Having milked every last detail of my life for material during the past 10 years, I admit there are times when I stare at the empty screen on my computer and contemplate giving up this column for good. I mean, how many times can I write about raking leaves or cleaning drawers before you get wise to me and realize how boringly uneventful my life is?
But fortunately, just as I am about to throw in the towel, something usually happens to remind me how absolutely awesome it is to be a food writer, and about all the opportunities this column brings me to increase the fun quotient in my life.
One of those somethings occurred a couple of weeks ago.
I was sitting at home pondering the dullness of my life, and mourning the abrupt passing of the real star of this column, my feline friend Eddie — who, I am very sad to report, died unexpectedly last month following a brief illness — when suddenly my email pinged with a last-minute opportunity.
It was from my friend and editor, Sasha, who had accepted an invitation to a food event in San Francisco for that evening, and was asking if I wanted to accompany her and fellow writer Paul Franson into the city. When I heard the details, I immediately said yes.
Sometimes events of this type can be a bit lame, requiring writers to stand around in an anonymous space chatting with publicists and trying to be polite about foods that I would not eat or endorse if my life depended on it.
But this one was different.
First, it was hosted by Mezzetta, a family-owned Napa Valley-based business that specializes in high-quality Mediterranean-style foods that I actually use and recommend, to celebrate the launch of some great-sounding new products.
Plus, they were holding it at Tony’s Pizza in North Beach, home to 11-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignano, and an eatery I was eager to visit.
And the very best part? They were sending a limo to drive us there.
Have I mentioned how awesome it is to be a food writer?
When it arrived to pick me up, I admit I was a bit disappointed that our ride was merely a comfortable car, not a stretch limo. So I did not have the opportunity to spend the ride into the city drinking Champagne and sticking my head out of the sunroof to hoot and holler like a drunken prom date. But even so, it was sheer joy to relax and quietly converse while someone else dealt with the traffic horrors of American Canyon and I-80.
Upon arrival (on time, for once, as we did not have to search for parking), we were greeted by charming Jeff Mezzetta, the fourth-generation president of the company, and ushered to the open bar.
After a bit of socializing with him, members of his company and fellow food writers, we moved on to product tasting. My second martini, complete with a fat Mezzetta olive, was the perfect accompaniment to the products we tasted, which included olive oils, olives and a new line of premium tomato sauces that could have come straight from my Italian grandmother’s kitchen, if only I were lucky enough to have an Italian grandmother.
But the product tasting was just the start of the party.
Pretty soon, pizzas, pasta and salads started rolling out of the kitchen, and our group of always-hungry food writers happily dug in.
Normally, after we were sated, we Napans would have been looking at our watches, edging toward the door and starting to fret about the long drive home. But with the limo waiting, we could relax (and have a third martini). Which was good, because there was even more fun in store for us.
We next moved on to a kitchen space for the educational portion of the evening. We were each handed a ball of pizza dough to practice on, with a demonstration on how best to stretch it into a disk. This might be the martinis talking, but I think I was pretty good at it.
After we had mastered that, more or less, the group divided up into about eight teams of two for a competition. Sasha and Paul formed one team and I paired with my friend Amy, a food writer from the city who was also in attendance. Each group got a fresh ball of dough and access to an array of Mezzetta products to use to create our competition pizza, with judging to be based on looks, taste and our team name. And the race was on.
Half an hour later, our creations were pulled from the oven for judging, and I’m almost (but not quite) too modest to mention that Amy and I won. (Hooray for us!) I have to say that our white pizza, featuring fire-roasted artichoke hearts, a few strategically placed yellow and red peppers and a sprinkling of capers, topped with a crown of arugula, ended up looking really good and tasting amazing.
Though I think what really put us over the top was our team name.
I‘ll have to drink martinis more often. They really are a great spur for creativity.
We named ourselves, “You Wanna Pizza This?”
It is hard to mess up pizza, as long as you have a good dough on the bottom and good ingredients on top. So our winning recipe is merely a suggestion, to get you thinking in new directions.
My main rule is to use cheese sparingly, to give the flavors of the other ingredients a fighting chance. In addition, although we weren’t trying to do it consciously, we hit on a combination that balanced salty, sweet, sour and bitter, which is nearly always the hallmark of a great dish.
Pizza dough (from your favorite source, or homemade)
Pungent olive oil
Pickled banana peppers
Roasted red pepper strips
Fire-roasted artichoke hearts
Place a pizza stone in your oven and turn the temperature all the way up, letting it heat for about an hour (or if you are lucky enough to have one, heat your pizza oven).
Working on a floured surface, flatten the dough into a disk, then, using all of your fingers in spreading motion, flatten it and thin it out until you have a disk at least 10 inches in diameter, leaving the dough slightly thicker at the edge.
Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the surface, spreading it around with your fingers. Sprinkle on some grated mozzarella very sparingly. Arrange about 8 banana pepper strips in an attractive pattern around the outer edge in a scalloped pattern, then add some red pepper strips wherever you like, for color. Place the Mezzetta fire-roasted artichoke hearts (an amazing product that leaves those jars of ordinary pickled ones in the dust) on the pizza, making sure that there are enough for there to be a piece or two on every slice. Sprinkle some capers (less than a teaspoonful) around the surface, and bake.
Mound a small handful of arugula on the center of the pizza and serve.
This goes well with martinis, but then again, what doesn’t?