Here is the situation: I am in New York and my glasses are not on my nose. They are on a table outside with my partner, Ava, and I am in a pizzeria, browsing. It might be that I have forgotten my spectacles on account of a 10am pitcher of Soho House picantes. We are still on UK time and 10am in New York is 3pm back home. No wonder, sleep-deprived as we are, the cocktail slipped down so comfortably. It is midday now and pizza is necessary.
We order a margherita, simple enough. A slice of that. I am also in the mood for meat and feel I require a little to further soften my inebriation. The first choice is easy: pepperoni. The second? I struggle; the queue is long and panic sets in. I see something with chicken — yes, chicken, but it’s America, not Europe — and order it. Things are flippant.
I arrive at the table, dappled by East Coast sunshine, taxis honking, the freneticism of the East Village passing by. Then it dawns on me: I have bought myself a slice of BBQ chicken pizza. I feel like how my mum must’ve felt when she found out she was pregnant — what a foolish, foolish accident. More than a week on and I am still regretful, still disheartened.
In lieu of tomato sauce, there is a sugary barbecue condiment of a base. It has been slathered willingly across the surface, a ruinous covering on what, as the other slices prove, is a classically springy New York dough. I cannot fathom why, or how, anyone would want to replace a herby, luscious tomato sauce with something so heavy, sickly and cloying.
New York pizza is famous for a reason. They say the state’s soft water, piped in from the Catskill Mountains, is the base for such good gluten. The water is perfectly balanced, with low levels of calcium and magnesium, and allows for a tender, chewy finish. It’s why the bagels in NYC are so good, too.
New York is also a sanctuary to so many “red sauce Italians”. These, the antithesis to Stanley Tucci’s highly earnest fictional fixture in the seminal movie Big Night, are home to that sweet marinara. Spread on pizza dough or tangled among spaghetti, the oregano-specked tomato preparation, near-delirious with garlic and glistening with olive oil, should be granted World Heritage Status, such is its cultural significance. Visit Sam’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn and talk to the owner Louis Migliaccio and it is impossible not to be infatuated by what is essentially a bastardisation of anything authentically pomodoro. If America is a failure, its accentuated, generous, sometimes childish version of Italian cookery is a saving grace.
Anyway, the point is, New York pizza is superb dough and excellent tomato sauce. Cheese is by the by — American stuff is often nothing more than a war crime. But a good pizzeria in the city will buy decent enough mozzarella. Scar’s, John’s of Bleeker, Lombardy’s, Patsy’s. Wherever. Each is revered and all the better for those looking to dispel the effects of cocktails.
But here I am in some other location with a hefty triangle of BBQ sauce, one that a child might pour onto a plate of turkey dinosaurs. The dough is lost among it, the mozzarella a troubled suggestion of what might’ve been. An entire slab of bread covered in something designed to be a dip. I ate my slice because I was drunk and hungry, but I felt awful afterwards and my mouth shouted at me from start to finish.
A BBQ chicken pizza is nothing more than that hideous affectation: Hunter’s Chicken, a boring dish of chicken, cheese, bacon and BBQ sauce that plagued middling British pubs for decades and still haunts the worst of them today. It is Donald Trump in food form, the meat dry under a blanket of grease and synthetics, the lubricant an offensive and reductive note on spice. Indeed chicken on pizza generally might be a universal ill, blighting London restaurants as it does those in the States.
There is a call for experimentation and progress in cooking. Without forward-thinking ideas food would be stagnant and unadventurous. But there are dishes better left unadulterated. Pizza is one of them. There is nothing, nothing that will ever beat the combination of tomato sauce and mozzarella. Just as no breakfast pairing will ever match bacon and eggs. They are simply canonical. Do not try to rewrite Austen.