Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Final Bite

I went to Little Star for pizza the other night with my uncle. It had been a very long time since I had last been to this great pizza place in San Francisco. They are known for both their thin crust, and deep dish. The last couple of times I have been to Little Star I had the thin crust pizza. This time however I returned to the deep dish. It was an amazing choice. We had the special, which had bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and house-made meatballs. These toppings, along with the chunky, roasted tomato sauce, worked perfectly together. Each bite of pizza contained a small explosion of flavor. One bite would highlight the sweet and crunchy onion, another would underline the smoky bell peppers, or the earthy, chewy mushrooms, and the next would display the robust, salty meatballs. This pizza was savory and slightly sweet while being crunchy and firm around the edges, but soft and gooey in the middle.

The most impressive part of the pizza however was the crust. I have made crust for deep-dish pizzas before, and I understand how difficult it can be to keep it crusty and strong, but moist and buttery without it becoming over-stretched or mealy. The people in the kitchen at Little Star clearly have not run into this problem. I would have paid for a giant bowl of crust from this restaurant. It was crunchy and yet buttery enough to melt in your mouth on contact. The most amazing part was that it was able to hold up to the well-stuffed Chicago-style pizza without falling apart at all. This crust was great because instead of being a huge, over-the-top pie like the ones at Zachary's, this was just the right size. It was big enough to pile with cheese, meat, veggies, and tomato sauce, but it wasn't intimidatingly large. This crust was so good I looked forward to finishing each piece of pizza so that I could eat the crust alone. Never before have I tasted a crust this perfectly crafted on a deep-dish pie.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


I was reading the December edition of Saveur magazine a couple of days ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed the article about Brazilian fare from the beautiful city of Salvador in the northern part of Brazil. It reminded me immediately of my two-week trip to Rio de Janeiro over the past summer. The pictures of the creamy, spicy, fishy moqueca, the salty and rib-sticking sausage and okra stew, and the bright colored festivals all brought me right back to some of my favorite meals and experiences in one of the friendliest, most inviting, and most food oriented countries in the world.

The author of this particular article was guided around the culinary world of Salvador by Cacique, a man formally known as Jubiraci Martins da Silva. Cacique is his apelido, or nickname. These are incredibly common throughout Brazil. This man seemed to be exactly like my good friend Renato Alvarez, or ZezĂ©, a native of Rio de Janeiro, and my family’s guru for all things “Brazil” while we were there. Cacique, just like Renato, is described as an amazingly friendly and loving Brazilian who is known by everyone all throughout Salvador. During my trip it was very common to hear, “Oi Renato! Tudo bem mi amigo?” (Hey Renato! How are you my friend?) The author describes this same phenomenon as a part of her daily life while accompanied by Cacique. Another similarity between the two is that they are both fantastic cooks who have mastered many of the tasty dishes native to their home cities. If someone was to ask either of these men where they learned to cook, neither would say that they learned from a chef in a restaurant, and definitely not from a culinary academy. Both would simply reply, “My mom.”

The fact that so many of the Brazilians I met learned to be great cooks through their family was not an entirely new concept for me. After all I have learned the majority of the Italian food I make through one half of my family, as well as many traditional Jewish dishes from the other half. What was amazing however, was the large amount of family members who were all highly efficient in the kitchen. In many of the families I know, there are those who cook, and those who don’t. During large street parties in Brazil, however, I quickly observed that if one person began grilling the traditional churrasco (Brazilian-style meat), many others would soon follow.

What was it about these people that encouraged them all to learn how to cook? It wasn’t until thinking back on my trip while reading the Saveur article that I was able to establish any thoughts on the matter. I realized that maybe it was these extended family get-togethers the led to the high proficiency levels in the kitchen.

One thing about Brazilians is that they certainly know how to have a good time. They seem to be able to take the slightest amounts of things and turn them into something more. Their food is a great example of this. They were given the discarded meats, white rice, and black beans, and they created feijoada, a ridiculously heavy, meaty, savory, chewy, crunchy, and salty black bean “stew” of sorts. They were given plain cuts of meat with nothing more than salt, and they made churrasco.

So when it came time for the large families, as well as friends and members of the community, to come together and celebrate some event, it was clearly a time for all of the best food to be cooked up. It makes sense to me that with the large quantities of food needed to feed the block parties that can easily attract 100 people, everyone needs to lend a helping hand when it comes time to cook. Since Brazilians tend to find many different occasions to come together and celebrate, these large meals must be cooked fairly often. As a result, many members of the community must learn to cook in order to help feed one another.

There are probably many other reasons for the spectacle of great home chefs in Brazil. I look forward to exploring the idea more in my future visits to Rio de Janeiro.