza that never drops the dough ball.
Without telling him why we were there, we asked for two of his most creative pizzas. And like an Italian grandfather he replied "pizza is not food enough… first you must eat."

So after partaking in some Bruschetta, followed by his signature frutti di mare pasta with unparalleled dollops of seafood on top, he told us that he would go make some pizza
Enzo is particularly peculiar about pizza. Even though his is far and away some of the best Vilnius has to offer, he does not like to think of Rossini as a pizza place so much as a seafood restaurant. So when a familiar guest stops in and asks for pizza, it's like an old friend coming to dinner and requesting a hot dog.

Still, he obliged and first brought out the pizza rustica, topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, eggplant and ricotta cheese. The ingredients melt right into the properly charred, thin crispy crust and each bite is a delight. Somehow the wood oven here always gets the crust right.
Then, for the first time ever, he introduced a makeshift pizza called Il Padrino. The robust pizza had tuna and roast beef, ham and fresh mozzarella cheese, broccoli, spring onions, cherry tomatoes and even baby carrots on top. The combination was nearly as tasty as the spontaneity. And truth be told, that is quite often what makes a pizza great.
If you have the chance to visit Rossini and Enzo is around, you can be sure that something creative will end up on your plate that, most likely, wasn't even on the menu. And you can also be certain you won't leave hungry. (T.P.)

Stuokos-Guceviciaus 3
Citypark Hotel, Cathedral Square, Vilnius
(+370-5) 210 7466

San Valentino
Growing up 90 minutes outside of New York City and a mere five minute drive from Old Forge, Pennsylvania, the pizza capital of the world (www.thepizzacapitaloftheworld.com), it is somewhat understandable why I would no sooner trust a Lithuanian with making pizza than a Brit with French cuisine... or anything other than fish and chips for that matter.
This eccentric approach to dining on the common man's delight is not so much rooted in sheer snobbery, as it is in simplicity. For when the purest of pizzas, the margherita, appears as often as it does in Lithuania topped with ketchup, mayonnaise and some rogue cheese, it is obvious that the chef is a bit shy of logs in that wood burning noggin of his or hers. In my opinion, the major criterion for a pizza joint is whether or not they serve an exceptional margherita, because if they cannot get that right, they have got no business making pizza.

The wood-fired oven at San Valentino spews out some of the finest disc-shaped delights in town, romantics and kids can delight in heart or car-shaped pies as well. For the purposes of this pizza outing, we opted for three of the most complex combinations on offer, the Itrana, the Don Corleone and the Pizza del Pizzaiolo, which, as it turns out, is far easier to eat than to pronounce. However on a typical outing to San Valentino, venturing too far from the aforementioned margherita or their outstanding Parma pizza is basically unnecessary.

The dapper Don pizza was dressed with a bevy of meats that would make a vegetarian cringe in angst. As it turns out, the combination of minced meat, salami, sausage and egg was a bit too much, yet at the same time, a touch bland.
The novelty of the Itrana pizza seemed to be in the asparagus that topped it. Along with mushrooms, ham, basil and a tangy cream sauce, this pizza was far and away the zestiest on the table.
Finally the Pizzaiolo, aside from being a mouthful, turned out to be a winner with fresh tomatoes, eggplant, ham, peppers and parsley parlaying the presentation.

The Lithuanian owner Juste Kaseliene, who also operates the Pomodoro restaurant chain, certainly has done well by the pizza here. Almost all of the pizzas come in three sizes and are modestly priced, the service is friendly, but the wine tends to be a bit over-priced. (T.P.)

San Valentino
Vilniaus 47-18, (Vilniaus & Traku) , Vilnius
+370-5 231 4198