I finally went to Una Pizza Napoletana. The proprietor originally had a place in Manhattan, and people I trust – namely Paul, Tina, and Eugene – said it was the best pizza in New York. Which, to most pizza snobs, made it the best pizza in America. And he moved his place to San Francisco. I was stoked. I went, expecting a life-changing experience.
It was great. If I really think about it, I’d say it’s the best pizza I’ve had. Having said that, it wasn’t life changing, so honestly, I was a little disappointed. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think part of it has to do with the philosophy behind the pizza.
Quick Plato lesson for people who don’t know (and probably don’t care). Plato believed in ideals, and that things in nature only approximated those ideals. For example, we see lots of circles in real life. Frisbees, tires, drawings, whatever. We know that none of these things are true, perfect, flawless circles. But we know that there is concept of an ideal, perfect circle, even if we can never see one in reality. We call things in reality “circles” if they approximate the ideal circle. If something deviates from that ideal enough, we can’t call it a circle anymore. We’d call it an oval, or something else. The basic idea is that we categorize things based on their similarity to Platonic ideals.
His famous allegory of the cave describes people who have been chained up in a cave their entire lives, such that all they can see is a blank wall of the cave. There are things passing by in front of a fire behind them, but all they can see are the shadows cast onto the blank wall. Plato argues that life is like this – we see but imitative shadows of the true reality. The philosopher realizes the true reality exists, even though it cannot be seen.
If this sounds vaguely Christian to you, I feel the same way. Paul in particular seems to echo this idea in places, about life being just a glimpse of what is to come, e.g. in 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” If you believe that there’s such thing as “true” love, or “true” justice or “true” peace, you’re in some sense a Platonist. I am.
In contrast, Aristotle didn’t believe in ethereal ideals. Honestly, I’m not sure what he believed, because his writing is boring, confusing, and contradictory. But as I understand parts of it (which might be completely wrong), he believed the essence of categories is learned when we group things together. We figure out what a circle is when we call a bunch of things “circles.” We know what red is when we call a bunch of things “red.” SN: ancient writings contain almost no descriptions colors. Because of this, there is a serious theory out there ancient man could only recognize three colors.
What on earth does any of this have to do with pizza? The current hot trend in pizza basically espouses Plato: there exists a perfect form of pizza (Neapolitan), and the goal is to achieve that perfection. All these places popping up in the Bay Area (e.g. UPN, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in SF, Napoletana Pizzeria in Mountain View) reflect that. UPN comes closest to that ideal. The pizza geeks will rattle off why: the texture and taste of the dough, the imported Italian sea salt, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, the temperature of the oven, etc. And I enjoy this style a lot.
But here’s the thing – in the end, there’s a cap on how mind-blowing that kind of pizza can be, because it’s attempting to approach an ideal that it can’t exceed. And even though it’s an ideal, it’s not that unfamiliar. UPN maximally fulfilled that style. But I knew what that style was already.
In contrast, the most mind-blowing pizza I ever had was at Chez Panisse Cafe, years ago when I was in high school, with my mom, Nick, and his mom. I had a goat cheese pizza that completely changed the way I thought about pizza and, frankly, about food in general. Because it wasn’t trying to match an ideal, but to expand my horizons.
The traditional debate about the best pizzas are usually between Chicago-style and New York-style, but I don’t think California-style gets enough respect. Being a purist of any style inherently imposes a limit on how much it can change you. California-style pushes the edge of what pizza can be, and I enjoy that a lot. In the end, I’m not a pure pizza Platonist. I like purity. But I also like creativity.
I’m changing my answer. Chez Panisse is still the site of the best pizza I ever had. Here are my pizza rankings:
- Chez Panisse Cafe
- Una Pizza Napoletana
- Grimaldi’s – I feel like some New Yorkers look down on me when I say this. But I like what I like.
- Zachary’s – this angers Chicagoans, but honestly, I like Zachary’s more than the Chicago places I’ve been to. Since I’m not a purist, the true Chicago places are a bit too piggy for me (e.g. a solid layer of sausage on top – it’s a bit much).
- Pizza Antica
- A Slice Of NY – My favorite NY-style place in the South Bay. Now open in Sunnyvale.
- Patxi’s – Not as good as Zachary’s, the texture of the sauce is not quite right, but still pretty good.
- Pizza Chicago – Also not “pure”, which is what I like about it. The California-influenced toppings work really well with the deep dish.
- Giovanni’s – My second favorite NY-style in the South Bay. Doesn’t get enough respect.