I was born a mongrel of the United Kingdom. I have a bit of English and a bit of Irish in me. With that, I can have some pride in my heritage. I mean, England is the home of delicious things like treacle, Cadbury chocolate (which doesn’t hold a candle to the North American version) and hearty dishes like beef Wellington. I also enjoying waking on Saturday to a good football match. Being both an England fan at a national level (since I doubt I will ever see Canada qualify for the World Cup in my lifetime) and Liverpool at a domestic level, I can relate to Leafs fan. Liverpool has failed to produce a title since the inception of the premier league in 1992. England has not won a World cup since 1966 (one year before Toronto’s last triumph) and Italy, on the other hand, has won two world cups and reached the final once during my life time. These facts help fuel the perceived superiority of Italy vs England. Pundits like Ray Hudson, acclaimed English player and now soccer commentator, doesn’t help the cause. Known for his colourful diction (you’d know him if you ever heard his Dairy Queen commercial), he co-hosts a radio show on Sirius radio. I was listening last week and he began a segment on the coolest player in soccer. His sacrilegious choice was Italian national Andrea Pirlo. This lead to call-ins who mentioned alternatives like David Beckham. Hudson dismissed this suggestion based on the contrived nature of the Beckham empire, suggesting that Pirlo was naturally cool and didn’t need the help.
People from England rarely cite their food as a contender for the best in the world. They use terms like comfort to justify the use of butter and salt as the main seasonings. Italians, on the other hand, have unified like a Chicago mob to stamp the concept of simplicity all over their cuisine. Whether it’s Joe Bastianich or a first generation Italian-American contestant on a cooking show, an Italian can rarely speak of any dish without using the words simple and fresh.
I enjoy arguing with an Italian. I remember sitting in bar in Chicago engaged in a discussion about the world’s best beer with an Italian colleague who insisted that his homeland had the best beer in the world. I’ll give Italy a lot of credit for their contribution to foodgasms around the world but I won’t give them beer. Once he realized I wasn’t going to agree, he erupted into a frenzy, pointing out that England hadn’t won a world cup in 50 years. My answer was simply “Yes, I know but Italian beer still sucks”. With that, he stormed away as red as a glass of Chianti.
Picking a preferred thin crust pizza place in Toronto is like choosing a political party. Some opt for the trendy Terroni. Others swear by the modish Queen Margherita pizza. A third group loves the popular Pizza Libretto. Whether it’s the service, the size, the reservation policy or one of a hundred other reasons, loyalists of each will find reasons to pledge allegiance to their chosen joint and find reasons to discredit the others.
Call me an undecided voter. I’ve been to Terroni a couple of times and haven’t yet experienced Queen Margherita. I was invited to Pizza Libretto for a work function. I was coming from the East and had a treacherous drive down the Danforth in a snowstorm to get there. Once I arrived, I was greeted by the hostess and seated quickly. The waitstaff met Hudson’s definition of cool; black tees and a laissez-faire attitude that wasn’t quite pretentious. I ordered a drink and waited for the arrival of the set menu. The first course was a piatto grande; a mix of meat, cheese and other things delicious including crostinis, arugula salad, olives, pickles and a delicious spread with a good amount of heat (top right) which was one of the best things on the tray. The other stellar component was the small piece of red wine rinsed blue cheese hidden just above the pickles. All in all, it was delicious start to the meal.
Along with the antipasto, our table was treated to their version of bread. It was puffy and warm and seasoned with salt and rosemary to near perfection.
A larger arugula salad arrived shortly after which was served with pear, walnut and a nicely balanced vinaigrette. Along with it came arancini balls which were bursting with basil and pine nut pesto, bufala mozzarella, peperonata and tomato. Normally arancini are not on the top of my list, but I must say I enjoyed this version more than most.
At this point I should mention that there was too much food. As a result of the storm, we had three no shows so we only had 9 instead of 12 people. Although we pointed it out and offered to pay for the committed 12, our request fell on deaf ears. Dish after dish came out, including three of each of the following pizzas: the classic margherita, the duck confit (with pear and mozzerella) and the cremini mushroom pizza finished with Gorgonzola and spices. Each was exactly what it promised, highlighted by the signature crust cooked at 900 degrees for 90 seconds. Normally I’m not a traditionalist, but the Margherita was the best of the bunch driven by the delicious tomato sauce.
The dessert platter was a cornucopia of classics including panna cotta, tiramisu, budino and chocolate and espresso gelato. Once again, a ridiculous amount was brought to the table. What you see is what you got. It was a good sampling of traditional Italian dolci. In particular, the budino was worth a few extra bites.
In typical Italian fashion, the food was simple and delicious. I had few complaints other than their insistence to bring out enough food to cover our no shows even though we asked them not to. Half of us left with enough pizza boxes to make it look like we were on our way to a frat party at the University of Toronto. Now, I can’t confirm whether this was stubbornness, pretension or just the Italian way (ie. feed people regardless of whether they want it or not) but it was a bit against my value system. Remember, I come from a rather cheap culture where we could gladly get paid for food we didn’t serve. Compared to Terroni, I’m a fan of Pizza Libretto from the perspective of the food, service and atmosphere. I haven’t had Queen Margherita yet, but I will make it a New Year’s resolution in 2015. At that point, I can become a decided voter and join whatever pizza party I chose to.
Although I can admit that Italians can be cool (at least in the kitchen), I wouldn’t go as far as Ray Hudson in his bold proclamation of Andrea Pirlo as the coolest cat in soccer. Sure, UK players look ridiculous with long hair (google Gareth Bale if you want proof); they don’t sport facial hair very well and they would need the backing of a spice girl and a marketing juggernaut to elevate themselves to the status of cool, but the on-pitch failures of Liverpool and Italian acquisitions Alberto Aquilani, Fabio Borini and most recently Mario Ballotelli makes me think Italy still has some work to do when competing in one of the best leagues in the world (although I will admit the Italian national team has basically owned England since I’ve been born). Ray, your seditious and treasonous comments about the English game combined with the marvelous fireworks that emit from your mouth might make you football’s modern day Guy Fawkes…and I love it.