Greg Bruce goes on a quest to find Auckland's best pizza.
Dante's box-based marketing - "NZ's best pizza 2014/15" and "Metro Magazine best pizza winner 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011" - is an outrage against awards-based legitimisation but there's an outlet very close to my house. The guy called my 3-year-old son "captain" and patted him on the head, which was a nice touch, although my son clearly didn't think so. Anyway, this isn't a review of my son and if it was I'd give him 7/10. The pizza featured great blistered patches of black on the towering cornicione, which plummeted to an ultra-thin crust. Islands of moist mozzarella sat cheekily in a sea of red. This was an extremely high-quality margherita. I could easily have voted it best pizza in the city four years in a row 10 years ago, when I was living in a tiny city apartment eating mostly cheese on toast.
We arrived five minutes before opening and stood in a queue with 30-40 presumably unemployed white people, all dressed the same. We ordered quickly, to beat the rush, and the pizza came so fast it was hard not to look at it suspiciously. The cornicione was low and the base was bready, reminiscent of the Leaning Tower range I used to enjoy at home on Saturday afternoons as a teenager. It was greasy, the pepperoni was hard, dark and ample, and little nubbins of cherry tomato were scattered across it. I continued to eat past the first slice because I didn't know what else to do with my hands. The cheese was a bit brown in places but the restaurant was one of the whitest places I'd ever seen.
Non Solo Pizza
The steep and elegant cornicione featured a moulded tail and fin, giving the pizza the appearance of a pufferfish. Food jokes typically aren't funny, and this was no exception, but I do like the taste of audacity. The pizza was perfect and beautiful, with its teetering pile of prosciutto and torn buffalo mozzarella, but It didn't feel curated or carefully designed; it felt unconstrained and unfettered: a moist little slice of joy in a world of dry conformity.
The interior was like a photographic darkroom. This isn't a review of lighting but if it was I would give Umu a 6. Their menu lists six pizzas. The names are: One, Two, Three, Four, Five and 99. The gap, presumably, is because the 99 is less a pizza and more a philosophical idea. It combines two pairs of near-identical foods - mozzarella and mascarpone, sourdough and potato - and dares us to doubt. It takes our preconceived ideas about dish composition and says, "Are you sure? Can you rationalise that with your mouth so gummy with carbs and cheese you're no longer sure how chewing works?" The 99 asks us to re-examine both our thoughts and selves. "How does this work? Why does this work?" Wrong questions! Right questions: "Who am I and why is this my first time at Umu?"
Toto's metre-long pizzas have sometimes turned up to my office for a lunchtime free-for-all, rich and moist and laden with high-quality, fresh ingredients. I usually watch from among the crowd while someone grabs the last two or three slices and offers a look like, "Sorry, I promised these to my colleagues". The other day I went into Toto at lunchtime and ordered a slice of diavola from the cabinet. It was reheated. A reheated slice is an unloved slice. This is not Toto's fault, necessarily - serving slices fresh to order is not always economically viable - but it's not my fault either.
Pane e Vino
The cornicione, light and uniformly coloured was overwhelmed by the rocket forest arrayed before it. The feta came as brutalist architecture and the artichokes as megaflora. I did my best to break up and redistribute both, but I hadn't paid $24 to make my own lunch. For hours afterwards, I burped essence of truffle oil all over Auckland, but I don't mean that pejoratively.
Sal's markets itself as selling authentic New York pizza, which is like you or I setting up a business spitting in the face of Italians. Sal's pizza looked, felt and tasted like a UPS uniform, was roughly the size of a Ford Fiesta, and was equally inspiring.
Stumpy's is a small place on Dominion Rd, most of which is a wood-fired pizza oven. The pizza I ordered, which featured buffalo mozzarella, basil, rocket and cherry tomatoes, was called Tom and Cherry, a name which on its own inspires huge goodwill. The oregano was a bit heavy but the cornicione was high and astonishingly light, like candyfloss or a spiritual awakening.
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The pizza wasn't particularly round and nor was it square and you couldn't accurately have called it rectangular either. There is something reassuring about a place so disdainful of the idea food should have a shape. Its base was scarred and charred, and the long, transparent slivers of parmigiano floated on a cloud of premium ingredients, bordered by an improbably extensive cornicione - something that would never fly at Domino's, where market research and commercial imperatives dictate blah blah blah. Mr Domino is rich, and therefore right, but at what cost? Al Volo's pizza master no doubt drives his 1972 Ferrari into the countryside every long weekend and sleeps nude on the roof, while the founder of Domino's sleeps in Egyptian cotton pyjamas in a 26-bedroom colonial mansion. From one, you buy a platonic pizza dream; from the other, you buy a $5 cheese circle.