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Beijing, China — One cold night, I met with my friend Frederica at Hercules for their 2-for-1 happy hour (4-8pm daily). With a glass of cabernet (45RMB), I order Honey Ribs (58RMB) served with shoestring fries; meat so tender and falling off the bone. I thought this was my dinner for the evening. I had no idea of the pleasures to follow.
A few hours and a few drinks later, we migrate to Aperitivo next door. Frederica introduces me to a flavor splash; an aperitivo of Pinot Grigio mixed with Aperol, garnished with an orange slice. In addition, she orders a saucer of green olives and a board of bruschetta topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, and gorgonzola. We toast shots of Sambuca with a few espresso beans floating on the surface and another shot — a cocktail of espresso, Kahlua, and vodka. Jet fuel never tasted so much like candy!
I fail to mention my friend Frederica is Italian. Perhaps our first meal at Hercules wouldn’t pass in her mind as a way to satisfy the stomach, so she whet our appetites at Aperitivo. We were full of drinks, eats, and laughter but were we satiated? After leaving Aperitivo, had we not rounded the corner at La Pizza, the following feast may not have ensued.
Frederica drops into La Pizza where Gennaro Miele, general manager and Vittoria Zhang, business partner sit at a table. I felt as though we had walked into our neighbors’ yard to say ‘hello’. Despite the late hour, Gennaro and Vittoria greet us warmly. Gennaro has been in Beijing for three years and established La Pizza, bringing a little of his home-style flavor to Beijing. Frederica introduces us to Giuseppe De Stefano, executive chef, and entices me with the idea of their specialty — Neapolitan-style pizza. Was she kidding? I’d just eaten two dinners! ‘Just a small Margherita!’ she tempts me and asks Giuseppe to marvel our taste buds she knows have long been committed to The Tree.
Sequential mouthfuls of pizza, peeled tomato, varieties of cheese, meats, and desserts commence a new friendship in the Sanlitun neighborhood.
Gennaro’s family brand, Miele, produces a wide range of products made in Italy. Gennaro put before me two shots of olive oil; one of Chiara extra virgin olive oil, slightly bitter and another of Miele extra virgin olive oil (86RMB/1 litre), velvety and buttery without a hint of bitterness.
Miele peeled tomatoes (35RMB/3kg can) taste freshly crushed without a hint of acidity. Tasting ingredients prior to eating a finished product gives a heightened sense of appreciation. Jacques Derrida might have appreciated sharing my ‘deconstructed’ Margherita.
La Pizza brings authenticity to Beijing from their Neapolitan chef Giuseppe to the ingredients they use. One of the cheeses they are proud to include in their pizza is a mozzarella bufala, also a product of Italy.
The cheese which gives reason to pause and sends senses to nirvana is the burata, a rich pool of cream encased in a soft, milky mozzarella. “Burrata owes its existence to the water buffalo, which was brought to Italy from its native Asia sometime in the 15th century. Water buffalo milk is richer and higher in protein than that of cows, yielding 1.6 times more cheese.”¹ I had a bite and it tasted sweet like heavy cream.
If YouTube video is blocked, you may also watch the video here.
Giuseppe stretches out a small round of dough, making a Margherita pizza (58RMB/12-inch pie), named after Queen Margherita known to love fast food. A few flip-flaps, a swirl of Miele peeled tomatoes, some mozzarella, a drizzle of Miele olive oil, then into the wood-fired oven for four minutes.
Recently, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and salvated over the chapter where she travels to Naples, eating pizza habitually for the duration of her stay. I have yet to visit Italy, but is it my luck that the famous Neapolitan pizza has come to me? In China?!
For as long as I have lived in Beijing, I have sworn by pizza from The Tree. For those who need to ask, “Which pizza is better; The Tree or La Pizza?” I won’t satisfy you with an absolute answer. I’ll say only this — ‘they are both very different styles of pizza.’ For me it depends on the mood. I like all kinds of pizza, as long as they’re delicious and made with love. I would never compare a deep-dish pizza with a thin crust! That’s like comparing oranges with grapefruits! Why would you?
So, for the pizza at La Pizza, I will say the pizza is excellent. The crust is warm, crisp, yet soft and chewy in the center.
If you love wood-fired, oven-baked naan, you know the delight of La Pizza’s crust. Did Shanti just compare a Neapolitan pizza to naan?
While Neapolitan pizza is the reason to visit La Pizza, my personal favorite and recommendation extends to the Bacci Sorrento (78RMB). Bacci means “kiss” in Italian and these are just that; toasty kisses. Swirled rolls filled with fluffy ricotta, freshly made from milk they purchase in Shunyi. Bacci are a specialty of Capri and Napoli; each city produces a distinct flavor. These aren’t found anywhere else in Beijing, but have found a special place in my heart.
Giuseppe makes their salami in-house and the Parma ham is imported from Gennaro’s brother’s company in Italy. The moment the antipasto of sliced Mortadella, Salami, Pancetta, Salami Spianato, and Gorgonzola arrived, I was overwhelmed by the serendipity of this experience. I wish my stomach were a bottomless pit. An antipasto of sliced meats (150RMB/serves 6) served with focaccia is a typical start to an Italian meal.
Finishing off the feast, go for their homemade gelato (15RMB/one scoop, 25RMB/two scoops) or profiteroles. Sambuca (25RMB/shot) is another sweet finish to an Italian feast, followed by an espresso.
The food and service make for great dining with friends. With so many great dishes on the menu, you’ll want the extra appetites to taste them all.
As I travel China in search of home-style favorites, I won’t rule out the diaspora of foreigners bringing flavors of home to China. I appreciate the efforts La Pizza puts forth to bring Beijing an authentic Neapolitan pizza. If the ingredients don’t exist in China and if they can’t be imported from Italy, then the hands at La Pizza will make it themselves. La Pizza is one of the reasons I love living in Beijing; the cultural diversity makes Beijing an international city. While Origus offers localized flavors of pizza, Beijing is lucky La Pizza offers ‘real Italian flavor’ through their menu.
Since I started writing this post, La Pizza was voted number one of 20 best pizzas in Beijing, by Time out: Top 20 Pizzas in Beijing
La Pizza 33 Sanlitun Lu, 1st floor of 3.3. Open daily 11:30am to 2am. 010-51365582. 三里屯路33号3.3大厦1楼http://www.lapizzanapoli.com
¹ History of burata from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burata