Chronicles of an Italian ordering a (chicken tikka) Domino’s pizza

One of the things I am most interested about, when it comes to food, is authenticity and food purism – because it’s this over-used, prosaic notion, and ultimately little more than a fabricated concept, a made-up law enforced by self-appointed keyboard vigilantes (have you ever seen the Italians mad at food page?)

I studied linguistics. Something professors of linguistics will do their best to drill in you is that linguistics is a descriptive subject, not a prescriptive one. It does not order, it observes. It’s not the stern father, more like the tolerant great-aunt. You can correct other people’s mistakes as much as you want, but the truth is that languages are alive and are only a reflection of people who create them and speak them. They fill a need and bend to that need’s evolution. There is a reason my first language isn’t Latin. Trying to stop a language from evolving is a little like trying to get clouds to stop shifting their shapes.

I think food should be descriptive as well.

I remember a flatmate offering me a cold slice of her Domino’s, the cheese congealed, the sparse pepperoni looking a little lonely, and saying “Oh, sorry, that must be very offensive to you”.

Of course, that’s silly, isn’t it? The idea that because of its very existence, by virtue of being a different matter to the pizza which was invented in my homeland a few hundred years ago, this innocent pie, flat bread and melted cheese and tomatoes, could be offensive.

Being a food purist is a thankless, futile task, yet I am still ultimately one. A reformed food snob, but it’s very much a process. I won’t order a pizza if the menu has the sort of typos on it which make it blatant that no Italian was involved or even within a 1-mile radius when they wrote it up. No chicken or beef on a pizza. No pineapple. No cheddar. The list goes on.

On a Friday evening, in an important milestone in my journey away from food snobbery, I text my boyfriend: “If I get a Domino’s pizza and it turns out to be gross, will you eat it?”

“Yes!!” (two exclamation marks)

“Even if it’s got chicken on it?”

“Yep”.

So I do it.

Of course, I go for half and half. Because while I do have my insurance in the form of a non-fussy all-eating boyfriend, I cannot stand the guilt of creating two 9-inch perfectly round abominations (I’m working on less judgemental language). One will suffice. The improbable toppings I am yet to choose will have to fight for their spot on the plate.

Scrolling down the pictures to choose my left half, I notice how plasticky the meat is, all pink and shiny and sweaty, a little pool of oil collecting in the middle of slightly concave slices. I like ham on pizza, but this ham – too pink, too uniform, like it didn’t come from the leg of an animal but was condensed into reality out of a crayon drawing.

You can choose the crust. I go for regular, because my heart cannot take a crust stuffed with “mozzarella” cheese. I can also choose the sauce. There is innocent, “Domino’s own” (as if that was a great stamp of approval in the world of tomato sauces) sauce. Or, errr, barbeque sauce. The gloopy sugary stuff, you know, that you dunk your McNuggets in when drunk and full of self-loathing.

Look, I go for barbeque sauce. I can also add three toppings for free (bargain). I go for the ever divisive sweetcorn, mushrooms and chilli peppers in the hope they will distract me from everything else that’s going on. Some of the toppings are confusing (ground beef – why? Domino’s herbs – which herbs?), others just wrong (more on that later).

It’s time to choose my right half, and really I feel like I’ve been playing it safe. Sure, the barbeque sauce was a bit of a curveball, and one I’ll probably regret later when I’ll inevitably have to pop to Tescos to buy all their Gaviscon. But I don’t feel like I have quite reached my full Domino’s potential.

I get the tandoori hot pizza, registered trademark even (how did they manage to do that), but quickly remove the red onion because I have to draw the line somewhere. I do add the generic “herbs”, because I just need to know what that pile of dusty-looking dry greenery in the picture actually is.

I get an email asking me to get myself ready for “pizza heaven”. I am shocked by the sheer hubris.

The delivery tracking device, starting up with a number of ’70s sci-fi sounds is bound to be a jumpy person’s worst nightmare. He is, I can only assume, a millenial anthropomorphic pizza-shaped AI with sad eyes. He’s called Dom (get it?) and takes ages explaining how basic colour-coding works.

When he’s not talking to you (and he talks a lot), the screen becomes a series of pizza and smiley emojis with some sort of dystopian grainy filter. It’s as disturbing as it sounds. Dom enjoys puns and tells dad jokes before flashing “LOL”. Two jokes in, my pizza is already in the oven. It spends quite a while there.

How do they even bake an half-and-half pizza? Do the toppings not spill, or slide scross the other side while baking? What happens to the rogue toppings?

The  pizza shows up. I am filled with a sense of shame as I go to the front door, a sense of shame which I truly cannot explain as I have numerous times had McDonald’s delivered late at night even though my closest joint is a five-minute walk away (my order is a single cheeseburger and a caramel sundae). The pizza smells good. Genuinely good. Charred peppers and cheese. Good.

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Remember my question about how toppings stay put in a half-and-half? They don’t.

I have to spoon back toppings, carefully trying to discern which half is which (turns out barbeque sauce looks deceivingly like tomato sauce). In the end it becomes a little of both, corn and red tandoori chicken pieces mixing and melting into a single cheesy mess.

The crust is soft and fluffy, less bready than real pizza, fattier and more supple. The barbeque sauce is genuinely not bad. It’s just sugary sweet. The cognitive dissonance is painful but in a world of waffles with maples syrup and fried chicken this is not the most adventurous contrast out there. The cheese is barely-present and so uniformly laid I can only assume a super-intelligent machine did it (Was it you, Dom?), but there is innocent sweetcorn, well-charred chilli slices, pickled japaleno lending some much-needed acidity. The slivers of chicken, fiery red and cumin-heavy if a little dry, make the tandoori half taste a little like a kebab.

I enjoy it. I enjoy as something different to the pizza I grew up with. It also goes really well with some very cold Peroni in the glass bottle. But then, few things don’t.

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I also never really find out what the “herbs” were.

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Pane frattau, of sorts

Raise your hand if you find recipes daunting. Yep, me too.

I mean, when it comes to baking, recipes are my bible. I cling to every word, obey even the most menial of instructions, weigh ingredients obsessively, time the exact number of seconds needed to whisk eggs and sugar. Baking is like cooking blind – you have no idea what the dish will actually become. You have runny, sticky dough and have to pray that it will turn into a dense pancake or fluffy bread.

But cooking, man, I don’t know. I can’t follow recipes. I stray. While I take comfort in religiously obeying my cake recipes, cooking ones always seem so… long. Just too long. It may be the never-ending lists of ingredients, the confusing measurements (a quarter of a ginger root, chopped. Three whispers of crushed garlic), or maybe just the fact that I can see and taste the food transforming in front of my eyes, which gives me false sense of control. I don’t know.

So while I observe the wonderfully shot, polished recipes of Lady and and Pups, frowning at a list of ingredients that I wouldn’t even know where to find, wondering if I do have time to marinate my chicken for six hours while the bread is proofing and I knead my hand smashed noodles – also do I need an ice cream bucket in my life? – I just want to make something that involves a few ingredients and a few steps. I’ll just bookmark that turmeric butter chicken recipe and never click on it again.

So this is a take on Pane Frattau, a Sardinian dish which I first tried in a little cafe in Ealing (figures). It’s layers of Carasau bread, softened, with tomato sauce and a poached egg. Well, in my case, fried, because I don’t understand how anyone could choose poached over fried. It’s beautifully simple, if a little lazy, but somehow the bright passata and the sticky egg old on soft, chewy bread just make for a perfect meal.

I know, I speak about obscure ingredients and then I make something with Carasau bread? I know, I know. But you can find this moreish, thin crispy bread in any M&S and some larger supermarkets.

Pane Frattau

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Ingredients (serves 2):

3 or 4 leaves of pane carasau

a little hot water

half a bottle of good tomato passata

2 eggs

olive oil

some grated pecorino cheese

 

Pour some hot water onto each leaf of bread and let it soak for a a coupe of minutes, until soft. Move to a skillet or any oven-safe tray, spoon over some tomato passata, add a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into the dish and bake in the over at 180° for 10-15 minutes, until the eggs are done. Sprinkle with pecorino and, if you have spare burrata, throw that in there too (why not?). Burrata makes everything better.

 

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Caprese on toast

As I write this, it’s hailing in London. Hailing in April.

I want a holiday. I need a holiday. I just need to be somewhere else for a bit, sand burning my feet and sea water between my fingers, or a little wooden cabin with a view of barren, pointy mountains, it doesn’t really matter. Things always seem so simple on holiday, as if life, stripped of all its mundain aspects – the cleaning, the shopping, the commute to work- shone it all its book-reading, epiphany-laden true glory. A holiday is as close as I get to understanding the true meaning of life.

So I make myself something that reminds me of home, of warmth, of the aromatic smell of rosemary and sage. When you live 900 miles away from the place you grew up in, you do silly things like overpaying for the brand of ricotta your mum buys, even if you can’t really tell the difference. You start craving things you never even knew you liked that much, like a specific brand of breakfast cookies that was always, always in your cupboard.

There are a few things I make myself when I miss home: pasta with cherry tomatoes, with lashings of olive oil and basil, sweet and tart and happy like a warm summer evening. And my mum’s pasta with tuna, made with the canned sort, speckled with chopped parsley; or a fiery, warming arrabbiata sauce.

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But sometimes, I crave something that I never even really understood in the first place: a caprese salad. Often eaten at the seaside, when normal people seem to think it’s too hot to eat hot food (not me – happy to have lasagne in 40°-degree Rome), it also features in laminated menus of tourist-trap restaurants: perfect rounds of white, dry, bland mozzarella; equally perfect rounds of watery tomatoes, big basil leaves.

My version is served on toast, good toast, sourdough from Bread Ahead – but frankly, you could put this on any form or shape of crusty bread. It’s thin slices of ripe, colourful tomatoes, maldon salt and pepper, amber-coloured olive oil and half a burrata. Because, I mean, why buy mozzarella when you can have its creamy, velvety cousin? I thought so.

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Caprese on toast (serves two)

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a couple of ripe tomatoes

some burrata or, failing that, mozzarella

two slices of crusty bread

olive oil, salt, pepper

Slice the tomatoes thinly, arrange on the bread and place some burrata on top. You could also use the creamy burrata as the first layer of this open face sandwich. Add some olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Cold roasted peppers

You may not know this yet, but this is just the recipe you were looking for. Because I bet you’ve always wanted to try a simple side that takes three hours to make, during which you have to patiently stay within a 2-meter-radius of the oven. I bet you’ve always thought ‘oh, that recipe sounds nice, but I wish it involved a 70% chance of burning myself’.

So yes, this recipe is one which feels slightly ridiculous to even jolt down and that could be condensed into one snappy line: roast some peppers. That’s it. Yet it involves complicated techniques to avoid grilling yourself, knee-length oven mitts, hours of waiting. And what you get is a side dish. A side. Not a juicy main oozing sauce, no complex flavours, no fragrant mixes of spices. This is as simple and is linear as it gets.

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Then why make them? Because they’re worth it, that’s why. My mum has been making these since the beginning of time (well, of my time, anyway), jewel-hued fillets of ripe peppers, bursting with flavours, the slight kick of garlic, the bright red colours in a sea of golden olive oil. This dish is what lead her to brag about the fact that her daughter ‘loved vegetables, even peppers’ (roasted into submission, doused with olive oil and on warm bread, that is).

I believe raw peppers are an epidemic of our time, their sour bitterness spoiling just about everything in the salad aisle, ruining delicate cous cous, taking over sweet tomatoes, overpowering the freshest lamb lettuce, leaving an aftertaste that will stay with you long after the spinach is gone from between your teeth.

But when you roast them, something utterly magical happens. They become soft, juicy, sweet, bordering on caramelised, fresh and deeply satisfying at the same time. They become the perfect side to just about everything, amazing on toast, sandwiched between two slices of crusty bread, served with some white rice, used to make a pasta salad, or just eaten straight from the fridge, so cold they hurt your teeth, the olive oil dripping onto the floor, slurped back like herrings in Holland.

Cold roasted peppers

(serves about 4 people)

four or five red peppers (always, always choose red, they have much more pulp)

olive oil

a couple of garlic cloves

some fresh parsley

Set your oven to 200°, place the peppers onto baking paper in a tray and let them roast for as long as it takes, turning them every so often. They should charred, which means, well, their skin should start to turn black. They will release a lot of juice and will be very soft when they are ready.

Once ready, take them out of the oven and place them in a paper or plastic bag, closed, for an hour, and try not to forget about them. But it’s fine if you do. They’ll wait for you.

When they’re cold, peeling them should be easy, the skin will be peeling off like a dream. Remove the seeds and slice the pepper to create beautiful fillets.

Place in a tray, cover with good quality olive oil, a couple of cloves of garlic, a little chopped parsley and cover. let the flavours mingle in the fridge for at least an hour, and serve with and on everything.

Once you try them, you’ll get why that grill-shaped burn on your forearm was absolutely worth it.

 

My comfort food: a genealogy

PieWhat is comfort food anyway? To me, it has to do with memories, love, nostalgia, carbs and shame. Yes, shame. It’s probably because when you grow up with a mum who’s a bit of a health freak (although she can easily be spotted dunking biscuits in Nutella), eating anything that’s fried and rich and delicious comes with just a pinch of shame, and tends to be done in secret.

When I was in school, I remember going to the pizza shop and buying piping hot supplis, with that crispy breadcrumb shell and the melting mozzarella heart, then eating them so quickly they would burn the tip of my tongue, before scrunching up the greasy brown paper bag and knocking on the door. Then I would have lunch, of course.

When my mum worked until four and I was alone at lunch, then I’d have a proper feast. I’d pop to the supermarket on my way home from school and buy mini salamis, Sofficini (one of my absolute favourite things when I was a kid –think little crepe pockets, stuffed with gooey, cheesy tomato sauce and deep fried – then frozen) and a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream. And then I’d eat all of it (the little fried crepes, the salami, the whole pint of Macadamia Brittle ice cream) in front of the telly and hide the cardboard boxes. I’d have some salad, too – so I could tell my mum I had had salad for lunch and only lie by omission, which seemed significantly better than ‘regular’ lying to a logical, somewhat cynical sixteen-year-old with an unquenchable hunger and too much pocket money for her own good.

Then there’s my mum’s cherry tomato pasta. It’s simple and perfect, sun-drenched cherry tomatoes blistered in olive oil with a pinch of sea salt and some basil until they go gooey, sweet and tart and savoury at the same time, with copious amounts of pecorino cheese. It’s the kind of recipe you could make with one hand while reading a book and having a pleasant conversation about the weather, but my mum’s is truly special – maybe because she would make it for me.

When you leave home you start really appreciating others making food for you, because it’s the purest, simplest act of love – to me, when someone hands you you a steaming bowl of pasta they made especially for you, it’s like they’re handing you a piece of them. My mum has always been convinced that if you cook when you’re in a bad mood, those feelings find their way into the food and they poison it with bitter, sour notes. As a cynical teenager of course I thought it was the most absurd thing, but then I found out Salman Rushdie seems to believe the same. I like that idea, anyway. That if you cook with love, or someone else does for you, your food will always taste nice. I guess it depends on how hungry you are.

 

Lemon poppy seed loaf
My mum also makes an amazing pasta with tuna. She uses big, juicy plum tomatoes, canned tuna, chili flakes and parsley. It’s the most more-ish thing you’ll ever eat – it shouldn’t be, because it’s really just tuna and tomatoes, but that sauce is one of the tastiest, most fragrant I’ve ever tasted.

Incidentally, pasta with tuna is also one of the two things my dad can cook. Yes, two. My whole life, I only remember my dad cooking either pasta with tuna or pasta fredda (pasta salad). I have no idea how he survived when he lived on his own – this was Italy in the 80s, where Pot Noodle didn’t exist and ready meals just weren’t a thing. His pasta with tuna tastes like canned tuna swimming in oil, and it looks like it too.

Another one of my favourite comfort foods is my auntie’s ricotta cheesecake: a creamy and indulgent cake with a thick, wobbly ricotta crust and jewel-like blueberries. She lives in a tiny village in the Alps and used to make it every single time I went to visit – I can’t remember why. I suppose she made it once and I loved it so much she decided it was my favourite. And maybe it is. I remember eating a beautiful, wobbly slice of that creamy goodness while sipping elderflower syrup, made with the flowers my aunt had picked, in a tall glass of fizzy water. See, comfort to me is about that: warmth, family and good, hazy memories. It’s about nostalgia, flavours I long for, places I haven’t seen in too long, green mountains against blue skies, and late summer thunderstorms.

Meringue
It’s also about instant ramen. Yes, yes, instant ramen. Noodles. A bowl of hot, spicy, steamy instant noodles.
Here’s where I stand on British noodles: no. Just no. Whether it is Pot Noodles or Super Noodle, whenever they are made in Britain I just can’t bring myself to eat them. They taste like watered down chicken stock and salt, and have rubbery noodles and floating sweetcorn that never quite re-hydrates properly. No.

When it comes to noodles, they have to be made in Korea, Singapore, Japan. This is my favourite brand – they’re hot, so hot it hurts, but they are amazing. I started buying them when I was in school, seduced by the utter simplicity of the preparation, by how boiling water from the kettle could transform a square pack of dried noodles into a steaming bowl of perfection. I remember eating them on grey and cold afternoons, my eyes a little watery, a runny nose, a yellowed book. They are still, to me, a liquid blanket for those cold, lazy days when I want something warming but just can’t bring myself to cook.

When I started uni I had a regular post-exam treat, this cheesy frozen mash with bits of ham in it. I’d come home with a headache, make myself a bowl of this and just be in my happy place for the rest of the day, topping up my tea every hour or so and watching silly TV shows in my favourite pajamas. The day of an exam is always special, the feeling of having achieved something, that those two hours of your day have been so productive you don’t really have to do anything else. And the cheesy mash.

When I moved to Berlin, pretzels were my go-to comfort food. Shiny, chewy soft pretzels, with crystals of salt the size of my fist. I’d have them for breakfast, as a snack, before a night out and after – to soak up the alcohol, you know. 

Bread has always been the ultimate comfort food. I’d toast it and drizzle olive oil, and eat it standing by the sink on a lazy Saturday afternoon while my dad watched the football; I would spread some butter on it and dunk it in soft boiled eggs with my mum, chatting about school and boys, or slice my grandad’s ciaiuscolo and eat it between two slices of proper, crusty bread.

I do wish my comfort food resembled fruit salads or boiled broccoli. It just doesn’t. But I’ll have bread, butter and sugar any day.