Pizza is survival
Three versions of Buenos Aires pizza. Words and photos by Kevin Vaughn
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When the cinematographer Christopher Doyle was shooting Wong Kar-Wai’s film Happy Together in Buenos Aires, he was given a list of pick-up shots by Wong so the audience would be able to sketch out the details of Tony Leung’s character’s life outside the doomed, claustrophobic romance of the main plot. Scribbled on a piece of paper were a few words: ‘phone card’, ‘cigarette’, ‘abattoir’ (where Leung’s character briefly works) and ‘pizza’.
“Gimme a mozzarella pizza.” Leung’s character asks the pizzero. “Napoletana?” he shoots back. “Mozzarella.” “Napoletana?” “No, mozzarella.” “Mozzarella?” “Yes.”
It’s a small scene, no more than 20 seconds, but it communicates something truthful about Buenos Aires unique pizza culture (what, for instance, is the difference between a mozzarella pizza and a napoletana?) as well as showing Leung’s character has become porteño enough to argue about pizza.
Funnily enough, I saw Happy Together again a few days before Kevin Vaughn sent me today’s newsletter on the differences between pizza cultures in Buenos Aires. When I pointed out the scene, Vaughn told me “despite being a Hong Kong produced movie, Happy Together is maybe the greatest film about Buenos Aires.” before lamenting that the pizza joint in the film is now no more. This is not so surprising: outsiders who pay attention have a knack of being able to capture the spirit of a place or a thing and whittle it down to its essence. Emeric Pressburger, for instance, is one of the few film writers to ever grasp the unique melancholy that ‘Britishness’ entails despite being Hungarian. How many times are we told that the best and most accurate French patisserie and Neapolitan pizza can be found in Japan?
Kevin is also an outsider who pays attention. His bilingual publication Matambre has the view of an outsider who instinctively knows what is truthful about a place and what is noise, as well as the view of an insider who is immersed in the city and whose job it is to build roads between those inside it: chefs, artists, activists and scientists; porteño, Argentine, and Latin American. Pizza is one thing outsiders love to write about, almost reducing Buenos Aires to a bread with toppings. The reality, as Kevin shows, is much more complex. I hope you enjoy today’s newsletter as a small slice of what Kevin and Matambre has to offer; if you enjoy it, I recommend buying the whole pie.
Pizza is survival, by Kevin Vaughn
Buenos Aires isn’t a city that requires you to travel far to find pizza. Within a five block radius of my apartment in a fairly residential neighborhood, there are 10 different pizzerias. I can stand at the bar surrounded by 200 other diners with a slice and an iced vermouth or order a whole pizza from the little spot around the corner. Both dish out the thick-crusted pies with cheese and toppings thrown on by the fistful that are the source of endless debate over which pizzeria makes the best. But I had heard whispers of something worth a pilgrimage to Adrogué, a suburb 30 kilometers outside of the city: a Neapolitan-style pizza parlor. It might surprise foreigners that in a city where nearly half of the population has some Italian lineage, it is difficult to find a pizza that resembles those of the old country.
So we left the house at 10am and spent two hours crossing the city by bus, taking the train into the suburbs and walking ten blocks from the station to grab a seat under the trees that shade Ti Amo. “We like to travel a lot as a family and wherever we go we always have to try the local pizza,” explains owner and pizzaiola Carola Santoro. “Our favorite was in Naples. We ended up in 50 Kalò after walking around for two hours really full from a different pizzeria. The margherita was the best thing we tried. It blew our minds.”
Carola opened her bricks-and-mortar site with her mother Susana and sister Vicky in August of last year, after running a secret restaurant out of their backyard. Ti Amo is a mirage in the city’s southern suburbs. While a handful of Neapolitan-style pizzerias have popped up in the last five years, they mostly occupy the glossy neighborhoods of the capital’s northside, run by those who have travelled to Naples to take masterclasses, imported ovens from Italy or brought expert consultants in from New York – and remain, often braggadociously, on the far fringes of mainstream pizza culture. Neapolitan-style pizza is often a marker of privilege. It’s hardly a restaurant experience you’d find in el barrio.
For nearly a year, Carola scoured the internet for video tutorials and recipes to perfect her dough, which is soft and blistered with a satisfying elastic chew to the crust, and designed a menu that includes mortadella with pistachio and globes of ricotta, small pools of mozzarella atop a blanket of pesto sauce, and a mascarpone-provolone-blue cheese-mozzarella pizza glued together with long strings of honey.
I suggest to Carola that despite the green, white and red flag that flutters in the breeze, she hasn’t been able to totally outrun the Argentine influence. Popular food culture is defined by abundance. Argentines measure the value of their food by its generosity, both in the size of the dish and how much cash it will extract from their wallets. Pizza is no different. Argentines want exaggeration; to overwhelm the sense and to feed a family of four.
Ti Amo has a tinge of that. The restaurant is familial and filled with playful idiosyncrasy – Carola often shapes her pizzas into a heart. Her flavors are loud and the portions border on the gluttonous, which sets her apart from the strict, demure interpretations of Naples back in the city. And that is precisely what makes her pizza napolitana better than the rest. A Neapolitan pizza with the spirit of her hometown.
“Maybe,” she politely responds.
Throughout the 19th century, Italian men circled between Italy and the Argentine Pampas, where they harvested wheat for a few months then returned home with enough money to live out the rest of the year. As Argentina’s agrarian industry grew and pushed the country to the top of the global economy, Italy endured an intense post-unification process. While the Southern Italian immigrants of New York City were mostly unskilled laborers intent on returning home, the Italians that headed South were from across the peninsula and split between white- and blue-collar working families. Argentina was less developed and had greater room for social mobility than New York City; the new ‘porteños’, as the people of Buenos Aires are called, began to settle in waves along the city’s port and reinvented themselves in a rapidly growing metropolis.
The city’s first documented pizza was prepared in 1882 by a baker named Nicola Vaccarezza, who cooked his dough out of a rented oven and topped it with olive oil and onions to be sold on the street. His pizza likely looked like the unadorned flatbread that had long been the poor man's street staple in his native Naples. A decade later, a Genovese man named Agustín Banchero would start selling pizza out of his own bakery, Riachuelo, opened just four years after the first margherita was made for the Queen of Italy, and preceding the United States’ first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, by almost a dozen years.
While the pizza that would define Italy riffed of a Naples-style flat bread, Banchero took more inspiration from the focaccia of his home province, Liguria. He built his legacy atop the fugazza con queso, a rectangular-shaped pizza with two layers of dough that sandwich quatirolo cheese, topped with onions that char underneath the flames of a wood fire. This was the first of many acts that ruptured Argentine pizza from its Italian family tree. Today, the closest homage to Italy and the original margherita is the napo, topped with rounds of tomato and dried oregano.
A culinary boom in the 1930s would transform Banchero’s pies into the gold standard: sturdy bottomed pizzas that can withstand charitable handfuls of cheese and toppings. The Spanish were responsible for the latter. The gallegos had long been the undisputed restaurant tycoons of the city. They built the city’s bodegónes, restaurants that serve a fusion of Hispano-Italian dishes, and began including pizza on their menus if they weren’t opening pizza shops outright. At some point everything in the kitchen – cured and cold meats, tropical fruit, vegetable preserves, octopus tentacles and baby shrimp – ended up atop pizzas.
“No one orders this stuff anymore,” the waiter at Güerrin, a 90 year old pizza institute, responded when I asked for the pizza with ham and banana listed on the menu. The kitchen didn’t even have bananas, he told me, and he didn’t want to look for some from the vegetable stand around the block. These fossils of flamboyant flavour combos, buried in otherwise fathomable menus, endlessly intrigue me. The frequently offered origin story of hungry immigrants arriving in a country abundant in food doesn’t entirely hold up. It might explain why working-class Italians settling into one of the world’s wealthiest countries chose to pile cheese on top of focaccia instead of flatbread but it doesn’t explain the rest of the genealogy.
No one can pinpoint when Argentine pizza truly became singular in style but most assume that its bounty and unorthodox flavor combinations began to appear in the 1950s or 60s. Not only had European immigration long declined, but the historic inflation that had begun in 1945 continued to rise exponentially: in 1989, at its most catastrophic, hitting 20,000%. It makes more sense that the porteño pizza style wasn’t cemented by abundance but the lack thereof. The pizzeria became a place of solace; the place to truly indulge in a country where you are constantly forced to ration comforts.
Today, the number of pizzerias in Buenos Aires dwarfs any other kind of restaurant. While restaurants struggle to persevere, pizzerias have thrived through economic disasters and military dictatorships; celebrated World Cup wins and the return to democracy. Their resilience is pegged to an understanding of how the average Argentine dines out, which means finding the balance between keeping overhead low and portions big while surfing the wave of an economy in which the only thing you can predict is its unpredictability.
“Pizza is invincible,” begins Martín Auzmendi, a recovering food journalist and co-founder of the annual pizza marathon Muza5k. “When porteños think about a night out, we think about dining out. From there it’s how much money you have in your pocket. If you are short, maybe it’s the end of the month, you go to a pizzeria.”
Pizza is survival. Survival for the pizzero trying to keep their head above water, and survival for the average person who needs to feel like they belong to something. The pizzeria is an attitude, an ambience, a calm corner of a busy city. And pizza is as much a sensation as it is a meal; it is resilience, unity and celebration, often all at once. When Argentinos Juniors switched from paying a seventeen year old Diego Maradona’s travel fare to cutting him actual checks, he celebrated by spending the first on his mom and all the pizza and Coca Cola they could consume. “We looked like Bill Gates and Queen Sofía,” he would later recount.
Auzmendi is trying to conserve Argentinian pizza’s essence and push it into the next generation. In March of last year, he re-opened Bar Roma, a century old bar and café in the wholesale district of Abasto. The owners, Asturian cousins and nonagenarians Jesús and Laudino, had turned down countless offers to buy the property, instead bent on finding someone suitable to take over the bar.
Together with his business partner, Julián Díaz, Auzmendi made an offer, on the condition that they could add vermouth, pizza and faina, an unleavened chickpea pancake eaten on top of your slice, to the bar’s menu of coffee and sandwiches. They spent months working on a dough with banker-turned-baker Raúl Grunthal, and hired the city’s oven expert Walter Cossalter, who has been building pizza ovens for seven decades, to build one with “just the right curve” so the pizza crisps without burning.
Pizza is what restored Bar Roma – and what undoubtedly ensured its survival during the pandemic, which erupted across the city two weeks after the renovation was completed. Roma isn’t alone. Throughout the pandemic, new food projects continued to open. Most of 2020 was dominated by pop-ups run out of the home kitchens of out-of-work cooks, but more and more bricks-and-mortar sites are appearing as people adapt to the new definition of crisis. Pizzerias are the most visible. When a crisis hits, Argentines continue to dine and gravitate to food that is risk averse, comforting and economic.
Auzmendi co-authored Nuestra Pizza: Una pasión redonda (Our Pizza: A Round Passion), a book that captures the minutiae of the city’s pizzerias and fanboys over the ones that continue to embrace their own peculiarities. “Buenos Aires makes a pan pizza that is abundant in ingredients with a sturdy undercrust so you can eat with your hands. Everything else is up for debate. Somewhere along the way we got stuck and started to define a canon. The way we eat is constantly expanding but the problem is that Argentine cooks don’t want to touch popular food culture. We’ve stopped allowing ourselves to play around and that is what Buenos Aires pizza is all about. That is something we need to return to.”
I can understand why people don’t want to eat bananas and ham with a pound of molten mozzarella, but I always wondered where that sense of imagination disappeared to. When did pizza stop being so personal and why did popular food culture become untouchable? When did survival become conformity? Did the reality of price fluctuations force pizzeros to get creative with their economics at the cost of their own creativity? Pizza’s two big leaps happened in moments of enormous transition and the pandemic is presenting another one.
“We have been asking ourselves this a lot lately: what is it that really defines Argentine cuisine?” starts Juan Carlos Ortíz, owner and maestro pizzero of Gordo Chanta – the name of which is hyper local slang encapsulating the essence of a used car salesman that might translate to “shit talker”, “lazy asshole” or “bullshitter” depending on the inflection. “I think that Argentine-isms are a mixture of a lot of things that are birthed from necessity and are shaped by being a country that is so far from the rest of the world but so connected at the same time. If you look at a lot of local drinks and dishes, they were invented by people who wanted to replicate something from their home country with what was available to them here and over time it took on a life of its own until the original was either unrecognizable or didn’t matter anymore. That to me is the perfect summation of what it means to be Argentine.”
Ortíz moved to Buenos Aires ten years ago from Cali, Colombia with his brother, Juan José, and sister, Isabella. Together they opened cocktail bar Boticarioand restaurant La Favorita. When the pandemic hit and the restaurant group was in need of extra income, they built a wood-burning stove on the roof of Favorita – and Gordo Chanta was born. Like the other pandemic-era projects popping up alongside it, Gordo Chanta parallels the story of the city’s first pizzas: a means of survival amongst new and impossible circumstances. During half a dozen visits and a pop-up where I got to make my own pizza (spicy tomato sauce, Japanese sweet potato, tomatillo salsa and pickled red onions!), Ortíz and I ate slices and drank wine while we wondered not only what it meant to be Argentine but what it meant to be Latinx. “Latinos are aspirational. We are taught to look outwards rather than look at what we have.” Local pizza forged new paths not simply in moments of transition but in moments where people couldn’t deny where they sat in the world –first as strangers in a strange land and then as citizens grappling with the reality of living in the world’s global south.
With borders basically closed and the future foggy, cooks and diners are imagining a post-Covid world. The projects that are popping up are smaller, more personal and connected to independent artisans and farmers, many of whom are organic or agroecological. Pizza is again becoming a vehicle of expression for the people that make it. Ortíz is less interested in revamping classic combinations and more compelled to build new pizzas altogether that change frequently based on whatever local, independent purveyors send his way. That might mean buttery slices of zucchini and their flowers with a garlic cream sauce, nduja with caramelized red onions, spianata with honey or asparagus with chives and lemon zest, all paired with natural wines.
Although the pizza shop has gained legions of curious fans, there hasn’t been a shortage of controversy. Debates have erupted on Instagram about their stray from the perceived tradition and Ortiz often responds in character to his detractors with a sometimes expletive-filled cool story, bro. He shares that in common with Santoro, Auzmendi and all the rest that are emerging right now: an obsession for craft and the belief that food should be both deeply personal and a collective reflection of the times.
“When we started, we thought obviously we are not going to make a traditional pan pizza with a kilo of cheese on top. I love that pizza but it isn’t mine,” says Ortiz as he slides me a pie topped with radicchio and orange slices. “But if you were to ask me if what we are making is ‘porteño’? I’d say yeah. We want to make a national product with ingredients from here that respect the seasons and small farmers and artisans. Even though I am not Argentine, I am making something that is. Here we are. This is where we live. This is all a mixture of things happening here and now. Whether this is porteño or not isn’t a question in my mind.”
Diagonal Toll 1420, Adrogué
Dr. Tomás Manuel de Anchorena 806
Kevin Vaughn is a food writer, photographer and editor based in Buenos Aires. He edits the magazine Matambre, a compilation of interviews, art, photography and the occasional reported story about the intersectional politics of food in Buenos Aires and Argentina. You can find him on Twitter as @iamkevinvaughn.
He has also put together a playlist of songs to listen to whilst thinking about/eating pizza.
Many thanks to Frankie McCoy for subedits.