Saintly Pies

by David

In August, the stars were in alignment: My sister was getting ready to begin a course in makeup application for stage, film, fashion, and the like at Ealing Studios in southeast London, and our mother was heading over to help her get settled and to see a bit of the city. I had some downtime at work, and you don’t need to ask me twice about putting another stamp in my passport. I bit the bullet, charged the exorbitantly priced ticket to my credit card, and began counting down the days ’til I could flee the country.

I didn’t arrive in England expecting to find a decent pie. It would be somewhat counterintuitive to travel from New York, a well-established pizza Mecca, to the home of fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and pub grub, with such a goal in mind—the thought never occurred to me, until the traditional Neapolitan-style pizza at Santa Maria sought me out, exceeding expectations I didn’t even know I had.

In retrospect, of course, it makes perfect sense—with such close proximity to the motherland, it’s only natural that the Italian contingent would be well represented. The expats were out in full force the evening that we visited, the neighboring table filled with a wine-drinking, lustily eating group. I don’t speak the language, so the details escaped me, but the tone was unmistakably joyful. We would soon discover why.

After the beers we’d had at the bar next door, I think we could’ve ordered the entire menu and been okay with it, but we restricted ourselves nonetheless: one pizza and one calzone.

We chose the Santa Caterina pie—fresh chiles and salami in addition to the standard tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, and fresh basil made the decision an easy one—and requested the extra topping of Italian sausage to take it to the next level. This was a pizza of overwhelmingly delicious proportions, all simple, perfect ingredients coming together for the win. The crust: perfectly chewy and charred. The sauce: perfect ruby-red tomatoes and little else. The cheese: perfectly melted and oozing. And the chiles! I’ve long been a fan of dousing my slice with sriracha sauce, but I’d never added fresh hot peppers to the mix—an oversight I won’t allow for again.

The calzone occupies a position of high regard in our family, so we practically considered it our duty to try the one on offer here. It was slightly different than what we were used to—kind of an open-faced version of my traditional birthday dinner—but it was damn good nonetheless. Though I found the matchstick-size slices of cotton ham to be somewhat overwhelming, the capers more than made up for it, especially in concert with the same dough, sauce, and cheese.

We were so pleased with our discovery that we managed to squeeze in another visit: a quick lunch stop before I was due at the airport for my return flight. Because of our time constraints, we got there right when the restaurant opened, snagged a table outside, and enjoyed having the place to ourselves before the brunch crowd invaded.

Soon enough, though, hungry patrons started to trickle in. It was a much different scene on a Sunday at midday, families with young children in tow brushing elbows with couples nursing their hangovers. Thankfully, the one thing that hadn’t changed was the pizza.

Even though my sister isn’t really a fan of broccoli rabe, I managed to talk her into the San Giuseppe, a white pie that also came loaded with sausage, mozzarella and chile flakes. We missed the acidity of the tomato sauce and asked for some on the side; we were gifted with a bowl of it, in crudo form: raw, cold, and sprightly flavored. Between the bitterness of the greens, the richness of the cheese, and the slight heat of the sausage and pepper flakes, a dip in the coolly refreshing sauce brought a most-welcome tang to each bite.

They say that the best way to take the measure of a pizza joint is by sampling its Margherita, and it didn’t come as a surprise to learn that we were in good hands indeed. (Yes, we’d discovered this during our previous visit, but it’s always nice to have reassurance.)

Those elements we’d raved about earlier, the sauce, the cheese, the basil? They had been supporting players in both pies and calzone, but here, courtesy of the margherita, they moved to center stage—a well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

It was with reluctance that I said goodbye to London—I’d been thinking about exchanging my return ticket and staying on a little longer, and the knowledge that there was excellent pizza for the asking anytime I got homesick for New York didn’t make it any easier to get on the plane. In the end, I obviously bowed to the pressures of real life, but I’m still formulating a relocation plan—fueled by Santa Maria’s wood-burning oven and beautiful pizzas, it’s one that includes a villa in the countryside, complete with pasta-making lessons at the hands of an Italian grandmother. A person can dream, right?

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