But it seemed plain wrong not to mention the cheese-laden food find that made possibly the most impact on me: an alarmingly perfect pizza in the small industrial city of Foggia, Italy. So if I may indulge in just a bit more reminiscing, I'll share not only the topping, which I think can be easily replicated, but also the thing found in every pizzeria in Italy that makes pizza sing.
Perhaps the most unexpected element to this pizza is where I found it. There's always an element of intrigue that a place lends to food, but I found myself in Foggia, in Puglia, Italy, on a stopover. Foggia is a no-frills, working class Italian town, largely unvisited by tourists, where people must come in order to get someplace else. I know, therefore, that my judgement on the food was unchanged by the kind of romanticism that seems to accompany beautiful settings and which tends to influence food experiences for the better.
The topping was pure revelation: slices of the most delicious fried eggplant atop a simple margarita base of tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella. On top of it all were thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano that became crispy and caramelized in the oven, with an in-your-face toastiness, like frico. The ingredients were reminiscent, of course, of eggplant parmesan, but the similarities pretty much stopped at that.
The eggplant was cut just thinly enough to maintain its shape and some of that great meatiness in the flesh of the eggplant, but not so thick that it became mushy. It was clear that the eggplant had been coated in breadcrumbs and fried beforehand, and then placed atop the pizza. In the wood-burning oven, the eggplant's crispiness was only heightened; indeed, the textural complexity of oozing, melty cheese and the crunchy eggplant was compelling in and of itself.
I'd seen eggplant on pizza before, but never fried. It was as if the pizzaiolo-- a woman, which is rare in Italy, by the name of Brigida-- had the thought when looking at the array of typical antipasti that are so often in trattorie and bars around Italy. Of course, fried eggplant is rampant throughout the country, so while it's not entirely bizarre to envision it on a pizza, it's imaginative nonetheless.
All great pizza is handmade, of course, but this pizza was unique in its irregularity. I loved the sharp edge that formed a corner on one side of the pizza round, so much so that had I not had so much pizza in my mouth, I'd have talked about it even more. For some reason, the way the pizza looked was part of what made it so great. It wasn't perfect looking (as all great food tends not to be), and the crust had charred portions interspersed with parts that were less done and more chewy. It was the variation from bite to bit that made this pizza so remarkable.
But one last thing: A phenomenon that just hasn't caught on in the states. Hot chili oil. It's available at every pizzeria in Italy, and Italians drizzle it atop their pizzas and use it to dip the remnants of their crust into. All it consists of is olive oil and dried red pepper flakes, which is then left to infuse. It's called olio piccante and it's the perfect addition to any pizza. Here's to starting a movement in the States, second only to making fried eggplant and Parmigianno Reggiano requisite options for pizza toppings.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)