New York’s Pizza Rival


The Calabresa pie at Pizza Krozz

Stand on nearly any thoroughfare in Buenos Aires, and you’re never far from a pizzeria. Cross a street at random and find yourself dodging scooters delivering hot pies, while delivery boys on foot hoist flat boxes overhead to navigate crowds swarming the streets. One quickly concludes that pizza is wildly popular among Portenos (“People of the Port”), easily as popular as in Naples, where pizza was invented, or maybe even in New York, which boasts the world’s greatest and most diverse pizza culture. I recently spent a week in the South American capital pondering the pizza phenomenon there.

In Buenos Aires, neighborhood pizzerias also sell empanadas.

Buenos Aires (“BA” for short) offers two basic types: a thin-crust called a la piedra, cooked in a stone-floor oven with the pie resting on the bottom and hence crisp, and de molde, with a thicker, doughier crust, often cooked in a conventional oven. The former began as the province of larger pizzerias, which had the wherewithal to construct high-volume, flame-spewing ovens. The second type are mainly made by small ma-and-pa shops that dot neighborhoods like NYC’s own local pizzerias. In practice, the line between the two types of pies is often blurred in a way bewildering to visitors, and there are more obscure varieties of pizza too numerous to mention here.

The best of the neighborhood pizzerias, such as Pizza Krozz in Palermo Hollywood, make their own dough, fashioned by hand into pies of approximately 14 inches in diameter cut into eight slices with a knife that looks almost like a machete. (The circular-blade pizza cutter has apparently not made it into the southern hemisphere.) The crust is slightly thicker than our own traditional pies, more like Staten Island pizzas.

The toppings, available singly or in combination, are limited in number, mainly confined to mozzarella (always spelled “muzzarella,” as if pronounced with a Brooklyn-Italian accent), anchovies, baked ham, green or black olives, boiled eggs, salami, and — quite oddly, I thought — Roquefort cheese. The mozzarella often constitutes a thick blanket, making the ubiquitous “double mozzarella” option seems absurd. Sometimes a cheesy béchamel is substituted for mozzarella, probably for reasons of economy.

At Krozz, my friends and I ordered the Calabresa, intrigued that the pie referenced the part of Southern Italy described as the heel of the boot, and a region from which many immigrants to New York came. It’s also a place known for its love of hot chiles, usually eaten in dried form sprinkled on dishes. But we found no hot peppers anywhere on Buenos Aries pizzas. The Krozz Calabresa pie — which took the guy 20 minutes to produce, from dough ball to finished pie — boasted a thick blanket of cheese but little tomato sauce, rounds of thick sausage something like pepperoni, pitted green olives, and a hearty sprinkle of dried oregano. The crust was nicely browned, thick without being doughy, and verged on the wonderful. Altogether, a satisfying pie and a bargain at 39 pesos, which translates into about $6 in American money.

The ridiculously named Kentucky Pizzeria chain offers some of the city’s best thin-crust pies in a booze-bar setting.

Typical pizzeria empanadas

As most other neighborhood-style pizza places do, Krozz has a co-specialty of emapanadas, made with the same dough and fired in the same gas ovens, much as most neighborhood pizzerias in New York also sell calzones, hippie rolls, and Jamaican beef patties. Typical empanada fillings include ground beef, egg, and olives; “verde” (which is usually crushed broccoli, leeks, or some combination of greenery); and ham and mozzarella. The pizzeria provides many bargain family dining packages, which include humongous sodas, a pie or two, and a selection of empanadas.

Surely, most neighborhood pizzerias are not as good as Krozz. Many use pre-made crusts known as media masas, which taste something like white cardboard. In addition, most restaurants that mount full Argentine menus of grilled beef and stuffed pastas make pizzas, too. Small cafes serving lunches of soups, salads, sandwiches, and crepes will often offer pizzas as a sideline. Where pizza is concerned, it is buyer beware. Probably half the restaurants in Buenos Aires, which has a population of 3 million, serve pizzas in one form or another.

To New Yorkers accustomed to dozens of lunch and dinner choices in a variety of ethnic categories, Buenos Aries menus seem comically limited. After walking around diverse neighborhoods for a week, I concluded that Portenos eat lots more pizza than New Yorkers, perhaps 10 times as much. On the other hand, the average Gotham pie is superior to the average Buenos Aires pie.

A tourist-trap pizzeria near the Boca Juniors soccer stadium in La Boca, the Italian immigrant neighborhood at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.

The pizzeria that started it all

How did Buenos Aires pizza originate? Like New York, BA has its ur-pizza places, where the South American version of the dish was invented and perfected. In the hardscrabble port area of La Boca on the south side of the old city lies Banchero, a blue-awninged spot founded by one Augustin Banchero, an Italian immigrant who came, not from Naples, but from Genoa. (It wasn’t until the 1920s that Southern Italian immigrants started arriving in the city.) In 1893, Banchero started a bakery named Riachuelo, where the specialty was a type of focaccia called fugazza in the Genoese dialect.

Fugazza was a real workingman’s lunch, a domed ball of dough loaded down in the middle with onions, something like an inflated bialy. Gradually, the canon increased in size, and cheese and hot peppers became optional additional ingredients. It was son John that morphed the fugazza into the fugazetta, a deep-dish pie with the center and top acting as a reservoir for an expanded list of ingredients. With these two products and the addition of pizza introduced to BA by Neapolitan immigrants, John and his sons Titus and Antonio founded Pizzeria Banchero in 1932. Note that this pizza history parallels that of NYC, where a bakery founded in 1897 by an Italian immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi started producing America’s first pizzas in 1905, giving rise 20 years later to a dynasty that included Totonno’s (Coney Island), John’s (Bleecker Street), and Patsy’s (East Harlem).

Nowadays, La Boca’s main drag of Avenida Almirante has fallen on hard times, many of its ornate early 20th-century buildings crumbling into dust, and the visitor is often advised to cab it to the pizzeria and then cab it back home. The dining room is L-shaped and gigantic, and the place opens at 8 a.m., staying open until late into the evening. At lunch Banchero is one-third full, with tables of visiting schoolchildren, business people, tourists, and neighborhood types, who dart in for a slice or piece of pastry. The menu still sticks to the basics of pizza, fugazzas, and fugazetti, many displayed on a marble counter for slice purchase.

Some of the pies available by slice at Banchero, including the original onion fugazza brought from Genoa to BA (bottom left)

A pair of supremely wonderful Neapolitana slices. Look, ma, no tomato sauce!

The pizzas are wonderful, something like deep-dish Chicago pies with a thick crust. Fresh ripe tomatoes are preferred to tomato sauce. The muzzarella is oozy and salty in consistency, much like that which appears on our neighborhood slices, but a little better. Chopped parsley and fresh garlic go on top for extra zing. We tried the Neapolitana, featuring mainly fresh tomatoes and cheese on a perfect thick crust that was crunchy on the bottom. It was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.

The fugazettis, though, are way more over the top than the pizzas, vast vessels of sometimes soupy ingredients that demand to be eaten with a knife and fork and create a mess on the plate. The one we picked was the deliciosa Banchero, a wild combo of canned tuna, olives, boiled eggs, fresh tomatoes, onions, and peppers. There is simply nothing like it in New York. Local pizzaiolos, take note.

Containing canned tuna and boiled egg, our fugazetti was something of a soupy mess, but tasty.

Waiting for lunchtime pizza at Banchero

You can get a great salad there, too.

Abandoned buildings on the La Boca waterfront