Victor Hazan's late wife, Marcella, whose cookbooks have afforded me no end of pleasure, taught many of us about Italian food. Victor often supplied the wine-half of the equation, but he was no stranger to foodways himself. Since Marcella's death last year, he has been writing occasional posts to thousands of followers of her Facebook account. At first he penned eloquent reminiscences about Marcella. Lately he has been commenting on cuisine.
This past week he stirred up a bit of a reflexive firestorm among his Facebook friends. Inspired by a photo of New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, eating pizza with a knife and fork, he waded into the age-old debate over the best way to consume Italy's signature flatbread.
"It's done like this," he wrote. "The pizzaiolo slices the pizza into pie-shaped quarters—or if he forgets, you do it with your knife—you pick up a slice with your hand and, while holding it between the thumb and middle finger, you fold it lengthwise over your index finger."
At last count this had drawn 110 comments, many of them from indignant Italians who insist that the only proper way to eat pizza is with a knife and fork. In my experience, that is the way I see most Italians approach pizza. Victor characterized this as a bourgeois affectation. Pizza started as street food, he argued, and it simply tastes best when you fold it over.
I've always known Victor as a dapper, thoughtful man. He and Marcella have long been accustomed to folks listening to them raptly and following their lead. So the adverse reaction to his pizza advice must have come as a shock. He followed up Monday with a post that began, "It is obvious that I should never have stuck my neck out on the best way to eat pizza."
Actually, I think he was right about eating pizza and wrong to apologize. Having seen most Italians in Italy eating their pizzas with metallic implements, I too thought that was the right way to go. However, I have enjoyed the experience much better whenever I picked up a slice of perfectly prepared, thinly topped, soft-crusted Neapolitan pizza than I have when I cut it up bite by bite. Like Victor, I appreciate the way folding the pizza doubles the thickness of the thin layer of topping and how that balances with the folded-over layers of crust. It's juicier. It has more going on.
On the other hand, when the pizza is molten-hot, cutting off a bit and letting the air cool it a bit en route to my my taste buds saves burns to the roof of my mouth.
Call me a pizza agnostic. It's the same for me in the wine world, always bedeviled by long lists of "shoulds." When I first started to get serious about wine, I was told that only France and Germany could produce wines worth paying attention to. Then I discovered Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Hanzell Chardonnay, and all bets were off.
Today the "should" and "should not" list is long. Some say we should avoid popular wine categories such as Chardonnay or regions such as Bordeaux in favor of relatively obscure varieties and appellations. Others focus on producers. Some denigrate well-known, accomplished vintners who achieved success by making delicious wines, using techniques such as alcohol adjustment, cultured yeasts and practices designed to impede the development of the spoilage yeast brettanomyces. A loud minority wants us to reject those wines in favor of producers who refuse to intervene in the process, and if that results in odd, stinky flavors, that's just added complexity.
And don't get me started on the anti-alcohol freaks who insist that no wine can be worth drinking if the alcohol content exceeds a certain number.
I have no quarrel with anyone who suggests unfamiliar wines and regions. I always want to broaden my horizons. Nor do I have any animus toward those who prefer lighter wines. I too like delicate Rieslings and lighter-style Pinot Noirs, but not to the exclusion of other styles. It's when preference morphs into denigration, as happened with Victor's antagonists who waved away the use of hands with pizza, that it crosses the line.
A recent New York Times article on new-wave sommeliers quoted several of them as dismissing their customers who want to drink something familiar, and something delicious, and have no interest in exploring wines with offbeat characteristics.
There's no point getting indignant about whether to fold the pizza or eat it with knife and fork. Likewise, we all have the right to choose the wine we want to drink at that moment without having our preferences mocked.