My father used to stop at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria on his way back from work and eat a slice of pizza. I would say it was a religious experience for him if he weren’t an agnostic.
That hole-in-the-wall pizzeria called La Mezzetta was a few doors down from our apartment building in the tiny neighbourhood of Villa Ortúzar in Buenos Aires. My dad sometimes took me there to pick up take-out pizza, which made me feel special. The store was long and narrow with the counter at the end and a narrow counter running along one of the walls for patrons to eat de parados. To eat a slice of pizza while standing is a porteño custom, probably inherited from our Italian ancestors. Like the pizza they’re eating.
I barely reached that counter. To the 5-year-old me, the place looked very big. It smelled of melted cheese, oregano, yeasty dough, and cardboard from the to-go boxes. That smell is imprinted in my memory.
Pizza is part of the porteño culture.
Porteño refers to a person who lives in a port city, such as Buenos Aires. This was the gateway into Argentina for millions of immigrants, mainly in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. Among them, my own Italian and Spanish ancestors.
Italian immigrants influenced greatly the local culture. They brought their regional cuisines and introduced new ingredients. A family friend always recalls how his mother brought arugula seedlings with her on the ship. As a side note, arugula became all the rage in the late 1990s.
Italians even changed the way we speak Spanish.
Two Argentinean* scholars published a paper in the Bilingualism: Language and Cognition Journal in which they show that the intonation of the Spanish spoken in Buenos Aires is very similar to Italian. More specifically, we sound Neapolitan. So along with language, cuisine, and culture, the Italians brought pizza, which has become a staple in my neck of the woods.
Pizza lovers have a great variety of establishments to choose from that run the gamut from no-frills hole-in-the-wall to fancy and trendy. However, most pizzerias fall somewhere in the middle.
I enjoy visiting historic pizzerias, some of which were founded in the 1920s and 30s.
Formica tables, lazy ceiling fans, wood counters, fluorescent lights, old posters on the walls, an artificial plant or two create a very distinct atmosphere. It’s Buenos Aires through and through. The ubiquitous paper napkins kept in rectangular dispensers on every able in every pizzeria deserve a mention too. Their non-absorbent waxy surface distributes grease evenly on fingers and face.
Some people like to claim that Argentinean pizza is the best in the world.
By the same token, I’ve heard New Yorkers, Chicagoans and Neapolitans make the same claim. I’m not sure anyone can objectively assert they make the best whatever in the world. By whose standards? Taste is very subjective. I think, however, that we are influenced by the flavors we grew up with, the flavors that mean home to us. Those are the best in the world for every one of us. A slice of gooey cheesy pizza? Yes, please!
*LAURA COLANTONI and JORGE GURLEKIAN (2004). Convergence and intonation: historical evidence from Buenos Aires Spanish. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 7, pp 107-119. doi:10.1017/S1366728904001488.