The Best Bad Pizza
Being so deep in the pizza game, and being such a pizza snob, it’s good to step back every now and then and realize that pizza is bread with cheese melted on it. Even bad pizza can be good pizza in the right context, and sometimes really bad pizza can be incredible. I wrote this a a while ago about some bad pizza I ate in Italy. I found this pizza so bad I had to keep going back.
Pizza Cinema: The Best Bad Pizza
As I wait and stare out the window at nothing in particular, my stomach gurgles with anticipation for what I know will be a bad piece of pizza. I have to assume everybody who eats the fast-service “Pizza Quadrato” from Pizza Cinema, here in Bra, Italy, knows they will be eating bad pizza. Why do we keep coming back? Pizza Cinema may serve bad pizza, but it does not serve disappointing pizza.
The par-baked, lifeless squares of dough, cheese, and toppings sit on the counter, in plain view behind glass. Most employees encourage customers to choose their own slice, a necessary courtesy: on these rectangular pizzas, the corner and middle slices can vary greatly in cheese content and crunchiness.
After waiting three to five minutes for my chosen slice to reheat, the employee wraps it in paper and hands it over. Immediately, I notice the parcel’s heft. It feels like carrying a greasy, thick, paperback book. I step out of the small storefront and unfold the paper for the first bite.
The crisp bottom crust, the chewy middle, and the surface layer of twice-cooked cheese achieve so much complexity in one bite because the pizza is at once undercooked and overcooked. The first baking leaves the dough gummy and dense in the middle. When the workers reheat the individual slices, they do so at such a hot temperature that the outside crisps and dries out before the middle can barely warm.
The careless baking results in a thrilling push and pull of textures. Although I must assume the technique at Pizza Cinema is unintentional, the end result vaguely brings to mind a marbled steak cooked quickly at scorching temperatures to leave a charred, crisp crust and juicy, soft inside. Some of my slices have even had cool spots in the middle, adding an element of temperature contrast.
The generic, boring mozzarella they use as the base topping, not worth eating on its own, comes to life during the harsh, two-step baking process. The restaurant uses a generous layer of the stuff, and on the first baking the cheese melts and loses fat and water content to the spongy foundation of dough. After the reheating, the under-layers of cheese have fused so completely with the dough that I cannot tell where the cheese stops and the dough begins. On the surface layer, the reheating scalds the cheese, creating the satisfying flavor of nearly burnt cheese and a pleasant toughness in the mouth. The well-done spots on this top layer make me think of gooey yellow cheddar that drips out of a cheeseburger and crisps on a flat-top grill.
When choosing other toppings at Pizza Cinema, I opt for something bold in flavor. I always look for a slice with spicy salami, as the spiciness goes a long way to cut through the base richness of dough and cheese. The salty chunks of pork sausage also work nicely, but I avoid slices with vegetable toppings. Zucchini or fresh tomatoes, once subjected to the double-baking process, can offer only mild visual appeal and little in the way of flavor.
A classmate of mine once described her Pizza Cinema slice as “a full contact lunch”. These slices offer a gripping array of textures, the physical challenge of chewing and swallowing barely cooked chunks of dough, and the solid feeling of a full stomach.
And for the locals, the real Italians, eating at Pizza Cinema is a kind of rebellion, a counter-cultural act. In Italy they take their food seriously. Most people in our town even sit down on a bench to eat their ice cream cones with full attention. Yet almost everybody eats their Pizza Cinema slices while walking around, in full public view. In a country where smoking is still quite common, a person must find other ways to look rebellious and anti-authority. Eating a big slice of bad pizza sends the message: “I do what I want, when I want, and I don’t apologize to anybody.”