London, 4 August 2013
Tonight I fell in love at 6:55 and fell into despair at 7:28. For this reversal of fortune I have only you to thank.
I hate you, Paolo Barone.
You may recall that just one week ago you suggested I check out L’Antica Pizzeria in Hampstead. Your recommendation was delivered without urgency or conviction and yet I told myself, “Paolo knows pizza. Even if he is probably not crazy about L’Antica I must go. In London you cannot be too choosy about pizza.”
Seated at the table nearest the oven in back of this charming little pizzeria I was immediately struck by the hands of the young Neapolitan pizzaiolo Antonio Cerrato. When an accomplished baker works the dough he owns it. It’s putty in his hands. With Cerrato it was less a case of his owning the dough as becoming it. As he stretched the dough he spun a high rim that would become what you Italians call the pizza’s cornicione. Cerrato’s raw pizza platforms weren’t so much rimmed as ring-fenced: You could pour stuff into it and not worry about anything spilling out.
The Margherita pizza Cerrato pulled from the wood-fired red igloo was dramatically landscaped. Layers of fior di latte and tomato sauce floated in a molten pool over the charred crust, achieving a structural abandon contained only by the barrier formed by the outsized cornicione. The now rounded rim offered a delectably light, desirably dry balance of resistance and compression with each chew.
In London food people of great stature may reserve their highest praise for pizzerias where the pizza crust is not always baked through. You pry open the charred cornicione and the bready stuff is still moist.
Already I was planning to invite tutta Londra to Hampstead to see L’Antica, meet Antonio and dig into his dry cornicione. In my head I was clearing space for that high-walled Margherita in my Top 10 Pizzas in London list.
Antonio wrote down his email on a small piece of paper, handed it to me and smiled. I blushed. He asked if I could send him some of the photos you see here, as he was leaving for Tenerife on Tuesday. Sure, I said, and then asked when he would be returning. His response turned my stomach in the manner of a half-baked pizza. Antonio had no plans to return to NW3, not ever. His sights were set on New York, which began to explain why he’d had the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and the words “Have a Dream” tattooed on his right arm.
You’re Italian, Paolo, and I get the whole Italian tragic opera thing: Man and woman fall in love. Woman coughs. Woman dies. Man kills himself. Woman not actually dead. Woman kills herself. But, sorry, I am just not amused by this scenario of your sending me to L’Antica just in nick of time for its pizzaiolo to walk out on me and break my heart. It’s nothing to sing about, Paolo.