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Behind the curtain
The spiritual death of Pizza Pizza Pizza
A few years ago, back when I still lived in Sydney, I took a short trip to Melbourne in search of sustenance. It was winter, the fallow season, and I was hungry for something I couldn’t name. The city seemed unimaginably beautiful, the way a place does when you don’t see it every day – the grey stones and wrought-iron palings and thin, secretive laneways reminded me of everything I missed about my home city.
A friend suggested we meet at Pizza Pizza Pizza, a restaurant I hadn’t heard of and knew nothing about. Like most places worth going to in Melbourne, it’s tucked away down a grubby alley. Fluorescent light spills out the doorway. You walk in and…it’s a pizza shop. Just a normal, city pizza shop, the kind that has big, New York-style pizzas sweating in an illuminated case, sold by the slice, slid greasily into a brown paper bag with a handful of serviettes, and most often consumed standing on the street or in a miserable underground station, waiting for the train to arrive.
Ah. But then you notice the black curtain. Unmarked, off to one side. You have to know that it’s there to know that you can push through the drapes and emerge into a dimly lit bar. There are booths. It is small, intimate. The darkness has a romantic cadence. The pizza is freshly made. Curled up in a leather seat, you feel inducted into a secret society – not by virtue of the place being especially fancy (it is a pizza joint, after all) but simply because you’ve gone behind the curtain. It’s a conceit, yes, but it’s also the kind of place that makes Melbourne what it is.
Or rather, that’s what it used to be. Last week I went back to Pizza Pizza Pizza, late on a Tuesday night, when most venues were already closed for the evening (or, as is increasingly common, not open at all). Now, the takeaway counter no longer functions as a misdirection. The girl on the door simply asks you if you want to dine in or take-away, then waves you inside, where battery-powered candles shine lifelessly on the tables. The food arrives perfunctorily. In the far corner, where lovers once kissed, there is now a sprawling DJ booth.
And I get it, I do. The city has changed, reshaped by the pandemic lockdowns in ways both obvious and imperceptible. Businesses must adapt or perish. It’s a hard time to in the hospitality game for anyone, far less somewhere that trades on wilful obscurity rather than open invitation.
But something is lost when a business starts thinking only of its bottom line. Immediacy is the death of intimacy; so too is rejecting the poetic. Fake candles, like fake plants, reach for an atmosphere that feels unearned. There is nothing romantic about a room lit with LEDs.
You can tell when the soul has gone from a place. We ate our pizzas but didn’t linger. Outside, the day’s warmth had vanished. We wrapped our arms around ourselves and walked into the night.
Good things to read
“Unless I’m very ill (or very hungover), I’ll always be in the mood for a martini. It will always taste better than anything else I could put in my mouth. I will always feel the first sip throughout my body, providing release. I will always enjoy popping a gin-tinged, firm-skinned olive into my mouth. There’s nothing better than a martini while I cook, the olives providing my appetizer.” – via From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
“En masse, sprouts are quite the opposite, not just a cheerful frill, but an extravagance — succulent and flourishing.” I adored this loving tribute to the salad sandwich and its key ingredient: the humble sprout. – via the New York Times
Hayley Mlotek is one of the best fashion writers around. Read her thoughts on death, nostalgia and the clothes we wear. – via Soft Power
In case of interest
I’ve mentioned my love for Marlon Williams in this newsletter before, so you can imagine what a thrill it was to review his recent performance in Melbourne at the Forum Theatre (you’ll need to scroll for a bit to get to it).
I interviewed Alan Cumming about the expectations surrounding getting older – and how liberating it is to ignore them. He is as delightful as you would expect.
I also wrote about a recent spate of books, movies and theatre productions that offer feminist reappraisals of classic texts.
One more thing!
I grew up eating Australian Italian pizza: thick crusts erring on doughy, bases crisp and saturated with oil, toppings piled in indecent abundance. Sauce. Cheese. Everything too much. This kind of pizza has little to do with what you might eat in Italy, but is its own distinct thing. It’s not something I eat a lot of these days, but it does hold some nostalgia. The subversive thrill of consuming a leftover slice cold the next morning – cheese hardened to a craggy, chewy net. The distinct pleasure of encountering a salty black olive. Spent crusts discarded like so many nibbled half-moons.
These days, my favourite place to eat pizza is at Takeaway Pizza (like Pizza Pizza Pizza’s conceit, the name is a joke). Takeaway Pizza is fun. It doesn’t aim for authentic Neapolitan pizza, although it is obsessive about quality. The crusts are thin and crisp and blistered, base blackened with a little char. The toppings are restrained in quantity (you don’t need a lot when the quality is so good). If you go to Takeaway Pizza, here’s my advice: order the Margherita, which takes the classic combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and asks: why not more cheese? So on goes a handful of smoked moz and a little stracciatella as well. This pizza is a joy as it is, but can be further improved on by asking for the addition of rum-soaked pineapple. I know. But trust me on this. The char, the fattiness of the cheese, the boozy sweetness of pineapple, the tang of a burst cherry tomato… Well, you could do worse.
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