The Question of Char

December 13, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

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Craig’s sister Kristin, a food-enthusiast, came to visit last week and sampled her way through some of New York’s most celebrated pizza (well, its most celebrated pizza within or around Bleecker Street.) And so she sampled Joe’s on 6th Ave. and Bleecker Street Pizza on 7th Ave. (her favorite) and, on Tuesday night, she joined Craig and me for pizza at John’s, our regular go-to good-old-fashioned coal-oven pizza joint.

We’ve taken many a visiting outsider to John’s for that authentic New York City pizza experience; an experience that includes environment (in John’s case, graffitied) and service (in John’s case, gruff.)

And then there’s the pizza….

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We ordered ours with sausage and mushrooms (onions on only half, Kristin didn’t want them.) We greedily grabbed our slices, devoured them noisily while sipping on beer (Craig), Coke (Kristin) and Sprite (me) respectively.

Then Kristin asked the question that leads us to this post: “Why do they burn the pizza like this in New York?” She held up her slice showing the charred bottom and the charred crust.

“That’s not burned!” I screamed. “That’s charred!”

Heads turned.

“But it’s black, it’s carcinogenic…. that doesn’t taste good.”

“Yes it tastes good,” I spit, hysterical.

Kristin, who used to work at Pagliacci Pizza in Seattle, said: “Well if I cooked a pizza like this at my old job, they’d make me cook it again.”

Now, a few things.

In my years of reading about food in books and on food blogs (including Slice, America’s Favorite Pizza Weblog) I know that char is a desirable element of an accomplished pizza. That’s why food writers like Jeffery Steingarten work so hard to get their ovens hot enough to make pizza with a good char (Steingarten rigged his so he could keep it open during the self-cleaning cycle, which gets it up to 800 degrees.)

My suspicions about char were confirmed when I had lunch with Molly Orangette at Prune a few days later. Molly and her husband Brandon own a pizza joint in Seattle called Delancey and, indeed, char (along with puckering) are what they look for when they make a pizza. Molly, however, admitted that, like Kristin, it took her a while to warm up to char. “Brandon had to convince me that char actually made the pizza better,” she told me over a bowl of pumpkin soup (see newsletter) and poached shrimp.

Molly also added this: “Maybe non-charred pizza is just the pizza Kristin grew up on.”

Perhaps!

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. I remember that when I first went to Babbo with my friend Lisa (see this old post), they served hot crusty bread and Lisa complained that it was burned.

“It’s not burned, it’s charred!” I fumed.

But Lisa, like Kristin, wasn’t buying it. Black is black, burned is burned, and it’s hard to convince the char-averse otherwise. As for me, though, I like the ultra-caramelization that happens all around the blackened bits. And maybe that’s the point? Not the part that’s black, but the part all around it.

Or maybe it’s just burned and we’re all in denial. Either way, who’s up for pizza?

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